Genocide, Terrorism and how to overcome your fear of words

A Response to the Sydney Siege

Recently I published an article featuring details of the Cófan people’s fight to survive in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In an earlier draft I included the word genocide. Later, I removed it for fear that upon reading it people would recoil, not knowing how to react to such an ugly word and begin to doubt each and every other word on the page. Words are powerful like that. Let me clarify, I, like many others, believe that a wide variety of states, people and organisations contributed to the genocide of the Amazonian people over hundreds of years.

Genocide is when one group of people attack another group of people (with the same race, religion or ethnicity) with the intention of wiping at least some of them out. The UN definition is of course far wordier than this, so many of us may be confused as to what genocide actually is, but we do know that it’s bad. Really bad, far worse than anything else we’re used to seeing in the news, for sure. But let me reframe this for you. A life is a life and a death is a death. So, if a group of 1,000 are wiped out in genocide, is that automatically worse than a war that kills hundreds of thousands civilians? It seems cold to say I know, and I completely accept the argument that the loss of an entire group is the loss not just of human life but of a culture, a language and all they have to offer the world. This is even more pertinent in the case of the people of the Amazon who have more knowledge about the planet’s most complicated ecosystem than I can even imagine. But I can’t help but feel that this isn’t what pricks your discomfort at hearing the word.

The holocaust of the Jews during the Second World War was genocide. After this incident over a hundred countries, including my own, signed a document called the genocide convention, which explained what genocide was and stated that should another genocide ever occur they were obliged under international law to do something about it. There have been other genocides since the holocaust such as that of Rwanda in 1994 and of Darfur, Sudan which began in 2003, and in each case there was massive hesitation to throw the g-word at it specifically because of the huge obligation it entails. After the world sat and did nothing during the crisis in Rwanda, which was largely deemed preventable, Darfur should have been the chance for leaders of  the world to show their commitment to the humanitarian side of international cooperation. However the ‘conflict’ that began in early 2003 wasn’t acknowledged by the US congress as genocide until July 2004. A year was spent deliberating and analysing, politicians as much as journalists carefully avoiding labelling the situation what it was and of course evading the responsibility that it incurs, whilst the situation continued to grow worse and worse. To call a situation genocide is to accuse governments of inaction. So we the public as much as the press become afraid to use this word whether it reflects the truth or not and journalists, daily, protect governments and your eyes and ears by sticking with synonyms and euphemisms instead.

Words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid to use are powerful. They are the words that curb our opinions because we are sure that whoever is brave enough to use them knows better than we do, and we should let them do whatever that word requires them to.

Another one of these words is terrorism. None of us really know what terrorism is but we’re sure it’s serious. Terrorists are the bad guys. They have beards, they have bombs and they definitely don’t have souls. We take no risks with terrorists because those guys are crazy, they’ll do anything to anyone and you need to support your local intelligence agency in whatever they’re doing because if not it could be you next.

Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims. Kind of a let-down, huh? Of course, the FBI has a far wordier definition which may confuse you and encourage you to give up and leave it to the pros. Just to show you how much terrorists tend to have in common, here you have a list of a few famous terrorists from history, some whose reputation changed with time and others who will forever be remembered as monsters, these include Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini and King Leopold II of Belgium to name a few. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims. Fact.

As Russell Brand pointed out, if he killed a bunch of people and said it was in the name of Christianity he’d be accused of insanity, not terrorism. Yet if a man, with a violent criminal record and a history of mental illness, holds up a café and winds up killing two of his hostages claiming it’s in the name of Islam, millions across the globe decide that this constitutes a political act and begin referring to it as terrorism. Similarly, Michael Adebolajo’s brutal murder of Lee Rigby in the streets of Woolwich last year was labelled a terror attack just hours after it had taken place, because Adebolajo claimed that the fact that Lee Rigby was a soldier meant his murder was an act of war. If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I killed you saying it was in the name of socialism, I would be accused of insanity, not terrorism.

