Sunday Links

Teju Cole wrote a story for Twitter. A Piece of the Wall explores the desert spaces between Mexico and the United States and the ugly discourse around immigration; the direct and concise nature of the medium makes it all the more powerful. Cole talks about the piece here (H/T for both links to Tom from A View from the Cave).


I’ve been exploring Chris Blattman’s excellent advice for development students: Ten Things I Tell Undergraduates is a good place to start, but check out the sidebar for a wealth of helpful information.


Bill Easterly wrote The New Tyranny for Foreign Policy, based on his latest book, The Tyranny of Experts. I’m three chapters in, and so far its been a stimulating look at the history of ideas about development, and the conditions that make a paternalistic, rights-negating approach to development possible.


This is an old one but required reading: How To Write About Africa, by Binyavanga Wainaina.


On the state of economics: Michael Sandel calls for more explicit engagement with political philosophy in Market Reasoning as Moral Reasoning. I think his argument is compelling. Dani Rodrik’s What is Wrong (And Right) in Economics is a reminder that many economists are already engaging in these kinds of questions.


On Venezuela, A Historic Low for El Nacional seems like a fairly innocuous story but is, I think, tremendously significant. Fans of liberal democracy find it easy to sympathise with the Venezuelan opposition. This is a timely reminder that elements of the opposition are as sensationalist, populist and closed off to genuine dialogue as the chavistas. 


Voluntourism and Poverty Porn

Last year in a Cusco bar I had a rather heated discussion with an Irish traveller. He was fresh from Africa where he’d spent two weeks helping to build an orphanage; he was looking for volunteering opportunities, and seemed almost disappointed that the local Andean communities weren’t as impoverished as the ones he’d worked with in Africa.

I thought of him today, reading an Al Jazeera article: Cambodia’s Orphan Business. It’s hard to criticise people who want to help, and give of their time for somebody else, but the voluntourism concept makes me very uncomfortable. The article in question examines one part of this: unscrupulous agencies and orphanages that siphon the volunteer’s money towards their own enrichment and maintain the children in poverty in order to continue receiving funds.

But even in the absence of deliberate malpractice, I wonder: how much good are you really doing? Would the $3,000 you spend for a two-week stay in Kenya building a school not have been better spent employing local labour? Do Africans need a bunch of white kids spending a fortune to fly in and tile their roofs? Sure, the cultural exchange is hugely valuable and breeds tolerance and understanding, but could three months travelling – really travelling, learning the language and experiencing the culture – and spreading that $3,000 around the local economy be more effective, and less condescending?

So I argued with Irish Volunteer in Cusco. My questions didn’t go down well. He showed me a video of him with smiling children, insisted he’d made a difference. I felt like a bit of a bitch for cheapening it, for implying that this experience, hugely meaningful for him, wasn’t worth anything.

Because of course it was: for everyone involved. Relationships were formed, people on both sides no doubt felt good about what was happening. But I thought his comparison of the levels of poverty in Cusco and Africa were revealing: he asked us where he could find people who really needed his help, wasn’t sure he wanted to bother with the projects he’d seen. Wondered about going back to Africa. It felt, to me, like poverty porn.

I don’t know: the impulse is admirable. As Teju Cole’s White Saviour says:

The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

Be nice, wouldn’t it?