Behind the Book with Pippa Biddle

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Spring 2021 Newsletter, i.e.

Pippa Biddle is a writer based in the Hudson Valley. Her work has been published by numerous publications, including the AtlanticGuernicaAMC OutdoorsMaine Magazine, and Wired. She is the author of upcoming Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism (Potomac Books, 2021).

Pippa Biddle:

The drive from the airport to the orphanage was hot, dusty, and decidedly uncomfortable. Our van had seen its best years a decade prior, and I shifted in my seat in search of a perch without a pronounced spring until finally accepting that it was what it was, and there was nothing I could do about it.

That would become the motto of the voluntourism trip to Tanzania I took in 2009, between my junior and senior years of high school. Over and over again, when I found myself in unexpectedly uncomfortable situations, I would try to find a more forgiving position before hearing that it was what it was.

When I learned that the girls at the orphanage were served less nutritious food than we
received, I was told it was what it was.

When I heard that the girls were frequently denied medical care, I was told it was what it was.

When I saw the unfinished projects left behind by other volunteer groups, I was told it was what it was.

When our own work was taken down and redone while we were sleeping, I was told it was what it was.

Voluntourism, the combination of short-term volunteer work and tourism, is a multibillion-dollar industry that ferries millions of people around the world to “make a difference” each year. Unfortunately, trip provider promises rarely pan out.

But I didn’t know this in 2009, and I certainly didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate nor understand my own misgivings. So, I kept trying the same formula for creating change: go places, help people, and then inspire others to follow my lead.

From my preteens into my early twenties, that formula felt good. Then, seemingly overnight, in the winter of 2014, the sweet taste of playing savior turned sour in my mouth. A quickly penned and frankly worded blog post I titled, “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist,” summed up my frustrations. When I pressed “publish,” I had no idea it would resonate with millions of readers.

With a rapidity only possible in the digital age, I became known as a voluntourism “expert” despite no credentials to my name other than the hubris of a college dropout with a viral blog post. In preparation for speeches and lectures, I assigned myself homework. I dug
through studies and articles on voluntourism, international aid, and religious missions. I
devoured accounts from former voluntourists, trip leaders, and host community members.
I also interviewed researchers and development professionals. Slowly I earned the title I’d been given after one blog post.

Finding stories is easy. Finding truths, I have learned is not. . . dressing up harm in the robes of do-goodery is a toxic practice that furthers discrimination, abuse, and even child trafficking.”

After I decided to turn what I’d uncovered about voluntourism into a book, I knew it had to be more than a white woman confessing her do-gooding sins and begging others to do differently. It had to carry weight, so the years between the idea for Ours to Explore and when I completed the manuscript were filled with accumulating even more ballast.

While learning how humans try, and often fail, to create positive change, I became especially fascinated by the link between the early days of global mass tourism in the Victorian era and voluntourism today. I was not surprised to learn that past colonial empires would play a role in the power dynamics of present-day voluntourism. And yet, identifying colonialism as an unbroken thread gave me a trail to follow and, eventually, the narrative arc that forms the spine of Ours to Explore.

However, the voluntourism of today is best observed on the ground. This posed a problem. I knew from my own experiences what the most popular voluntourism projects look like, and I didn’t need any more barefoot children to run toward me to know how it felt. Furthermore, I didn’t want to exacerbate the problems I spotlight in Ours to Explore by putting myself back in the middle of them.

By conducting my research from home, I faced a variety of challenges. Sometimes the
people who are the most willing to talk aren’t those one should be quickest to trust. Memory, too, is fallible, and while vivid storytelling requires texture, relying on a source to remember the weather three years prior is a large ask. While I wrote the book, I had to be willing to scrap compelling tales when I discovered they didn’t have teeth. Finding stories is easy. Finding truths, I have learned, is not. Over time, I was able to verify startling stories from around the world, from Kenyan orphanages and Haitian clinics to Greek refugee processing centers and the New Jersey coast.

Voluntourism may not be the greatest crime on Planet Earth, but dressing up harm in the
robes of do-goodery is a toxic practice that furthers discrimination, abuse, and even child
trafficking. Ours to Explore offers readers an opportunity to challenge their preconceptions of what “doing good” looks like and to find catharsis in the stories of others who’ve tried so hard to make a difference, only to discover that sometimes the best way to step up is to step back.

UNP Editor in Chief Bridget Barry Responds:

I was familiar with voluntourism and its repercussions before Pippa Biddle’s proposal arrived in my inbox, so I was excited to learn more about her project. Biddle’s thoughtful connections between voluntourism and its historical roots appealed to my historian side, and her experiences as a voluntourist added a personal angle to the story.

After Pippa completed a draft of the manuscript, one of the challenges I faced as her editor was balancing her and other voluntourists’ stories, the historical background of voluntourism, details about the voluntourism industry today, and the lessons we should draw from all of this information. Pippa had an amazing amount and depth of material, so she and I worked hard to hold the manuscript to a reasonable length while building a narrative that would keep readers turning the pages. While the negative consequences of voluntourism are a primary focus of the book, Pippa is careful to retain an optimistic outlook on how to create a better volunteer structure that can meaningfully serve those in need.

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