Text above from Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. First image of art therapy in Sri Lanka from a 2005 AP article (via). Second image from a trauma recovery nonprofit, captioned “Children treated after a tsunami, no longer afraid of the ocean.”
One play therapist selected to join a delegation to Sri Lanka wrote,
“After the initial elation, panic sets in. What am I going to do there? I don’t speak the language, nor know the culture. I madly research techniques for working with children after a disaster, and find very little.”
I’m always a bit baffled when defenders of do-gooders insist that we must applaud every attempt to do good, no matter how problematic. “At least she/he/they are trying to do something, instead of criticizing from the comfort of an armchair.” Or sometimes, “Don’t squash their spirit!” Even as callout culture (smackdowns for doing intersectionality wrong!) is chastised for chewing out allies, international aid and especially its gateway drug, volunteer tourism*, remains in desperate need of more reflexivity.
The notion of universal knowledge and the validity of a given therapeutic technique (or scientific tool) across all contexts lingers on in the most well-intentioned projects. The phenomenon of “parachute researchers” raises ethical red flags, especially when researchers ride in wearing a (conscious or not) mantle of Western superiority.
* While critical development studies has a decades-long ongoing dialogue, volunteer tourism is a more recent subject of study. Some articles include “The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism,” “Volunteer Tourism as Postmodern Pilgrimage,” and “The Geography of Compassion in Volunteer Tourism" which "highlight[s] the Third World child as the primary object of Western volunteer tourists’ benevolence” and how the valorization of compassion inadvertently depoliticizes global justice agendas.