Saturday, June 18, 2011

Food for Thought: Kolkata Volunteering

In this post, I will talk about how some things are not as simple as they seem.

You may recall I spent two weeks volunteering at two of Mother Teresa's homes in Kolkata, India this past winter.  Awesome, right?  I wrote a couple posts about it, and I think I reasonably represented my feelings and views at that time, but I want to re-visit the topic because my feelings and views at the time were incomplete.

In recent reading, I've learned that the Missionaries of Charity (the organization of nuns founded by Mother Teresa) has been criticized for lack of financial transparency (i.e., not keeping close track of all the donations that pour in), negligence or poor treatment of the residents of their homes, and generally unacceptable standards of care.

The weird thing is, I spent time at one of their nursing-home type facilities that really did have unacceptable standards of care.  Water cups were shared among patients.  Dishes were washed with little bits of plastic bags that were never replaced.  Blankets were left to dry on the roof, where birds pooped on them.  Seemingly no effort was made to prevent the spread of communicable diseases or to give residents something to do during the day.  Why did it not seem unacceptable at the time?  I wrote it off as cultural differences, or lack of funds, or I thought that at least these ladies have food and a home, which they probably didn't before. Also, I think it's hard for anyone to criticize something associated with such a praiseworthy figurehead (Mother Teresa) and such a self-affirming value (volunteering). (And I still do, from everything I know, highly respect Mother Teresa.)

In retrospect, I wish I would have spoken up to at least ask why the conditions were not better.  And I wish I would not have been so misled by my sense of "do-good-ism" to realize that short-term volunteers like me, who come to participate in the "poverty petting zoo" (even with the best of intentions) are probably not providing a truly valuable service, and may only be perpetuating the myth that these homes are somehow special, magical, and above reproach just because they are associated with the wonderful Mother Teresa.

There's a larger lesson to be learned from this experience, but I can't quite articulate it.  Maybe something like this:

The people we serve must be first.  Their welfare is the most important.  Not our reputation, not our own epiphanies, and not our own warm fuzzy experiences.  If we go to a place like the Missionaries of Charity house, serve with joy alongside other delightful volunteers, and feel genuinely moved by the residents, we might come away saying what a powerful and wonderful experience it was.  (And many of us do; you can see comments like this on lots of Calcutta travel forums.  I've said similar things.)  But if our presence there (and our complicit acceptance that "this is just how they do things here") perpetuates a problem, our wonderful experience doesn't matter.  Our happy feelings or good intentions do not trump the needs of the people we volunteer for.

We could all think of similar examples.  One that comes to mind now is the group that went to Haiti and rounded up orphans to adopt after the hurricane.  The intentions were good, but the end result didn't serve Haiti well. 

So here's the reminder to myself (and you, if you need it) -- If your target beneficiaries would be better served by you staying home, stay home.  If your contributions are well meaning but don't, over time, serve to alleviate the problem you're targeting, you are doing more harm than good.  You can't know everything, and you'll probably make some mistakes, but at least be thoughtful and don't get carried away by emotion or pride.  In the case of the Missionaries of Charity, I think short term foreign volunteers would best serve the residents by either staying out or speaking up.

See my Post Edit here at Prem Dan: Day One for more thoughts.

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