Yuan: Good Intentions, Ill Effects

by Ziqin Yuan | 6/1/15 6:35pm

Many students, here and elsewhere, participate in “voluntourism” trips during their college careers, which combine volunteer work and tourism to bring students from the United States to generally less developed countries such as Peru or Thailand. Overseas volunteering programs are quite popular — even a school as small as this one has multiple programs that send students to other countries, such as Medlife, the Dandelion Project, GlobeMed and many Tucker Foundation programs. The question remains, however, as to how much good students realistically contribute through these programs. It is important be sure volunteer work is truly benefits the community, or at the very least causes no harm.

Voluntourism seems like a good idea in theory — students can help improve communities in need, and in exchange receive a vacation experience unlike any other. Many programs, however, do more harm than good. They often waste or misplace resources, create more problems than they solve and enhance the feelings of cultural superiority from which U.S. citizens already suffer.

A primary issue with voluntourism is that the volunteers generally are not qualified in what the program is trying to accomplish, and as such ultimately misuse money and resources that could have gone directly to communities in need. Pippa Diddle, a contributor to various online news outlets, wrote on her personal blog about her high school voluntourism trip to Tanzania, which aimed to build a library at an orphanage. The trip, she wrote, was so counterproductive that each night a group of local men had to take down her group’s work and rebuild it so the students were unaware of their failure. The inefficiency and waste of resources is easy enough to spot.

This problem occurs because many volunteers do not possess the necessary skills to complete tasks. One flaw is the duration of volunteering trips. Many programs offer short, two-week trips where the volunteers can work on a project and leave. Medlife, for example, allows students to go to various countries during interim periods.

With such short programs, though, students do not always have the training or expertise to make a difference — and even if they do, the difference is often not long-lasting and may harm the community. A former teaching volunteer interviewed for a July 2011 CNN story on voluntourism noted that after a while she “realized how much wrong there was with the organization.” She witnessed that some volunteers “stayed as little as two weeks,” which disrupted the learning environment for children and ultimately taught them nothing new. It is as if the community ostensibly being helped was instead helping the volunteers by providing them with a feel-good experience, regardless of the true impact of the volunteer work.

There is also a clear undertone of cultural superiority. In Diddle’s Tanzania trip, the community, instead of being able to make good use of the money and volunteers, was compelled to fix their shoddy job in secret. It may have been more beneficial to give local community figures money, let them use it where needed and then monitor them to ensure funds went to the right places. Voluntourism promotes the idea that people from a more developed society should swoop in to save those in a less developed society. This type of attitude acts as a barrier to cultural connections by discouraging communication and constructive coordination between volunteers and the community they are supposedly serving. Moreover, it rests on the assumption that local community members are incapable of independently improving their own community.

In the end, many voluntourism programs only succeed in giving volunteers an impressive line on resumes and an opportunity to travel abroad — all the while feeling good about themselves. Kirk Gillock, founder of the nonprofit volunteer organization the Isara Foundation, may have summed it up best when he said that doing good should not be a “photo opportunity for a fee.”

As spring term comes to an end and students are preparing to begin their summer plans, this distinction is even more imperative. There is nothing wrong with going to different countries, yet it is important to assess the impact your trip can have on the community that hosts you. If you are volunteering, you should think critically about whether your work is helpful or ultimately counterproductive.