The Ineffective Foreign-Founder

I ran across an interesting article a while ago which caught my attention:

The article, written by Pippa Biddle, encourages volunteers NOT to join organizations and/or trips which involve helping communities facing certain crises (lack of shelter, famine/drought, disease, etc.) on the basis that, she found, most volunteers weren’t suited to help in these situations at all. While I can’t say I’m very surprised at this diagnosis (Building homes is quite different between even Rochester and South Carolina; if you don’t know the basics of construction in places like those, how could you imagine yourself as being a suitable volunteer for building homes in another country? And even if you did know, who’s to say you would have any idea what to do in a country like Tanzania? As far as the language barrier is concerned, take a couple years of a foreign language, go to country who has that language as its primary, and see if you have any damn idea what people are saying in simple conversation.), it was still a little shocking to run across an article which actively discourages people from volunteering for trips such as the ones she cited (unless, of course, you actually know how to help the people you’re visiting).

This article makes me think that Honig perhaps forgot one example of the foreign-founder: the one who doesn’t do much good at all or the one who just gets in the way of a people who already have the ability to take care of themselves. It’s an interesting dilemma, one that I don’t think was considered by any of the writers we have discussed so far. Perhaps they would explain this example as the foreign-founder who entered a people who had already established themselves and, therefore, were not in need of the type of aid which the foreign-founder could provide. However, the countries cited seemed to have actual crippling issues, and here we have a situation in which the foreign-founder(s) either helped minimally, made no difference, or made the situation worse.

From the case in Tanzania, it seems making things worse would apply:

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there.”

 She later explains a similar outcome in the Dominican Republic:

“Within days, it was obvious that my rudimentary Spanish set me so far apart from the local Dominican staff that I might as well have been an alien. Try caring for children who have a serious medical condition, and are not inclined to listen, in a language that you barely speak. It isn’t easy.”

Perhaps these accounts show another possible foreign-founder scenario or perhaps they show that the foreign-founder is a flawed concept in itself and that, if a person/group/nation is going to help another, the problem needs to be addressed in a different way (in some ways, this is exactly what I think Honig is suggesting). If a lot of these programs run into similar problems, it would seem that the effort to help is causing more problems than it’s solving.

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3 Responses to The Ineffective Foreign-Founder

  1. scter117 says:

    I have also noticed this whole in our FF theory knowledge. The stories we studied involving a FF always has a pretext explaining the NEED for great change or a helpless society. However, how does/could ever a FF function when they are not needed. In the story of The Man Shot Liberty Valence, we notice that Tom Donaphin really was the man to do the dirty work and in a sense be the FF. Therefore, we can see that the FF doesn’t have to be a reality but just an image for the people to rally against and normally fear that will fix their problems. The image of student going and helping these poor societies is fantastic but their ability to ACTUALLY do the work is low. Therefore, they display (in a way) a nonfiction example of the FF being only an image because they don’t really do the work. Nonetheless, the people of these societies likely still rally around these foreign students who bring a new face and life(image) to there towns.

    • njalensky says:

      I agree with this Scott, I feel that even though physically they cannot help a lot, they are making a difference with morale in community service. Sometimes in showing you want to help, can inspire someone with the right expertise to go to the certain place and actually make a difference in the physical sense. If we over think situations like these, no one will think it is smart to even take a step to help. Then you run into a problem that if there is not even a step towards helping others, you have no chance into making a difference for that community.

  2. andymaskiell says:

    I think what your getting at with the foreign-founders image is why Honig wants us to talk about foreignness with more of a Gothic romance narrative rather than the usual story. Just as you’ve articulated, a large part of the issue lies in this image, which ultimately is dooming the whole action to failure, in precisely the way that by viewing democracy through the lens of a common romance story (one which ends in marriage and happy-ever-after-crap) we are setting for ourselves a false image of what maintaining democracy entails in reality.

    I think the issue about need is perhaps different; it’s not that these people need someone to come and build their houses for them, but that there are other issues they need help with which aren’t being addressed. For instance, I remember hearing about one organization (hopefully one with better results than what this girl was involved in) which helped establish plumbing in many communities where this was rare or nonexistent. By setting up proper plumbing, especially toilets, they found that they were able to help combat disease since the source of many medical problems in these communities revolved around diseases which stem from improper management of waste. Perhaps in this case, their failure was that they were helping with things these people either already could do by themselves or helping in ways which the volunteers were not adequately prepared for, resulting in their ineffectiveness.

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