The myth of making a difference

40K is just another exercise in self-serving voluntourism, argues Ajay Sivanathan

Source: 40K Source: 40K

On any given day at the University of Sydney, the beginning of your lecture may be commandeered by someone encouraging you to “make a massive difference” with 40K Globe, a social enterprise based in India. University endorsements of independent groups are rare, but even more so is the six credit points offered to those who take on this offer to be a “Glober”.

The 40K Globe program involves volunteers undertaking a prolonged process to develop a “social business” that villagers in rural India can utilise. Their model reverses the traditional dynamic of charities by having villages pay for the services themselves.

A team of Globers, accompanied by trained team leaders, travel to India over a 17-day period to harness the power of the free market to eradicate poverty. Failing that, they write quirky blog posts like “a sugar addict’s guide to junk food in India”.

40K is not the average charity, because it’s not a charity. In fact, CEO and founder of 40K Globe, Clary Castrission OAM, despises the charity model after he attempted build a school that, after five years, cost much more than the $40 000 initially predicted.

Instead, Globers interview villagers to identify needs, and over a long period of time attempt to create and implement products as solutions. When questioned on his approach, Castrission is adamant that, “by forcing them to put a price on a good and pay for it themselves, enterprise that villagers don’t want will be rejected because they simply can’t afford to waste money.” In this sense, 40K is not the voluntourism popularly despised. Catrission freely admits that this has “pissed volunteers off”.

Castrission’s social enterprise model should not, however, be left without critique. On their website 40K ask, “imagine if you could combine the social footprint of a charity with the commercial principles that underpin good business?” Herein lies the insidious underside to 40K. It’s an organisation that looks to the profiteering free market to solve problems created by the profiteering free market; an approach affirmed by Catrission’s past position as President of the Young Liberals.

Beyond the theory of the social enterprise, there is also little evidence from Globers to say that they give as much as they get in #traction on their new, exotic profile picture. The online presence of 40K Globers is indistinguishable from well-building North Shore kids on their gap year in Tanzania. They still take selfies with poverty-stricken children as a backdrop and caption them #squadgoals.

It’s difficult to sever the orientalism of Globers from the program itself, as the vague platitudes about “making a difference” that make up 40K’s promotional material are a side note to the dominant images of Globers running through fields of colour, wrapped in saris.

The emphasis is therefore on what Globers can get out of the program in travel and CV padding, not on what the program does for the communities. Even past team leader Tom Gibson says “adding to the resume is definitely something that motivates volunteers”.

Most Globers or team leaders were hesitant to speak ill of the organisation. Those that did, John Smith* in particular, had quite a bit to say. Smith agreed that “the kids from Sydney definitely go over there with a ‘party’ mentality.” Smith identified them as “middle class and wealthy white Sydney kids who pay to go and pretend to be some saintly ethical capitalist.”

Whether or not they made a difference is difficult for each Glober to determine, as their project inevitably passes hands a dozen or so times. Smith, for example, said that his jewellery-making project had “pivoted in every iteration”. Likewise, ex-Glober Kundai Khuleya said explicitly, “whether we made impact, positive or negative, at this level I would say no”.

Attracting Sydney’s elite is in fact part of the business model. With a hefty $2600 price tag on a 40K trip, it’s hardly accessible. Castrission does not see that as a problem, as he is “happy to charge a premium on the Globe product if the money goes into improving solutions for villagers”. Similarly, Smith conceded, “as long as the money ends up in the school, it’s a good program, even if it’s masturbatory egotism on the part of the kids who go over.”

The perspective that is still lacking is that of the villagers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Honi could only receive quotes from 40K on their behalf. Apparently Vara Lakshmi of the Mylanahalli village has said “it doesn’t matter that we don’t know anything about where you’re from or who you are. We will treat you like our daughters, like our children.” Undoubtedly a choice quote for the website, but it says very little about 40K’s impact.

It’s difficult to find the truth when 40K – like any corporation – is protected by its marketing department. There are undoubtedly merits to 40K as it does attempt to harness the acumen of tertiary students (unlike school building projects), but to consider it a radical rethink of voluntourism would be incorrect. The pull of the organisation is a chance to travel, meet friends and to think your three-week trip will dismantle the shackles of poverty. In reality, the impact still hinges on the principles of the fallible free market.