The Do-Gooder Complex: Holier than Thou

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.

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