Obviously I’m simplifying, there are many ways to interpret acts of war and acts of terror and terrorism and I encourage you to explore them for yourselves so that you yourself can decide what constitutes a use of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims. I have no idea whether Man Haron Monis or Michael Adebolajo committed the violent acts they did as a political manoeuvre or because they were simply extremely mentally unstable. However, I refuse to start jumping at shadows because someone, somewhere decided to label them terror attacks.

The fear campaign launched by the US media following 9/11 was so intense and so effective that even today 51% of Americans believe that the CIA’s use of torture was justified. This is not because they have no regard for human life, but because the fear of the word terrorism itself, never mind that of another attack, is so tangible that they would support anything being done that kept them safe, despite the fact that the average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack. When a plane crashes, airports reopen the next day. When a terror attack takes place, no one knows where to look, what to say, who to trust or how to manifest the fear that clutches them. You may not know how to manifest it, but there are a lot of people who know how to play on it.

This use of a word which at its root is a synonym for horror, alarm, panic, shock or dread is so powerful that governments and intelligence agencies have been using it for years to launch all kinds of agendas from wars to border control. Yet, if we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, the fear that is so often used to acquire our compliance just evaporates; like anything the best way to overcome your fear of it, is to try and understand it. This week’s attack on 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar has opened up an unprecedented dialogue in the UK where we are seeing the many different ways terrorists can be perceived. This article by Cyril Almeida took a dip into Pakistani politics to analyse just how thin the line can be between freedom fighter and terrorist. I personally hope this spells the end of our tendency to blindly use a word that we know so little about so we can liberate ourselves from fear and see all the shades of grey that lie between.


Erin Brokovich, Crude and TTIP

Last weekend I watched for the first time the Julia Roberts classic, Erin Brokovich. It’s the beautiful story about of an outspoken, mother-of-three who goes from begging for jobs from her cockroach-infested home to earning millions of dollars by working hard, having a heart and using her brains. Based on a true a story, Erin Brokovich portrays the court case of Hinkley versus Pacific, Gas and Electricity Company (PG&E). In it, residents of a small town who had suffered health problems caused by leakages of a toxic chemical, sued the company for compensation and won a $333million award.

Classic stories like this always go down well because crowds love an underdog and it just seems wrong that because one side is bigger, has more money or more power than the other, that they can just ignore the needs of good, honest people like those of Hinkley no matter how just their claims are.

Although I enjoyed the film there was a niggling thought in the back of my head throughout that this just is not how the story usually goes. Today even more so than ever before, the masses are the underdogs that we just expect to fail, to go ignored or to end up as collateral damage. It’s not only frustrating but illogical too. In Hinkley’s case PG&E have billions of dollars, and are responsible for the damage whilst the people of Hinkley have hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. The answer seems too obvious to even say.

Nothing illustrates this modern day reality better than David Cameron’s unwavering commitment to the proposed cross-Atlantic free trade agreement TTIP. If you have heard about TTIP you are probably bored stiff by article after article pointing out the obvious, and I forgive you for clicking off to a better place. If you haven’t, let me alleviate your confusion. TTIP is essentially a contract being drawn up to by the US and the EU which intends to unite the two entities by breaking down the barriers of trade. Those opposed fear that it could (and probably will) mean adhering to US standards on everything from food production to environmental policy whilst corporations operate with more free reign across the globe. Essentially, it could mean a lot less Erin Brockovichs and a lot more Hinkley resident-type victims.

For a long time we’ve accepted and lived by the ideals that have led us to this point. Capitalism and free trade, the right to make as much money as you can with no governmental interference or red tape in your way, limitless profits and no drawbacks. But unfortunately, in life, there are limits, and we would be foolish to encourage companies in their belief that there aren’t. The logical and normal restrictions on money-making, such as taxes and trade laws, were invented for a reason. Limiting corporate power is a way for governments to protect the citizens they are put in place to represent. Poisoning people to cut costs is wrong, and you should have to pay for it.

