This is a difficult article to write, and I think I will offend a great many people. I want to preface it by saying that I’ve been there – I’ve participated in many volunteer abroad programs (some which charged me a hefty fee, and others I found for free). I’ll speak to some of the more harmful experiences I’ve had, but I want to make it clear that, for the most part, I believe the principles that motivate people to participate in these programs are good and honorable. I’m not so cynical as to believe that these opportunities solely exist for us to feel good about ourselves and take cute pictures, but even at its best, voluntourism is usually misguided and ineffective.
I once volunteered at a baby home in South America. After my morning Spanish lessons, I would go there every day for four hours to play with the children, change diapers, and help with feedings. One child became very attached to me – after a few weeks, he refused to let anyone else dress or feed him when I was around. He would hobble over to me every time he saw me, and refuse to leave my side. I became very attached to him, too, and even started harboring unrealistic dreams of adopting him (I was 18 and had not yet begun college, so I recognized even at the time how absurd this was, but I loved him). The women who worked at this home saw how much we had bonded, and they told me that I would need to begin rejecting him, in order to make it easier on him when I left. This didn’t make sense to me – it seemed that my rejection of him would be much crueler than just leaving him (I doubt a two year old could really miss me anyways, and I’m sure he didn’t remember me long after I left). I listened to them, though – these women knew the children better than I did, they had worked in the baby home for many years and seen many foreigners come and go. When the child came to me, I began to walk away. I would dress and feed and play with other children, and deliberately ignore him. The other women tended to him and I ignored my impulse to soothe him every time he cried. I still feel awful about it – I wish I had protested more, because I think it was a lousy thing that I did to him, all in a misguided attempt to protect him.
This situation was difficult for me, but I felt pretty certain at the time that I was still doing something good and noble. The more I thought about it, though, the more it became clear to me that my presence (and the presence of many dozens of foreigners who had come before me) was potentially exacerbating an already tough situation.
What didn’t strike me until much later, though, was how little effort was made to find out about me and my motives before allowing me to come volunteer in the baby home. I paid a fee, answered five short questions, and was immediately placed. Maybe they felt that 18 year old girls were probably not the people they needed to be concerned about, but every so often we read about pedophiles in Southeast Asia, fueled by the prospect of unencumbered access to kids, who were able to keep a low profile – or even maintain a guise of benevolence – while harming local children. That’s exactly what happened last year, when a British orphanage owner was arrested for sexual assault of children under his care in Cambodia. If you were a parent, you wouldn’t allow foreign strangers to come stay in your home with unfettered access to your kids for hours each day, at least not without thoroughly vetting them beforehand. Yet this is exactly what for-profit volunteer organizations allow when they accept unvetted foreigners into their programs, and allow them to play with children and then leave them them whenever the urge strikes.
Many organizations want to turn a profit, and they don’t make efforts to find out where their money is coming from or what our motives are. I know the vast majority of you readers are not pedophiles, and many of you are likely thinking, “yeah, that’s terrible – but I’m not part of the problem, I would never harm a child.” And I believe that – most of us would never knowingly harm a child, but by supporting agencies which exist to turn a profit without any regard for the local children, we’re still complicit. Furthermore, my experience in Chile made it clear to me that even the most well-intentioned volunteers can cause damage; it can’t be good for children to form bonds with us and then watch us come and go, when locals could form lasting relationships with them. Even worse, many tour operators offer the opportunity for visitors to pop into a “third world” orphanage for an afternoon, to gawk and take pictures as if they’re visiting animals at the zoo. These children need stability (and privacy in their own home) – we would never want this sort of situation for children in the states, and the fact that many of us participate in it abroad is reprehensible.
Other popular voluntourism organizations lure us with beautiful pictures of beaches and cute animals. “Save the coastline!”, they tell us. “Protect endangered sea turtles!” But we all know what complete tripe that is, don’t we? On some level, we recognize that no matter how many trees we plant, we really can’t make amends for the carbon footprint involved with just getting us there in the first place. Still, we’re placated by these activities – at the very least, we’re “offsetting” the damage we’re doing. But is that enough? Is that really something to pat ourselves on the back about? If the best we can hope for is to offset the damage we’re doing, it seems unfair to dump all our misplaced Western guilt on poor people.
