Visiting Writer Explains Meaningful Service

Sarah Mazer ’19, Staff Writer

On Tuesday, Oct. 25, writer Pippa Biddle and non-profit founder Jacob Taddy spoke to about 35 students, faculty, and staff members gathered in Denny Hall to discuss the potential consequences of “voluntourism.”

Biddle began her presentation with an anecdote about her own experience with “voluntourism,” which she described as “any combination of unskilled, short-term volunteer work and travel.” When travelling to Tanzania as a high school student to build an orphanage for young girls, Biddle discovered that while her classmates were asleep, local men had to secretly redo their inadequate work. This caused Biddle to question the idea that the girls at the orphanage were supposed to “be thankful for our blundering around” when in reality, the construction Biddle’s school group had attempted would have resulted in a collapse of the building.

Biddle invited the event attendees to think critically and question the ways in which they attempt to help communities. She criticized the prevalence of unskilled volunteers taking on responsibilities such as childcare and medical care, which are left solely to professionals in the developed world. Biddle screened a short video-clip portraying a pre-medical student attempting to assist in an operation in Africa, only to pass out and divert the doctor’s attention from the patient in need.

Biddle presented the non-profit agency Onwards, which was founded by her co-speaker, Taddy, as an alternative to traditional forms of international aid, which Taddy described as creating “a culture of dependence” and Biddle described as “undermining the goal of creating a healthy economy.” Biddle described traditional international aid which merely distributes donations as shortsighted and often destroying local economies by attempting to fix a complicated problem very quickly. Instead, she argued for a more “hardline look at multi-generational systems,” for example, working to create an economy which demands education rather than building a school.

Onwards aims to improve the economies of its partner communities by providing microloans to entrepreneurs in the community, providing them with business and hospitality training, and then providing community based expeditions for travelers within these organizations. Rather than travelling to a country with the purpose of volunteering, Onwards invites travelers to instead serve the community by investing in its people and learning about the local organizations already in place.

Though critical of many volunteer opportunities, Biddle was careful that students would be “encouraged not to stop giving back but to give back in a way that is more thoughtful, smarter, and more engaged.” She cautioned that service trips must involve a deep educational component by incorporating issues of service into the curriculum and/or by involving extensive pre and post trip education and reflection. When prompted to discuss the alternative of local service, Biddle expressed her agreement with Jane Goodall’s philosophy to “think globally, act locally” but cautioned against the same dangers of international service such as failing to think critically about the origin of the problem and viewing those that are served as “different.”

Donna Hughes, director of the Center for Service, Spirituality, and Social Justice, reflected after the talk, “I think she [Biddle] is right, and that would be our desire – to be careful with how we do service.” Hughes explained that the office already tries to work with community partners to better understand where help is needed and to express to students on service trips that they are “not there to change the world.” Hughes also stated that the center was in the process of discussing the possibility of more education based service trips.

Biddle’s work has been published by Go Overseas, The Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and The New York Times Online. She is currently on the board of the Onwards. The talk was sponsored by Dickinson Center for Service and Spirituality.