TTIP would present less of a problem if Erin’s was the only tale of corporations behaving badly. In reality there are dozens if not hundreds of cases like hers and worse, and they symbolise people lucky enough to have found legal representation for the wrongs they have endured.

The case of Cófan people vs Chevron gives us a glimpse in the kind of justice we can expect when corporate power becomes overwhelming. Chevron Corporation, a company whose revenues in 2013 were up to $220billion have never given a penny of compensation to the tens of thousands of people who have suffered skin diseases, abnormal growths or died from cancer in the Ecuadorian Amazon over the past twenty or so years. These people just so happen to live in and from the rainforest in the exact location that Texaco (later purchased by Chevron) deny dumping billions of gallons of toxic water during the ‘clean up’ of their oil operations. Chevron has been fighting this case for over 20 years and after an Ecuadorian court ruled in favour of the Ecuadorians in 2011, demanding $19billion in reparations, later reduced to $9.5billion, the company simply counter-sued. Legal proceedings are ongoing.

I feel certain that no employee of Chevron relishes in the destruction of the Amazon or the death of its people. Chevron inherited this problem from Texaco and is simply trying to resolve it in a way that best works for the company; why spend billions of dollars on a clean-up when you could spend millions on legal fees. Besides it’s not the role of corporations to look after people, governments do that. But if wealthy governments are handing over power to corporations, who can then reject legitimate claims of entire nation-states, who is looking after the Cófan people and anyone else who gets in the way of profit-making?

Now, not to kill you with Hollywood analogies but if we learnt anything from Spiderman it’s that with great power, comes great responsibility. Ridiculous it may seem that a Spiderman line is the answer to our current global issue of corporate abuses of power but it is. Cases like Chevron-Texaco vs Ecuador indicate the extent to which responsibility can and has been evaded by corporations with enough money to make any moral obligations evaporate. Whether we can expect an expansion of corporate power to result in an expansion of corporate responsibility is yet to be seen, but it seems doubtful when you look at the behaviour of certain companies today.

With the advent of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (or ISDS, currently a clause in the TTIP), an agreement between a company and a country they invest in, which allows them to go to an independent court to resolve issues, we are already seeing a situation in which corporations can and do sue countries for implementing policies which have a negative on their profits, regardless of the effect on their people. Both Australia and Uruguay for example are being sued for its anti-smoking efforts by a tobacco company, while Egypt is being sued by Veolia, Europe’s largest water supplier, for raising the national minimum wage. Whether these cases will end in changes in domestic laws or pay-outs, or be rejected completely is disputable, but that they are even being considered is absurd and blatantly unjust.

Taxes too are an indication of how our corporations feel about law and citizenship. The offshore accounts of all the technology giants you can think of will potentially make your head explode. Apple alone has an impressive estimated $111billion in untaxed accounts outside of the USA, up from $83billion in 2012. That is to say that Apple has, in bank accounts outside of the USA, double what Uruguay possesses as its GDP. In fact, Apple’s offshore cash store, combined with that of Microsoft, Citigroup and the pharmaceutical, Pfizer reach around the GDP of Egypt too. Don’t go forgetting these names now, because these corporations are the global governors of the future.

You may be outraged and want nothing to do with them but you can’t boycott these companies, you cannot boycott the water coming out of your tap, or the drugs prescribed by your doctor and let’s face it, none of us are going to give up the entire Internet; you in fact have very little control over the extent to which you are a consumer of the goods provided by many corporations of this size. However, unless you happen to be a millionaire shareholder of one of these companies, you really don’t have any say in how they run either.

You can understand then, why many regard TTIP as an assault on democracy and why it is being fought against, tooth and nail, by campaigners. However, to me, the assault is on humanity. The Erin Brokovichs of the world encourage us to keep believing in humanity no matter how many fear-mongering tabloids try and convince us there’s no such thing. If we simply accept the idea that it is profits first, people later and cease believing in change, we allow those in control to take us for absolute mugs at every corner.

