Conversations with a Little White Girl
An interview with Pippa Biddle, writer of “The Problem with Little White Girls”
I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying PowerPoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.
Some might say that that’s enough. That as long as I go to X country with an open mind and a good heart I’ll leave at least one child so uplifted and emboldened by my short stay that they will, for years, think of me every morning.
I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to — who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.
That was an excerpt from the article, “The Problem with Little White Girls…” by Pippa Biddle. The article, first published on 2014, talks about the problem of voluntarism — volunteer travel — and has since gone viral.
Today, we talk to her about how she feels about the topic, over a year after the viral article, and what she’s doing in regards to international volunteering and sustainable development.
What made you write such a controversial article about volunteering work?
The topics I touch on in the piece, namely the inefficiencies and inequalities embedded in international volunteer tourism, were things that I was thinking about long before putting words on paper. I am young, but I’ve spent a significant portion of my life working in this space, and so, for me, the article really was a summary of what I’d been pondering for over 5 years. Since writing the piece, I’ve written more on the subject of volunteer travel, and hope to continue to bring attention to the subject through writing, speaking, and ‘activist’-type work.
Do you still feel the same way now? Is there anything you would change from the article today?
99% of it still rings true for me. I continue to write about volunteer travel (or voluntourism) because there is so much to say that it’s really mind-boggling. All the things I missed in that first piece, I try to incorporate into my current work. And, I’m sure that a year from now I’ll be saying the same thing but in reference to the stuff I’m doing now.
Did that trigger you to be part of the many things that you are involved in?A lot of the stuff I am doing now, I was doing before the article came out in February 2014. The biggest change in my life has probably been my involvement with Onwards, the non-profit I am on the board of. I met one of the Co-Founders of Onwards (http://onwardsinc.org/) because he read “The Problem with Little White Girls…” and he reached out to me over email. We scheduled a phone call and I’ve been working with the organization ever since. I have a huge amount of respect for what they are doing and only hope to be able to support them in whatever ways I can.
What do you think can be done better for a more efficient way that benefits both the volunteer and the receiver?
I like to challenge prospective volunteers to consider whether volunteering is actually the best way that they can support a community. For doctors, engineers, educators, and other individuals with really high-level skills that are also willing to pass along their knowledge to locals, volunteering is often very effective. However, for those who aren’t a specialist in a much-needed skill area, the best way to give is often actually by investing in a community financially by spending your money in small, locally-owned businesses, hotels, and restaurants. While a few hours of volunteer work might end up in a freshly painted school building, the money spent on a meal can feed a family, build a business, and support an economy.
As for those on the receiving end, I hope we can get to the point in sustainable development where communities don’t feel obliged to welcome volunteers for fear that donations will stop or that they’ll be passed over for much needed support in times of crisis (like natural disasters).