Yesterday was quite a day and much of the Canadian political landscape is buzzing about the testimony the Kielburger Brothers gave to the House of Commons Finance Committee, just not for the reasons why I think the brothers were hoping. I remain surprised that they went before that committee and decided to approach it that way. They were smarmy, disconnected and really didn’t do themselves any favours. They tried to paint Opposition MPs as somehow trying to kill a Canadian charity and being against Canadian youth, which went over about as well as you could expect.
But coming out of their four hours of testimony I’ll admit something has stuck in the back of my mind that’s gnawing at me. As NDP MP Charlie Angus said yesterday, these brothers many years ago started doing great work and did good things, yet something seemed to have changed over time. The smug and highly privileged way that they presented themselves at the committee yesterday showed us that “after” look, but it made me wonder: how did they get to this point? How did they go from being the teens looking to do good to that performance we saw yesterday?
That also stayed in my mind as I read through my Twitter feed over since that testimony and it’s been interesting to see what’s come up, which spoke to that question but also for me raised questions about how there were “the only ones” who could provide this important government program. Then today someone on Twitter who I follow shared the following Tweet, which grabbed my attention:
Wait, dude went on Cribs? Seriously? Obviously, this set me on a search for video of that appearance and maybe it would give us some clues to that question lingering in my mind. And after a bit of work, I came up with this and folks, it really speaks for itself:
Ummm, wow, that was something. That now makes two WE videos we’ve seen in this story that have raised some questions, although these ones are more around judgement in my mind than anything else. And before I start, I can picture a scenario where taking Cribs to a charity project could be a cool publicity move that could do some good for the work they do. But that, well that just didn’t do it.
As I said on CFRA on Monday afternoon, I personally have issues with the concept of voluntourism that involves foisting one selves onto a community and not doing what the community wants or needs. Those kinds of activities strike me as much more about those doing the work and making them happy, and not about the actual needs of the communities themselves. A good piece in the Huffington Post this month from a former WE volunteer really shone a good light on the problems with this concept, pointing to some activities that she did on her first trip as “busy work” and described other activities as “clearly more for our own experience than it was for the benefit of local stakeholders.” WE is not alone in having this issue in international development, but they are the focus right now.
How does that fit into what we saw above? Well folks look at what you saw in that video. Look at the Kielburgers home that he showed us, the nice finishes, the big living room, the beautiful building itself. Also look at the attitude and body language that Mr. Kielburger showed us in that video; he was seriously stunting for the MTV cameras. There was no humility in there to be seen. He was showing off and I couldn’t get the feeling that this was more about him. It wasn’t about their works, their projects, or the people on the ground that they say they are there to help. That was him showing off, with a privileged smirk that just really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s just as odd for a charity helping the poor to go on MTV to show off their master bathroom and palatial living room while they are surrounded by poverty. If anything, it felt like watching a televangelist showing off his 15-bedroom ranch or doing a selfie from his brand-new Gulfstream jet. Not only does it look bad, it says far more about where your head is at and can easily make people question what your real priorities are. And that’s before you think about what it says about how they use the money they raise from everyday people.
In that video he was the walking, talking personification of everything that’s wrong with voluntourism as we see it being done in many cases. It’s all about making privileged folks here at home feel good. Those who can give or raise thousands of dollars to go abroad to move bricks from one pile to another while gawking at the poverty around them, all to make them feel like they’ve made a difference. It’s about making those people feel good about “giving back” in probably one of the most expensive and inefficient ways humanly possible.
That’s not a productive approach in my view and it’s centered in a selfish approach that’s more about “me” than “we”, yet that is exactly what we saw before the House committee yesterday. We saw these brothers wrapping themselves in that work, the youth and tried to paint those daring to question them as uncaring boors who wanted to deny those in need the privilege of their assistance, as if they were the only ones who could provide it. It’s a smug arrogance that shone through, just as it did in that goofy Cribs appearance. Again it wasn’t about trying to do what was best for those in need, it was all about self-gratification.
So if that video gives us any clue into whatever happened over the past 25 years or so, it looks like it happened further back. This is not a recent development as what we saw from that 2011 video was eerily similar to what we saw yesterday. What bothers me most about all of this is that I’m a big believer in volunteering and giving back. I’m a big believer in working with communities, helping them but above all following their lead and not imposing things on them. I believe that where WE started did come from a good place with a well-meaning goal, something that I think we should want more people to aspire to.
Yet something changed along the way and it appears that this became more about them and less about the people they were there to serve. Because if they were really all about the work and helping people, yesterday they would have gone into that committee with humility and put their own personal pride aside. They would have sacrificed their own ambitions and feelings in order to do better and protect whatever good work they are doing. Instead they aimed to make it all personal. They tried to use those who they serve as a shield to protect themselves rather than to do the truly selfless thing, which would have been to step out front and shield those they serve. They showed their thoughts to be all about them, just as we saw on Cribs. If they wanted us to believe that their motives were not about self-preservation and self-interest, that was a very odd way of trying to do it.