Erin Brokovich is indeed a heart-warming film; but sadly it’s also one that stuns us. We have now become so accustomed to these daily injustices that we are shocked to learn that one day, somewhere, just was served. I personally find myself constantly echoing my mother’s old mantra that ‘life’s not fair’ and often it isn’t, but that’s not to say that it can’t be or that we should actively implement rules and laws like TTIP, that make it less fair. Sometimes the five-year-old throwing the strop has a point: it’s just not fair.

POSTSCRIPT: TTIP is not yet in place but it requires a lot more attention if it’s to fail getting through parliament. For more information start here.

The CIA Report and How Media Coverage of the ‘War on Terror’ Has Been Dividing Britain

Recently some damning documents about the CIA were released which revealed the vile abuse of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were used in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the so-called War on Terror that ensued. The report contained some horrifying details of disgraceful human rights abuses for which perpetrators must face criminal court. Perhaps worst of all, despite the claims of Dick Cheney, the vice-president of the US during the Bush administration, who said that they “did what we needed to do to catch the bastards that killed 3000 of us”; the report deemed that the practice of torture was not effective in eliciting information.

I was shocked to read about this report. I was not shocked by its content, I was not shocked to learn that intolerable violations of the Human Rights Act had taken place in Guantanamo Bay, although I perhaps experienced some mild surprise in learning of the suggested locations of the 8 other ‘black sites’ or secret prisons where detainees were held. Neither was I shocked to find the UK on the list of collaborators. I was simply shocked that the report was released. I was shocked to be reading a US released analysis of what the US had done. After years of reading obscure articles, in unheard of publications, littered with unrecognisable names about the horrifying realities of Guantanamo Bay that our government clearly knew and willingly did nothing about, I had just assumed that this kind of report would have to wait a few more decades to surface, long after the topic had been buried so that its release would be sufficiently ignored.

Many officials argued prior to the release of the report that making these findings publicly available would be futile and only fuel the fire of those eager to attack the US. On the second point, they are probably correct. Those voices which have been ignored and suppressed for all these years now have legitimate cause, and proof of it, to despise and retaliate against the American and European institutions that have demonised, tortured and repeatedly attacked vast swathes of the Muslim population for over a decade in the name of some kind of ‘freedom’ for the American people. The amount of innocent lives taken or ruined by an array of procedures all deemed legal under the never-fully-explained ‘terrorism laws’ has long exceeded the 3,000 that were lost on September 11th 2001 and the 52 on July 7th 2005.

Obama’s drones alone have caused over 2,400 civilian deaths in Pakistan and Yemen. The death toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been repeatedly falsified or minimised but a rough figure of 150,000 has been recorded as the number of civilian deaths. Yet somehow, our media continually gives us the impression that we are the victims in this, or at least that those who die on ‘our side’ are the real, worthy, innocent victims.

The worthy victims include Lee Rigby, James Foley and Alan Henning, who did nothing to deserve their fate and were the victims of mentally unstable or just plain evil killers who we are or were desperate to bring to justice. These men have received substantial media attention, some more than others; they have received the empathy of the entire nation and will be remembered as heroes for ever. Other victims of this undefinable battle include Gul Rahman, Shaker Aamer and Binyam Mohamed, all innocent of the crimes they were accused of but tortured or killed nonetheless, yet these men have not received nearly the same level of coverage as the aforementioned worthy victims. There has been some mention in the British press of the campaign to free Shaker Aamer, a Guantanamo Bay detainee who has been held for 13 years despite campaigns, protests and a request from the UK government that he be released. Binyam Mohamed, too, had his story reported after his release from Guantanamo Bay. However, the media coverage of Binyam, Gul and Shaker versus that of the Lee, James and Alan is simply incomparable. But, why?

