Coming Home From Our Humanitarian Vacation

Throughout our time here in Claremont, we are
spoon-fed the maxims of a liberal arts education on a daily basis: leadership,
tolerance, agency, and community engagement. We are encouraged to develop our
own moral and ethical code, to “bear our added riches in trust to mankind,” as it is written on the gates of Pomona College. Upon graduation, many of us aspire to take on careers and other endeavors that endorse
that same progressive humanist philosophy.

If there is to be any fundamental
assumption underlying the work that we undertake at a liberal arts college, it
is surely that doing good is generally preferable to inflicting
harm. As with all other maxims, we tread upon this particular ethical precept
with caution; we have been taught to appreciate the subtle nuance of
interpretations. We may concede, for instance, that benevolence at the expense
of one’s own well-being is undesirable, even illogical. Yet consider the fervor
with which we laud the work performed by the United States’ volunteers and activists
abroad, a population reaching into the hundreds of thousands. Our
celebration of humanitarian aid assumes that this display of international
altruism is inherently beneficial—and many of us join their
ranks with great pride.

And yet a crucial component of
our liberal arts education is learning to critically assess established norms. As is the case with nearly every display of ethics in
practice, in order to better understand the potential benefits of humanitarian
aid, it is irresponsible to overlook the acute harm that this supposed altruism
can inflict upon the volunteer and the victim alike. In this
instance, the road to hell is indeed paved with the best of intentions. 

Consider the average humanitarian
aid worker: me. Nonprofit
humanitarian organizations, such as Teach for America (TFA), largely target liberal
arts college students—those who are educated, enthused, and inspired to help. In TFA, these recruits progress from students to teachers in less than a year; TFA’s
official mission statement proudly proclaims that “many [volunteers] do not
have any prior experience in the education field.” And according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Peace Corps,
a whopping 80 percent of Corps volunteers are 20-29 years old.  It strikes me as problematic
that as young adults, still immersed in the process of constructing a stable
value system, we have the opportunity to be patiently escorted into the lives
of children around the world. The problem lies not only in our lack of
technical and methodological experience, but in our lack of multicultural expertise
prior to immersion.

Activist Ivan Illich rightfully dubs these
efforts “mission-vacations.” We are blindly casting a net of Western values,
stifling the autonomy and cultural wealth of developing countries and allowing
the unprepared and culturally illiterate to exercise unrestrained influence on
the lives of other human beings. We must reconsider our excessive recruitment of unprepared college graduates for humanitarian aid work.

Yet this is no excuse for isolationism and
passivity. I do not think that we, as young and educated citizens, can bear
witness to a world in which the rights of lives, human and otherwise, are
relentlessly violated and extinguished when such destruction is at least
somewhat preventable. An excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’ “Case for
Humanitarian Intervention” reads: “Change only the name, and this story is
about you.” I remind you that our national borders and geographical alliances are
fictitious, that by no means are we confined to boundaries that have been
arbitrarily and systematically imposed upon us. Our common humanity requires that we act upon what is wrong.

Our error is not in action
but in organization. Humanitarian aid is just as imperative and admirable a
vocation as we have been taught. It simply needs reform. Although I cannot claim to offer a solution to the dilemma of foreign assistance,
I urge you to reconsider embarking unprepared on a philanthropic crusade. We
must stop sending overzealous and inexperienced young people to countries where their
efforts are regarded as patronizing Western propaganda. Instead, we should
foster mutually beneficial relationships between international experts in every
field, from political scientists to civil engineers to educators with actual
graduate degrees and cultural knowledge. Humanitarianism should be a lifelong
vocation—a dedication to understanding and grappling with the forces at
play on a global platform—not something done out of pity or to show off our benevolence.

The world is diverse, and its changing sociopolitical climate demands that we gather greater depth of understanding and breadth of experience before
intervening in the affairs of others. And above all, it demands that we never sit
still in the midst of suffering. 

Camille Goering PO ’16 is studying English and international relations.

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