There always needs to be a product: 'Self-reflection', volunteering & the emerging development entertainment industrial complex

First, there was good, old volunteering in Africa or Latin America, then we (were) discovered (by) the CV-enhancing experience industry around voluntourism in developing countries and now we are faced with the fast-growing genre of critical self-reflection by returning volunteers who discovered how self-serving #InstagrammingAfrica really is.
‘Why is it always former volunteers who now write about their so-called discoveries after yet another bad experience in a so-called orphanage?’, a friend asked on facebook a few weeks ago.

The urge to build: From schools, to CVs and reputations
First, our parents’ generation went to Nicaragua to build schools, then we baby-boomer children went on to volunteer in Nepal, Cambodia or Ghana and a few years later an orphanage-cum-English-teaching industry has been firmly established, leaving little to no room for a meaningful, political engagement with poverty, injustice and underdevelopment.

But like most other parts of our carefully managed lives and careers we need to build something, ideally by ‘disrupting’ a field with the help of digital bravado – a CV with ‘experiences’, a ‘reputation’ or a ‘critical writing portfolio’. As more and more evidence emerges that volunteering very often does not go much further than good intentions, the old products become a bit outdated. Even mainstream publications that our parents read have started to talk about the complexities of volunteering and your average HR person is less and less impressed with a 6-week stint in a school in Guatemala.
But still, we need products to prove our critical engagement with the subject and similar to the age-old slogan that there is no such thing as ‘bad PR’, there is essentially no ‘bad development experience’-at the very least you can write a hash-tagged piece about your ‘first world problems’, including discoveries about the growing, all-encompassing NGO industry that once started as social movements and self-help cooperatives. 

In an era of neoliberal self-optimization it is easy to rant and back-write with your own ‘product’. Deep down we prefer, or at least do not mind, the extroverted manifestations of critical engagement with ‘development’. ‘Learning by doing’ sounds great-but it is not the same as ‘reflecting on learning by repeating mistakes’.

The emergence of a development entertainment industrial complex

Take your medicine, because the mindfulness movement is symptomatic of what late capitalism requires of us. (…). We learn techniques to make us more efficient. This neutered, apolitical approach is to help us personally – it has nothing to say on the structural difficulties that we live with. It lets go of the idea that we can change the world; it merely helps us function better in it.
Suzanne Moore’s comment Mindfulness is all about self-help. It does nothing to change an unjust world in The Guardian does not explicitly talk about ‘development’ and yet it is often in the context of volunteering that a globalized version of the North American self-help industry meets the start-up and ‘maker’ culture which features the vocal, the articulate, the innovative and the young & restless. Sprinkle in a few pop-cultural elements such as ‘fame’, a personalized journey of transformation that happens with many by-standers and few moments of stillness and introspection and ‘development’ becomes a fa├žade for a staged performance of ‘the real volunteers of …’

What role for teachers, or: who wants to volunteer to file printed reports from the 1960s?
We as teachers need to encourage students to break through this glass ceiling of digital surface learning-what if an ‘internship’ would not automatically mean going abroad, but discovering books in an archive-reading about Ghana in the 1960s rather than ‘doing’ development in today’s Ghana? Or interviewing volunteers from previous decades? A nice oral history project with 5, say, Peace Corps or VSO volunteers on how they experienced Ghana 10, 20 or 40 years ago?

In Communication for Development teaching and scholarship we need to think about innovative ways of how to break through the technology-driven, Silicon Valley-mainstreamed, capitalistic mindset of innovation, disruption, ‘doing’ and ‘experiencing’ rather than adding more carbon and all sorts of other footprints to a landscape that simply does not need more of them.

The real reflection should be on the fact that all of us are basically always asked to do, work, publish, teach and travel more-a discourse that has not really been changed since the bad old days of modernization theory…packing your bags and heading off to catch a flight to Nairobi, Kathmandu or Cape Town seems so much more tempting than going to the basement of your library to discover critical writings on the early days of ‘development’ or the manifestations of the ideas, ideals and practices that remind us of how mainstream ‘development’ has become and how tempting it is to add to the pile of (seemingly) self-critical discoveries that often border on hypocritical ‘told you so’ stories and ultimately only benefit ‘us’ and rarely anybody else.


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