The immediate reaction is to frame this in an Us vs Them situation, we empathise more with one of us than one of them, simple as. However James Foley was born and raised in Illinois, which is about a 9 hour flight from London, for example, which is where Shaker and Binyam were living before being snatched by the CIA. So then who is us and who is them? And why are we worthy victims and why are they unworthy victims? Lee Rigby, a British soldier murdered while walking home, minding his business, is worthy because he served our government. We like people that serve our government; we pay homage to them every year. Lee Rigby is worthy because he went to Afghanistan and did what the British government required him to do. He in absolutely no way deserved to die the way he did.

So what makes Shaker Aamer unworthy? Why has his story been so neglected? Did his story just not move quickly enough for our fast paced medias? Is it good old racism rearing its head, Shaker has a foreign sounding name, best not mention it too many times, people won’t want to know? Or just linguistic laziness, the tongue might stumble across the unfamiliar, best just report the easiest to pronounce? Whatever the reason may be, I want you to think for a minute on how this may appear to a young British Muslim growing up in our society. Every time there is some kind of ‘terrorist attack’ claimed to have taken place in the name of Allah we have this necessary line that ‘the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemned this murder’ or mass murder. But when the EDL set fire to a mosque we don’t feel it necessary to get an official spokesperson from the white working class community to confirm that bombing someone’s place of worship isn’t okay according to the values and principles of the community. Even the case of Shaker Aamer has only made the amount of noise it has through consistent reiteration of his British wife and four British children who have been waiting for him for over a decade in London. Had his wife been from Sierra Leone, would calls for his release have been less legitimate? What if she had been from the US, would it have mattered then?

This reporting is divisive. This constant ‘othering’ of Muslims is divisive. This intentional or unintentional framing of worthy us and unworthy them is dividing us as a society. Gul Rahman to you may seem irrelevant, distant or unimportant; an Afghan, captured in Pakistan and taken to Salt Pit, Kabul, detained and killed in detention, all for nothing because his was a case of mistaken identity. He in absolutely no way deserved to die the way he did.The thousands of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan may seem similarly distant. However, for many a British Pakistani, I imagine these things matter. For a British Pakistani Gul Rahman is a worthy victim. On the Guardian website there is an interactive picture board of each victim of 7/7 so you can click on their faces, learn their names, a little bit about their life and what they were doing on the day they passed. A simple commemoration to acknowledge the loss of human life; perhaps a similar one featuring the innocent victims of torture in Guantanamo would begin to heal the rift this war has created.

DISCLAIMER: I did not invent the concept of worthy and unworthy victims. Noam Chomsky did in Manufacturing Consent, Chapter 2.

Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Why The British Public Need to Care

Romain Brisbon. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Mark Duggan. Cameron Tillman. Sean Rigg. Latasha Harlins. Stephen Lawrence. Laquan Macdonald.

Here lie a few names which make up a much longer list of human beings, most of them teenagers, all black, some British, most American, all whose deaths have illustrated the huge flaws in the law enforcement and justice systems that are put in place to protect its citizens. From misunderstandings between neighbours to suspicious deaths in police custody to police brutality gone too far; all of these lives were taken by people who were never aptly punished for their crimes, except that of course of Stephen Lawrence, whose family fought for 17 years to yield a conviction of the teenager’s murderer after he was killed in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993.

In 1997 Tupac rapped “on earth, tell me what a black life’s worth// a bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts” . This was in reference to the murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991, a teenager shot dead by a shopkeeper for appearing to steal a bottle of orange juice. Latasha’s killer was convicted but never sent to prison instead she paid a $500 fine, served 400 hours community service and was put on probation for 5 years. Latasha’s death left a bitter taste in the mouths of many black Americans and the following year the acquittal of the officers responsible for the excessive beating of Rodney King as well as the light sentencing of Latasha’s killer sparked the LA riots which went down in history as some of the worst the US had ever seen.

