Overseas Service

Wandering around the real world today, I came across a poster by one of the local private schools. It was asking for people to ‘sponsor roof tiles’, for the price of ten dollars per tile, for a house that they’re going to build in Mexico for a poor family. I find this all a little misguided.

There are fifteen people heading to Tijuana for this project. They are fundraising to build one house for a poor family over there. The sheer wastefulness of this astounds me. A short bit of research on Expedia gives a total cost for flights at just under $3500 per person. Perhaps they get a good deal from their travel agent, and fly for $3000 each. That’s $45,000.

I’m taking a stab at them being over there for two weeks, and assuming that they’ll share rooms. The cheapest place I could find, this time on Booking.com, comes in at just under $430 per room for two weeks. Say they get it at $400 because of an awesome travel agent. That’s $3200. And that’s for a very, very cheap place.

So these boys are spending tens of thousands of dollars in transport and accommodation. Food hasn’t even been touched on yet. It’s a hugely pricey undertaking already.

There are twelve students and three adults going on this trip. These are wealthy students in their final years of high school. The chances of them having much building experience are fairly slim. So the idea that they’re going over there to build this house unassisted is not a likely one. There will almost certainly be local builders and so on showing them what to do and providing assistance and guidance.

So. What would happen if you sent these local builders the tens of thousands of dollars that these boys are going to spend on this project, as well as the resources to build the one house that they’re already funding? How much more good would it do?

But, you say, this experience will be good for the boys. They’ll learn more about poverty, and more about helping others, and grow as people. Aren’t these worthy aims?

The truth is, there is poverty in their own region. There are homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food banks, all sorts of places needing volunteers. If they want a field trip, they could head down to Christchurch and be hammer hands on the rebuild. Unpaid labour is usually welcome. There is no need to head off across the globe, while ignoring the problems back home.

This project smacks of something that my brain calls the white saviour complex. These boys are travelling to Mexico because they want to make a difference, and the best place to make a difference is to poor suffering people in underdeveloped countries. It has more impact than helping out back home. And there’s a vibe of ‘we need to go help these people because, even given resources, they can’t help themselves. They need us to rescue them’. I find this undertone a bit nasty.

White man has been doing this for centuries: going out and trying to ‘civilise’, ‘educate’, and ‘assist’ people that were once called savages. It’s insulting, and it needs to stop. If you have a needed skill, then by all means, go and help people who don’t have that skill. But just waltzing in to rescue a bunch of foreigners, with no important skills, is not helping. It’s wasteful.

As a final aside, if you sponsored a tile, you name would be inscribed on it in gratitude. WTF, people? What value does that have? A poor family in Mexico will have a bunch of names that mean nothing to them up on the roof that never gets looked at. It’s weird, and pointless.

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