I usually don’t talk about my personal perspectives on this blog, but this has been biting at me for a long while now. As many of you already know, I’m approaching the end of my undergrad career. I am constantly bombarded by questions like “what do you want to do next?” and “what are your plans for the next few months?” While sharing with some of my classmates, I’ve learned that many of them plan to travel, and even more of them plan to volunteer abroad. There is a widespread misconception that one of the best ways to help fight poverty is to spend an extravagent amount of money on a trip across the world to volunteer abroad. What many people don’t consider, however, is that many of these well-intentioned trips can do more harm than good. Here’s why I no longer volunteer abroad.
I have volunteered abroad twice, and both experiences left a bad taste in my mouth. I was unable to articulate this discomfort until I read Pippa Biddle’s post on Huffiginton Post titled “The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism.” For the first time, I didn’t feel completely alone in my dissatisfaction as a volunteer. There seems to be a taboo around admitting that some volunteer experience, however well intentioned, is not helpful. It’s not that these experiences weren’t impactful or life changing. They were! The problem is that they were impacting and life changing FOR ME and ONLY me, not the people I was supposedly helping.
To better explain, I’ll share my personal experiences as a volunteer abroad. I am lucky enough to have been able to travel extensively in my short lifetime. My first big trip abroad was to Thailand on a “service trip” with my all-girls boarding school. This trip cost each of us somewhere around $2500, and I received a substantial scholarship in order to afford this experience. Our trip would take us from Bangkok to Phuket, and we would explore the country’s many tourist destinations in addition to spending time at two orphanages. The first orphanage we visited for the day was outside of Chiang Mai, and I remember immediately being ushered into a classroom where we were given a brief history of the operation. Then, we were told we would be painting a wall. At first, this sounded amazing. We would be revitalizing the drab orphanage with an inspirational mural or design! Of course, the reality was much less empowering.
Above, you can see me and a friend painting said wall. Notice how the color is basically the same shade of orange as before. This was not an inspirational mural, nor was it in any way impactful. Now, I recognize it for what it is: busy work. We were a group of privileged boarding-school girls. We had NOTHING of value to offer these children. We were not teachers, we were not doctors, we were not even good at painting that wall. In theory, the orphanage was receiving a percentage of the profit from the tour group, thus they felt obligated to provide us with a mundane chore so we could leave feeling accomplished. After we painted the wall for essentially no reason but to make a mess, we interacted with the kids for a few hours before driving off to our luxurious resort.
The second orphanage we visited was very much the same. We got a tour of the facility and interacted with the kids, and we helped them tye-dye shirts which we then took home as souvenirs (?!). This time, at least, we donated a massive suitcase full of school supplies. Did we really need to travel all this way to bring them colored pencils? No, probably not. But this, at least, was something positive. Other than donating school supplies, we handed out “Friendship Bracelets of Hope,” which had messages on them that weren’t even written in a language the children could understand. At the time, it felt as though we were actually making a serious impact in these children’s lives. We talked about how they would wear their “Bracelets of Hope” for years. We imaged how they would always remember us, the girls from America who they met for an hour or so. Most likely those bracelets were forgotten just as soon as we drove off, yet again to our fancy accommodations on the beach.
Fast forward two years and I am spending the day at an orphanage in Ghana. Once again, I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to travel the world through Semester at Sea. Supposedly, one of the best parts of the experience is the plethora or volunteer opportunities. I only participated in one, so I can’t speak for them all. However, my experience in Ghana was eerily similar to my time in Thailand.
First, we were ushered into a presentation room (which exists solely for visitors) and next we got a tour of the facilities. Finally, we were given the opportunity to paint a wall. Sounds familiar, right? The mention of the wall immediately struck an uncomfortable chord with me. Could it be possible that volunteer groups around the world were all painting walls, or is this just a freaky coincidence? After the wall painting, we were assigned a classroom to “help.” Not only were these instructions vague, they were also impossible. It turns out that the only thing we were capable of doing in the classroom was being a giant distraction. I actually had to be reassigned to a different classroom because the students were just unable to focus while another girl and I hovered awkwardly in the corner, unsure what to do. The next classroom wasn’t much better, as I have virtually zero teaching skills and could do little more than cut out shapes for an art project. It ended sooner rather than later since the school probably wanted to actually accomplish something other than entertaining privileged American’s that day.
Once again, we drove back to our luxury cruise ship accommodations, seeing indescribable poverty through the glass of an air conditioned bus. I left that volunteer experience feeling confused. I shared these feelings with some of my friends on the ships, finding that I wasn’t the only one thinking something wasn’t right about these “service” trips. In the picture below, I’m “saving the world” in Thailand and Ghana. While it was great to interact with the local kids, I knew I was actually contributing nothing of value, and merely spent a few hours getting in the way.
It has been a few years since my time in Ghana, but I have done a lot of research since. It turns out that I’m not alone in my skepticism of volunteer tourism. My Facebook feed is always full of pictures of other college students and their “volunteer” trips. I’m not criticizing these students or their photos. I’ve taken them myself, and I know that it can be hard to distinguish between wanting to do good and actually doing good.
It is this western desire to do good that actually harms these struggling populations. For instance, volunteering with children in orphanages on short-term trips can actually exacerbate emotional issues, as they see a stream of people constantly coming and going in their lives. Additionally, very few short-term tourists (college students in particular) are actually qualified for the jobs they wish to perform.
Unfortunately, a lot of companies profit from westerners who wish to volunteer abroad. This is at the expense of the people the westerners wish to help with their aid. Similar to poverty tourism, which also profits of the exploitation of poor populations, there is a lot consider before paying a hefty deposit to a service organization. Some orphanages merely purchase children from impoverished families in order to attract western tourists hoping to pay to volunteer. Statistics show that 1/5 children in orphanages are not orphans, rather, they have been trafficked into these organizations in order to lure western volunteers. Paying to volunteer abroad also harms the local economies where tradesmen and producers are unable to find work or make a profit due to western intervention. This is the darker side of volunteer tourism that rarely receives the attention it deserves.
So how do you help? I recognize that some people will continue to volunteer abroad. In that case, I urge you to do your research about the organization you are supporting. Also, keep in mind that some trips are better left to more qualified workers such as medical professionals or educators. Consider if the money you wish to put towards a trip abroad could be better spent donating to a legitimate and helpful organization. For instance, if the students at my boarding school had used the money ($2500+) we spent on our trip to Thailand on actually supporting orphanages and children in Thailand. Imagine the positive impact that could have! Also, don’t forget that you don’t have to travel across the world to make an impact. There is always the need for service within your local community. Volunteering always comes from a desire to help, but remember it’s about more than painting walls and taking pictures with kids.
If you’re interested in learning more on volunteer tourism, here are some excellent articles and resources:
- The Voluntourist’s Dilemma (New York Times Magazine)
- The Reality of Voluntourism and the Conversation We’re Not Having (The Muse)
- How to Ethically Volunteer Anywhere in the World (Nomadic Matt)
- The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad (Newsweek)
- Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask (Uncornered Market)