When asked whether he felt the Michael Dunn case (or the loud music murder) was ‘racial’ or not Grey’s Anatomy actor, Jesse Williams responded “it’s racial because it doesn’t happen to white people” . Let us note firstly that it is not racial because it is the case of a white gunman and a black citizen. Neither was Trayvon Martin’s case about a white male vs a black teenager, George Zimmerman who was acquitted of Trayvon’s murder in 2013 was latino. Latasha Harlins’ killer was Korean, not white. The police officer, who shot 14 year old Cameron Tillman dead in Louisiana this year, was black. This is racial because police brutality only affects the voiceless and marginalised, otherwise the police simply wouldn’t get away with it, and all too often the most marginalised are ethnic minorities and the poor. It’s racial because the justice system seems much more eager to lazily protect the killers of blacks than those of whites. A UK court will not hesitate to jail a black or mixed race teenager for 30 years for the murder of another black teenager, so why so must we wait 17 years in the case of a white killer? These cases have all demonstrated how the law seems more reluctant to protect its minorities than its majorities in a situation that occurs between two citizens. When one of those citizens is a police officer, the odds ae even worse.

In 2011 following the murder of black male Mark Duggan, for which the police officer who shot him was acquitted, riots, which began in Tottenham after protests outside the police station escalated, spread throughout a number of the UK’s major cities. The mainstream British media, leapt to the conclusion that the riots were the result of an unruly generation trying to create an excuse to grab themselves a new plasma TV or pair of Nike air forces. The moment has now arrived for us to attempt to put these riots in their correct context. In 1992, following the cases of Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, there were riots. In 2014 following the death of Michael Brown, there were riots. In 2011, following the death of Mark Duggan, there were riots. Riots clearly inflamed by the economic situation, by the ongoing neglect represented by cuts to social and public services, as well as by the time of year, but riots bred from an injustice just like all the others. Despite initial reports stating that Duggan was holding a gun when he was shot the inquest revealed that the police had shot an unarmed man and yet ruled the killing lawful, punishing none of the officers involved, clearly reflecting a deeper race-related injustice in society.

In the UK and US alike police brutality makes it easier for every young black male to feel personally attacked when Eric Garner, Mark Duggan or Mike Brown lose their lives in such situations. Ask any law abiding black male from a troubled area and he will tell you that he too knows what it feels like to be treated like a criminal. Stopped and searched, stripped of your dignity, assumed to be up to no good. Ask the family of Sean Rigg who died in police custody and whose cause of death has never been revealed if they feel like the police work for them or against them. Frustrated and disenfranchised people use the only power they can think of or muster up to make their voices heard and their anger felt. Injustice breeds civil disobedience. It did in LA in the early 90s, it did in the UK in 2011 and it’s happening today in Ferguson and in New York.

The case of Mark Duggan may be far rarer here in the UK than the seemingly routine shooting of young, black and often unarmed males in the US, but we still face a huge amount of tension between the police and minorities in the UK. The conversation that emerged from the LA riots put the issues faced by the communities who rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, into national dialogue and meant that those who previously had no awareness or reason to care about racism and police brutality and misconduct, could ask the questions that we should always be asking about how our authorities treat the powerless. However, following the riots of 2011 there was almost no public acknowledgement of a need for change and no visible action taken to improve the relationship and trust between black people and the police.

The watershed case of Stephen Lawrence highlighted for the first time for the British public, the institutional racism of the metropolitan police, and while we have witnessed positive change we still have so far to go. From the Brixton riots of 1981 to those of 2011 we see again and again the manifestation of this ongoing and toxic relationship which continues to destroy communities, yet we, the British public refuse to indulge in any conversation about race. It couldn’t possibly be a question of race because we got rid of that with the multiculturalism act, right? Wrong.

