Quick Background: My name is Arnav, a Canadian/Brit from Indian heritage. Since graduating from university, I have worked for a UK aid-funded NGO and Dutch Impact investor in Nairobi, Kenya, in the hope of doing ‘good’. The experiences, relationships and stories from my time here informs my critique which, as always, speaks to the averages and recognises the international development space is vast and multifaceted. I come from a place of ignorance but also humility.
In January 2020, on my return flight to Kenya I found a loud group of young Americans bustling about with shirts emblazoned ‘INVADE KENYA 2020’. Yes, you read that correctly. I could not believe my eyes but with the dangling crosses, I discovered these to be budding missionaries. Intrigued, I approached one leader to inquire: their Missouri Bible group had partnered with a community in Busia, Kenya, and over many years their engagement had brought money, books (bibles) and schools to Busia. Eager and earnest in their belief that this was doing great good in the world, I was less convinced. It seemed manipulative as these Christian do-gooders waltz into communities to impose their hymns and candle waving in exchange for funds. ‘Voluntourists’ are much the same: rich kids enjoying a safari full of wildlife and poverty shows with enough time to build a short-lived public utility and feel good about oneself. These opinions are shared amongst the international development community which looks down upon such do-gooders that encapsulate what is wrong about development work: ignorance, vanity and ultimately, little impact.
However, upon reflection, I began to question my own role in Kenya. Working in the international development space, we, as expatriates, are easily lionized by society as being altruistic for leaving our lives of comfort and ‘success’ to take the path less trodden (but muddier). Our moral superiority derives from our image of making great sacrifices, notably distinguished from immigrants by our name of ‘expat’ in this aura of ‘giving’ rather than ‘taking’ (but also for the colour of our skin). And yet, from what I have seen, the realities of ‘expat life’ consists of a lot of privilege, vague intentions and little sacrifice. Like these missionaries, we too come with an external organisation and from a high-income family to a lower income community. We, too, have a set of beliefs of what ‘progress’ looks like and how to do ‘development’ correctly, dismissing what locals may consider best for them. The dividing line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is narrow. Through honest reflection I wish to challenge this superiority and offer ideas on how we can do more to contribute. Remembering, we (including myself) are not holier than thou.
Good intentions meet reality
I sincerely believe that international development workers come with good intentions of ‘helping’. They come with ideals of contributing to those less fortunate, many having turned down high salaries, searching for meaning and purpose. They leave their family, friends and partner in the name of this sacrifice. I know this well because I did the same – straight out of university I left London and an offer at a big bank to pursue ‘development’ at an NGO in Kenya instead.
However, while our intentions are genuine, these good intentions remain vague and naïve. Rarely do we choose the community we go to (we don’t choose Nairobi or Kenya, we choose Africa); we come knowing little about the practices of the host community, culture or language (beyond ‘hakuna matata’ from Lion King) and nor do we feel the need to prepare. We think of ourselves as committed to long-term impact and yet plan to stay for 1-3 years. In stark contrast, we are not vague about what this experience will offer us. It excites us to go to a new country, to travel in the region and explore its wildlife and natural beauty. We have a clear idea of the tourist spots to show our home friends who visit and marvel at our exotic lives. We know this stay will tick the ‘Africa box’ we want for our career and provide the ‘unique experience’ to get into that MBA program; demonstrating at once our ‘worldly interests’ and ‘social conscious.’ We know we will return home wearing our altruism ‘badge of honour.’
Uninformed, we head to our destination countries with mental images of decrepit infrastructure, limited amenities and unforgiving heat; challenges which we are happy to suffer through in the name of doing good. However, when we arrive, we are pleasantly surprised to find ourselves living more privileged lives than ever before. On our expat salaries, we quickly become the 1% (if not already) and gain the respect and access to opportunity this affords. In the name of sacrifice, we grow accustomed to lavish gated houses with lush gardens and guards to protect us. The roads riddled with potholes are smoothed over by cheap and easy Uber rides or large, petrol-guzzling, UN sponsored 4x4s. Weekends are often spent basking in the glorious weather, tanning on the beautiful coast, camping in the mountains or enjoying a safari.
For those that seek a thrill, they hang on the back of a motorbike transport (bodaboda) to go to expat parties where easy drugs mix with African music to let us feel cultured. Expat families enjoy delegating parental duties to the cheap labour of maids, gardeners and drivers. In these households, staff begin to outnumber children. Schools become extortionately expensive thanks to the UN benefits for ‘hardship posts’, funds which ensure a segregation between local and foreign children. With work, we benefit immensely from the legacies of colonialism, being hired for NGOs funded by our countries ‘remorse’ and treated as special people, ‘mzungus’. In the end, these ‘sacrifices’ are meagre as we live lives of similar (or even more) privilege to our colonial forefathers.
Asking the tough questions
The hypocrisy between the image that is portrayed of us and the reality of our lives is wrong. Particularly when it allows us to benefit at the cost of those less fortunate. I do believe expats can make meaningful contributions all the whilst enjoying country they are in but this requires one to make real sacrifices. These are sacrifices which can be, but do not need to be, mutually beneficial in the long-run.
We need to sacrifice first and foremost our image as ‘saviours’ and instead see our contribution as service; thereby shifting the focus from ourselves to the community we intend to help.
“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
We begin by asking ourselves: what sacrifices have we made to listen and learn from those we wish to help? What sacrifices have we made to open ourselves up to the truth when we find it? What more can we do to empower the voices we might ignore? I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I have some ideas.
The First Step
Before coming, consider if we are truly wanted. What is the idea or skill we have which is so unique it doesn’t exist already? What is the problem so simple that we can solve it and yet so complex that no-one there can? Is a new start-up necessary or could there be someone there who has already tried to address the problem?
‘Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on.’Courtney Martin in this BrightMag article
If we are convinced we still have value to contribute then seek to learn about the community before going. Read the history of their country, of your country with respect to it and the implications this may have (i.e. colonial). Make it a priority to learn (one of) the language(s). There are incredible free resources out there, namely Duolingo. From my experiences, learning Swahili has been immensely rewarding as people laugh & smile and most of all, deeply appreciate your effort. Recognise our own privileges (race, income, education, etc..) and consider how this will influence us and how we will be seen.
Enjoy the nature, night-life, culture but also find time to go out of your comfort zone to meet people who live there, hear of their experiences and learn from them. For me, cycling and running proved a natural conduit to break out of my expat circles and form genuine friendships with Kenyans. Read the prominent national authors and scan the local newspapers to gain a different perspective. Find out more about the lives that serve yours and how you can support, i.e. your guards, maids. This can be chipping in to buy them a bike for transport or visiting their homes and bringing gifts. When I did so with Maggie, our houselady, she was delighted to welcome us and very kindly introduced us to her family & treated us to a delicious home-cooked meal.
A Tentative Conclusion
As expatriates, we look down upon voluntourists and missionaries as callous but there is little separating us. We all come with good intentions of making a difference, but by living as perennial tourists (picking and choosing life experiences), these intentions are often left uninformed, ignorant and without the impact we envisaged. This is no surprise to locals by the way, but it is to us.
If we wish to distinguish ourselves from voluntourists & missionaries, we need to recognise the flaws we share with them but also our ability to improve upon them. We should be open to the voices which speak the truth we ignore, reflecting on the tough questions this poses. We should be there to serve, not to give, and believe that with sincere sacrifices, we can have a meaningful impact. As always, remembering along the way, we are not holier than thou. I am beginning this journey, I hope you will join me.