UNPOPULAR OPINION: Volunteering or Working in the Developing World is Inherently Selfish

Do the brave thing and go home.
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Publish date:
June 30, 2016
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unpopular opinion, volunteering, poverty tourism

When I look around me while living overseas in a developing country, I see a lot of chimeras. In a lot of ways, it seems like I'm living an illusion; a fantasy life which one day I'll have to wake up from and shake off. I feel like while I'm over here doing this, I'm putting off the real responsibilities of adulthood.

After all, it's nice living in the developing world as a privileged Westerner. Rent is insanely cheap compared to back home; you could even buy a house here without breaking the bank. You are often paid a salary that's far higher than what the locals earn; minimum wages are non-existent and the local population is growing exponentially, so you can easily afford to hire an under-paid maid or cleaning lady, a driver, and maybe even a personal chef. Maybe you're not working for an international company or non-profit; maybe you're entrepreneur of an upstart business. But then you're still benefiting from the lax labour codes and inexistence of bureaucratic red tape which often trips up budding new businesses in wealthier countries; in those places that can afford to care about things like the environment and human rights, often at the expense of the small business owner.

For some people, those things don't bother them. Maybe they've started from the bottom themselves, had obstacles in their way, and having achieved a measure of success, they feel like the world owes them something. Maybe they still believe that anyone, anywhere, no matter their circumstances, can work their way out of poverty to a better life, even though we should all know by now that the 'American Dream' of equality of opportunity is long a thing of the past; and hasn't even begun to take root in many developing countries. Whatever the reason, some Westerners are okay to live among, even perpetuate, the inequity and injustices that many developing nations are struggling to shake off.

For me, I know that at some point I need to go home and get a real job. I think this is the disturbing part of expat life. Unless you're a humanitarian aid worker or a military deployment or something like that, you're really living overseas as a form of escapism. You're living somewhere else because it's easy, it's the good life. You can enjoy the comforts of home without the realities of home: the realities of paying taxes and having to chauffeur yourself around and dealing with family matters. You can escape from it all and get away. And oftentimes you're even given a salary bonus for having to work in such a substandard place!

Because of this I think that, at its core, living overseas in a developing country is inherently selfish. Think about it: gap years, teaching English, acting as a tour guide – these aren't true career paths. These aren't things that people do for the purpose of the task itself. These are things people do to allow them the chance to live somewhere else. You teach English not because it's a calling, but because it's an opportunity for you to live the good life overseas. Take an easy job, work late hours, have fun, and delay maturity for a while.

This isn't to say that you don't learn meaningful lessons while living overseas. But I also think we take for granted the idea that people who live overseas will learn things and will come back a different person, or a more enlightened person. This is in no way a definite. This is not a guarantee. And in fact, many people who return home after a stint abroad do so with their stereotypes and misunderstandings even more firmly entrenched than before they left.

While living in a developing country and enjoying your privileged lifestyle, you have ample opportunity to sit back and survey the poor living conditions of the locals around you. Maybe, you feel sympathetic to their plight, or pity their standards of living. Maybe, this causes you to have a guilty conscience, so you try to comfort yourself by engaging in some kind of charitable cause. You start to believe that you, a wealthy Westerner, should make an effort to help the poor people overseas. You start to think that you can, in fact, 'make a difference'. Without meaning to, you're starting to actively propagate the 'Us' versus 'Them' mentality; the so-called 'white man's burden'. Is it not worse to actualize these dubious concepts than rather let them lie as simple ideas, not realities? Does this do anyone any good?

Or let's say you don't become involved in some philanthropic initiative. You are there solely to live the good life and enjoy the benefits being a Westerner in a developing country automatically entitles you to. But then you're likely telling your friends at home about how poor off the locals are, how dirty the streets are, how unruly the traffic is. Again, you're helping to perpetuate that 'Us' versus 'Them' mentality, that stereotype of difference, of superiority in the face of inferiority.

At some point you have to stop being selfish, inane, foolish and immature, and stop kidding yourself. You have to go home and face the facts: get a life. Get a real job. Deal with the difficulties of reality. It's time to shake off the illusion. Those people living poor in that third world country where you're living easily like a king? Their reality isn't so good. So why should you get to avoid your reality and escape fate?

For me, this means that I'm coming to the conclusion that I have to leave. I have to do the brave thing; and the brave thing is to go home. Otherwise the poor people have more dignity than I do. And that doesn't fit with the social constructs that I've been taught to believe, now does it?