Our incredibly biased media that will allow you to believe that in the presence of a black male (and it is more often men than women, although women are of course also affected), you could be in danger. You thus have the right to be afraid or suspicious and if you happen to be a police officer, you may then manifest this fear or distrust through violence towards aforementioned black male. If you are not a member of the police, manifest this fear violently, and we’ll probably still forgive you.

So we can see why Tupac’s lyrics resonate so strongly with black communities on both sides of the pond. What is a black life worth if there is no justice for taking one? Until the IPCC can effectively punish officers for mistreating citizens undeserving of such abuse, black Britons will struggle to find confidence in the police. The problem is simple. The police routinely operate with greater disregard for human life possessed by those whose race or (lack of) riches make him or her, another powerless member of the masses.

If you want to imagine what Eric Garner went through, firstly you can listen to the 14 minute recording that wasn’t sufficient to yield a conviction, and secondly you can watch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, which in 1989, twenty-five years ago, depicted the breakout of a riot following the death of a black male who is strangled to death by a police officer who initially intervenes to break up a fight. Twenty-five years ago, Spike Lee imagined a scenario to illustrate the effects of police misconduct, its unfairness, its brutality its devastating effect on the local community and yet twenty-five years later we still seem reluctant to heed his lessons so that we can accept and acknowledge the problem and take appropriate action to ensure this never happens again, in the UK and US alike.

On Voluntourism

Affecting Real Change as a Young Brit with No Experience in Development.

The world we live in today is a beautiful place in many ways. A child born today will never know of the brutal racism and homophobia that their forefathers experienced or witnessed. We can imagine with glee their horror if they ever heard about the old “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs, or their bafflement as to why a law had to be invented so that gays or lesbians could marry. Today, our world is more diverse and interconnected than ever, giving those who can afford it the privilege of travelling to a vast array of new and exciting horizons to drink in new settings, new cultures and new ways of living. A freedom of the purest kind, here for us to enjoy daily. But of course, this is not the case everywhere or for everyone. Every so often we are reminded of the saddening plight of those less fortunate, be it through a charity song at Christmas or just a passing advertisement on daytime television. This of course makes us want to react, to do something about this situation so that we can share the joy and goodness that we see in our own communities every day.

For many young Brits the answer seems clear, all you have to do is type ‘make a difference’ into google and there you have it, a three month experience building wells, teaching English or playing with orphans and bish bash bosh, difference made. Conscience assuaged, joy spread. Except that, as more and more critics have begun to point out, it’s not quite that simple is it. Now, I wouldn’t dream of wasting pages and pages on telling enthusiastic, compassionate teenagers to pack it in now because voluntourism is for neo-colonialists. Partly because I wonder if they’ll know what any of those words mean, but more specifically because as a former voluntourist (twice over), I know that those words would have done me no good before my trips.

Voluntourism is defined as the kind of trip in which a volunteer spends a considerable amount of time working for free for the betterment of the local community. And the voluntourism industry is growing at an alarming rate. Alarming, not staggering or impressive, because as it grows, it continues to feed off the clueless and cash-heavy and far too often once your few thousand pounds disappears into some third party whose role seems painfully futile once you arrive in your chosen land of the needy, many voluntourists end up feeling, well, robbed. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all organisations.

Most potential voluntourists will discover that there are three main kinds of organisations that will offer this kind of trip. There are charities, which rely on the money raised by voluntourists to accomplish their work, such as the Madagascar-focused charity Azafady. Then you have government-run programs that exist as CV builders or personal development experiences for British youngsters, usually heavily subsidised and hence very affordable for people of all backgrounds. Then thirdly, and definitely the worst of the three are the businesses that profit hugely from the money that you will fundraise for them, while their sole function is to put you into contact with a local grassroots organisation in your country of choice. They usually throw in airport transfer and accommodation for kicks. Essentially, you pay anywhere between £2000-4000 (an average for a 12 week trip) for a phone number and a bed.