So, it’s fair to say that most of the voluntourism agencies I’ve come across are no good, and we’ve seen why paying to volunteer might not be the best course of action. Furthermore, a lot of people get aggravated that programs require we pay to volunteer. I’ve heard countless people complaining about the absurdity of having to pay to work, but the sad truth is, sometimes the only good we can really do is with our money. What’s ludicrous is the number of unskilled people who really think they should be paid to work in orphanages or build homes abroad. When an organization can afford to pay for work, they can and should employ locals, not 18 year old foreigners who know next to nothing.
And some of you might be thinking, “yeah, but isn’t it the thought that counts?” The answer is no. Nice thoughts won’t give orphans stable and healthy living environments, nor will they provide people with clean drinking water and homes and jobs. A nice thought will help wealthy foreigners feel good about ourselves, but it’s not what really counts. Others will say, “but volunteering abroad was one of the most edifying and memorable experiences of my life. I got so much out of it!” and I don’t doubt that, because I can relate. But doesn’t that show that these opportunities really boil down to our self-centered desires?
So what can you do if you really do want to help out?
1. This will be an unpopular answer, but you can donate money to respected, well-established local charities. Your money can probably go a long way towards helping to employ locals, many of whom will be able to do the job you’re doing much more effectively than you could. You won’t get to take home a bunch of cute pictures of yourself with a slew of impoverished children, but if that’s your motivation, you really should stay home anyways.
2. This will be another unpopular answer, but volunteer locally. I promise you don’t have to travel far to find people in need. I know helping out at your local soup kitchen won’t provide you with the same stories as a trip to Thailand to scoop up elephant poop or a month volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa, but they probably need you just as badly, you probably can better commit to long-term engagement, you’ll know the culture and local needs a good bit better, and your carbon footprint will be almost nothing. You’ll also be able to stick around and see positive changes in your own community, and that is awesome.
3. If you have a skill, absolutely, donate your time and energy. I participated in a Habitat for Humanity trip abroad (in which they: used asbestos as insulation, repeatedly referred to the home recipients [publicly and sanctimoniously] as “needy”, and used our free labor to fund non-Habitat for Humanity homes. But I digress.) It took the supervisors a great deal of time and energy to train us, and I don’t think they were compensated by the labor we did. What made me feel qualified to build houses, when it took me and many of the other volunteers hours to accomplish what skilled locals could do in 15 minutes? What ugly unexamined assumptions was I harboring about what it entails to be American and relatively wealthy? How much actual good could we have accomplished had we taken the money we spent on our trips and donated it to an organization which employs locals to build homes for families in need?
However, a few of the trip participants were trained carpenters, and they were able to genuinely help out. Were there skilled local carpenters who could have done the same work? Absolutely – but few would have done it for free, much less at their own expense. On the same note, I’ve also taught English abroad in a few countries, mostly short-term. I might speak with a clearer accent than local teachers, but speaking a language is not the same as knowing how to teach a language and, furthermore, I have no idea how to prepare lesson plans or command a formal classroom. I don’t think great benefit was obtained from my classes, either, and it doesn’t provide students with a stable classroom environment to have drifters coming and going every few weeks, and no syllabus can maintain any sort of coherency when teachers are coming and going willy-nilly. If you’re a trained teacher, though, and willing to give up a year or a semester of your time, by all means put your skills to use. Those with a medical background can also do real good with organizations like Doctors Without Borders, but if you’re an unskilled teenager wanting to change the world, you’re probably not going to do it by spending a few weeks voluntouring in between pub crawls and museum visits.
4. Plant a tree and grow a garden in your own backyard – no carbon offset required, and you’ll actually get to enjoy the fruits of your own labor!
5. Travel anyways. Forget about volunteering altogether, just travel to support local businesses, bolster local economies, and learn from people who might not share the same worldview as you do. Travel to learn – learn their language, learn their culture and history, learn about the systems which keep people poor. Then, maybe, in the future, you’ll be in a position to teach.
6. If you really, really want to volunteer abroad, and you know of a solid organization and are confident in your ability to help, look for long-term opportunities. It will take a while for you to be trained, and even longer for you to get good at the work you’re doing. The idea of a 2-week holiday abroad really doing any good is complete bull, but 6 months or a year might be enough time for you to get really good at the work you need to do.
Read more here on the harms of visiting orphanages. Have you volunteered abroad? Do you know of any really great organizations that deserve a shout-out, or have any suggestions for people who really want to make the world we live in just a little bit better? I’d love to hear about them.