Travel

Why I No Longer Volunteer Abroad

Why I no longer volunteer abroad

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.

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 impactful and life changing FOR ME and ONLY me, not the people I was supposedly helping.

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 explored the country’s many beautiful destinations in addition to spending time at two orphanages. The first orphanage we visited was outside of Chiang Mai, and we were immediately rushed 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.

why i no longer volunteer abroad

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 necessary. Now, I am able to recognize it for what it was: 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.  At one point we helped them tye-dye shirts which we then took home as souvenirs (?!). This time, at least, we donated a suitcase full of school supplies. Did we really need to travel all this way to bring them colored pencils? No, probably not. Other than donating school supplies, we handed out “Friendship Bracelets of Hope,” which had messages on them that were not written in a language these kids 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 of 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 an air-conditioned presentation room (which exists solely for visitors). Next, we toured the facilities. Interesting enough, the children’s accommodations were much poorer quality than the nice visitors quarters we were in earlier. Finally, we were given the opportunity to paint a wall. Sounds familiar, right? Could it be possible that volunteer groups around the world were all painting walls, or was this just a freaky coincidence? After the wall painting, we were assigned a classroom to “help.” It turns out that we only were distractions in the classroom. 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. 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.

Why i no longer volunteer abroad

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:

  • Iva Soldo

    Well said. Had similar experiences.

  • I totally agree – service trips right now tend to switch their focus from serving the children to providing a good experience to the volunteers, and this really deviates from the real purpose of a service trip. I am very inspired by your advice!
    – Sabrina | StudentsToolbox.com

  • It breaks my heart that you had this experience, and that people are exploiting the good intentions of others in order to make a profit. However, I don’t think all organizations are like this – you just have to pick the right ones. I had a complete opposite experience – I went to Panama with Global Brigades and was able to take the vitals of patients, assist with their dental care, and fill their prescriptions at no charge to the locals. I truly felt as though I was making a difference, though it may have been small. I hope you don’t write off volunteering abroad for good; I think that when done right, you can truly have an impact on the community you serve.
    – katrina // Yours Truly, Katrina

    • That’s so awesome, thanks for sharing you’re experience! I completely agree that volunteering can be rewarding and valuable! The best thing you can do is research the company/cause before volunteering to make sure that the right people are benefiting. Unfortunately, the programs I was involved in were geared more towards the western tourists than to the local communities. Thanks for reading!

  • Great points! Volunteering usually sounds better than it turns out to be. I think there could be better experiences to be had. However, it takes a lot of work from organizations, schools, individuals, and the community in need to communicate about what exactly needs to be done. Often the community is never asked what they want or need. Did they want that wall painted? Doubtful! However, if they did, then you were doing a great service to them. This can be seen outside of the volunteer world as well. Rich people/universities often swoop in and spend lots of money to look good without ever consulting what the people actually need. Sorry for the novel!

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment! I completely agree that the community need is often not addressed in these volunteer situations. It’s great when the community is in sync with the volunteer organizations, but this doesn’t always happen.

  • Melanie

    you’ve made such great points in this post. I’ve been considering volunteering abroad since high school, but this post definitely made me think otherwise. I think if I do choose to volunteer abroad with a company called workaway. Essentially, it’s a company that puts you in touch with people from around the world who need help farming, learning english, etc. This way, you know that the work you are going to be doing is helpful & not busy work!! Plus, you get the full cultural experience. Love this post!
    – Melanie
    themelanierose.com

    • Thanks for reading! I LOVE workaway! They do a great job making sure you’re paired with a legit awesome business/family!