As a former voluntourist I would never take back a moment of my time spent abroad. The first helped me grow from a teenager to a young adult, opened my eyes to the world outside of my tiny corner of London, pricked a life changing interest in global politics and development and helped me become the traveller I am today. The second acted as a clarifier, a reminder of all the values I hold dear and why and how I developed the beliefs that I live by today. The only problem is on neither occasion did I decide to take these trips for myself. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to improve the lives of people. And on that front I would say my trips were more or less futile.

The sad reality is that there are some harsh truths worth processing before you go and ‘save the world’, ‘make a difference’ or achieve whatever platitude was sold to you in the sleek brochure you read. Let’s first address the bizarre double standard that exists between working at home and volunteering abroad. You would assume applying for a job in the UK that upon application you have the appropriate education, qualifications and experience for the job, no? So why then, when on your way to your selected destination does it not cross your mind that you are not a teacher, nor a construction worker; you in fact have no useful qualifications and given that you are only going to be around for a three month placement, not that much time to learn.

Any business that runs on the basis of a quarterly overhaul of staff is doomed to suffer incredibly slow progress and would do well to contract long-term local staff. But they won’t, because you’ll do it for free and while you’re there you’ll probably throw some cash around on materials, maybe books, maybe sports goods depending on the project, maybe you’ll even invest some cash into a new vehicle or building for the company. You might think it’s not that big of a deal, or maybe that it’s the best deed you’ve done all year but for them it’s a lifeline. Without the westerners around, mzungu, nassara or whatever the local word is for white person, cash just doesn’t flow like that.

While on a building placement (I am not a builder) aged 18, I never once questioned why 18 year old baristas were being called over to Kenya to chop wood and dig holes in a slum where maybe 70% of the adult males were physically able and unemployed. Coincidentally, while I was there I just happened to pay for the wood most weeks, any medicine should someone in the slum get sick, and got into the habit of buying 5 times as much as I needed for lunch should anybody walk by hungry.

One thing I really urge young voluntourists to remember as they embark on what may well be their first experience in a professional environment, is that you know very little… about anything. Maybe I’m wrong and you’ve managed to squeeze in a Master’s in International Development and 3 years of experience with a grassroots NGO before your gap year. But on the off chance that that’s not the case: shut up and listen. Listen, watch and learn because in a new culture and a new environment your ‘this is ridiculous’, ‘things are so slow’, or worse, ‘in the UK this would never happen’ is offending everyone. Yes, everyone. Even the ones smiling. And it may kill them to smile and make them hate themselves a little bit, but probably you more

In countries without as robust an infrastructure, as constant a cash flow and as healthy and educated a workforce as you’re used to, yes, things work differently. However, you chose to come, maybe even with no relevant experience or qualifications, to magic away all the problems in 12 weeks. Your urgency is your problem, your struggle to adapt to the culture is also your problem, for people that you are working alongside on the ground this is their life and they would probably rather do it slowly and surely than just in time for your perfect photo op to take home to the family.

This leads me to my final point. Many a fine man and woman have dedicated their lives to improving the plight of those less privileged and at the time of writing 24,000 people die every day of poverty-related causes. You are not the first and you will not be the last. In reality, your three month placement is a miniscule element of a sector called charity or aid. Many development scholars believe that aid should be eradicated. The global north (the rich side of the world) receive from the global south (the poor side of the world) twice as much money as they hand over. Unfair trade laws, debt and the actions and profits of multinational corporations means that money is constantly pouring into the global north and pouring out of the global south. Our global political and economic system is so unfairly structured that an unaccountable corporation can have greater annual profits than the GDP of a small country, and that same company can still sue that small country for more profit if its actions aren’t sufficiently abiding to the rules of trade that they’re trapped into following. The world is a big, complex place full of baffling injustices but suffice it to say, 3 months volunteering for a charity who campaign for real change in trade laws or transparency of corporations in an office in Oxford or even just a lump donation, would probably have greater effect than your 5 grand blowout in Tanzania. But go. It’ll be fun.