I just read an article that has me shaking mad.
It seems that a Guardian UK journo doesn’t like the idea of sending bloggers to developing countries to bring back first hand accounts of their experiences. She’s speaking specifically of Heather Armstrong, who has just commenced what I expect to be an eloquent and compelling series about her recent trip to Bangladesh to support the Every Mother Counts initiative.
One I happen to support, by the way, too.
The writer brings up the classic holier-than-thou points: It’s patronizing. It’s “poverty tourism.” It’s more about the visitor than the people they meet. It allows us to alleviate our Western liberal guilt while doing nothing really.
[edited to add: to be clear - some of these points are not her own. They're quoting a source.]
And then there’s the uber-condescensing line that really got me: “Bloggers are firmly discouraged from poking paupers with sticks and asking people to wave their stumps for the cameras.”
Get it? Because bloggers are idiots! So cute.
Allow me to offer another perspective:
This is a line of thinking that keeps westerners in our own little bubbles, afraid to step out and do more– for fear that we’re doing it wrong. For fear that someone with more poverty cred and more commitment to The Cause will take us to task for it.
I see your visit to Bangladesh and I raise you an Oxfam client.
But this isn’t a defense of Heather entirely; she’s pretty good at defending herself. This is personal for me.
In 2000, I accompanied my mother to Sarajevo to meet a family that she had been supporting and corresponding with since the war, through Women 4 Women International. This was soon after the war ended, and the region was still somewhat unstable. You can’t imagine the people in my life who begged me–begged me–not to go.
I haven’t written about it much publicly (although I did touch on it here) for reasons I can’t entirely grasp just yet. But it wholly changed the direction of my life. How can it not? I met families who became my family, like long-lost cousins I had just discovered.
I listened to women tell me, first-hand, stories of rape and abuse at the hands of Serbian soldiers.
I had toasted steins of pivo with friends, dancing wildly to turbofolk albums in bars that were entirely unremarkable–except for the bombed-out shells that passed for the front entrances.
I slept in the bed of an elderly, formerly wealthy woman who rented out her lovely apartment to visitors to be able to afford her rent. We discovered the next morning over strong coffee and sweet rolls that she had slept on the couch.
I graciously carved the small chicken at a family’s home, that was intended to serve 14 of us.
I picnicked in the most gorgeous park, which our friend had to scout for landmines before choosing a spot for our blanket.
I traded smiles with ten year-old children who had to re-learn how to run, that long had they spent in hiding underground.
I sobbed, as my friend Tima took my hand and held it to her throat so that I could feel the shrapnel that remained imbedded under her skin.
And then, I came home, continued doing what I could for these families emotionally and financially, wrote furiously in my journal about it, and hoped that some day I would find the right way to tell these women’s stories to a larger audience.
Then I went on with my life.
Is my experience one that should be dissected and mocked, simply because of who I am and where I live?
Was I simply a “poverty tourist?”
I guess I am one of those “means justifying the ends” types of gals. I don’t care how or why Madonna adopts children in other countries. I don’t care about Angelina’s motives for being a UNICEF ambassador. And I don’t care whether Nike donated $100 million to human rights charities for good publicity and the tax deduction.
These are the acts that make good things happen.
I also believe that one person can make a difference. Whether she has a million Twitter followers or none at all.
I still feel the strong hands on my shoulders of the women I met in Sarajevo at the Women For Women office–mothers and daughters and sisters. I still remember their welcoming spirit and their generosity. I still can smell cigarettes and coffee as they leaned close to whisper, Hvalah. Thank you. Thank you for remembering us. Thank you for being here so that you can share our stories. There are so many things that no one knows…
Edited to add: I think it’s fair to include the writer’s response to one of comments on the article here because it clarifies some intent in a way that her original words didn’t. I still find it hard to believe the piece is not a jab at bloggers, considering the majority of it falls in that direction. Anyhow…
My position is: bloggers can absolutely engage their communities in powerful ways; they can absolutely make a difference, and write in-depth pieces that wouldn’t otherwise get written. But to be truly effective, they need the completion strategy. If I had a brilliant completion strategy at my fingertips, believe me I’d have shared it before now; the lack of one isn’t intended as a poke at Dooce or anyone else – just an observation that NGOs need to up their game on that one. My preference – as other commenters have said – would be for something that addresses IFI structures in a constructive and purposeful way.
I absolutely don’t believe that bloggers who take these trips are smug or patronising: to reiterate, I’ve done similar trips myself. Quasi-journalistic was just meant to distinguish bloggers who hold press accreditation from those who don’t. ‘Earnest’ just means… well, earnest, which is fairly appropriate in these circumstances. There are much worse things to be.
‘Poverty tourism’ is Easterly’s phrase, not mine. I don’t particularly agree with it, but it’s a pretty relevant thing to mention in the context of a piece like this.