Harming, Not Helping

Volunteers pose with locals.


Volunteers pose with locals.

Megan Munce, Online Editor

A staple of modern day Instagram and Facebook feeds is various photos with long, reflective captions of high-schoolers and adults abroad having life changing experiences while building homes and orphanages in foreign countries.

Volunteer tourism–more often shortened to voluntourism–is the practice of well-off residents of Western countries travelling to destitute communities abroad to do service such as building structures or delivering donated goods, often through their school or a church program.

However, behind kind smiles and inspiring stories is a harmful industry that not only fails to help, but often abuses the citizens of these countries in the name of making wealthy Westerners feel good about themselves because they helped others (or attempted to) for a week out of the year.

Voluntourism is stained by stories of volunteers who hamper rather than help progress. In America, no one would ever as an 15-year-old to build a functional home for a six-person family, but when travelling to third world countries they are entrusted as skilled laborers.

This escalates to the commonplace practice of locals deconstructing the work of volunteers overnight and rebuilding it by the morning, rendering the work done by the volunteers not only useless, but an active hindrance to the ability of locals to complete the work.

However, work by voluntourists ranges from an unnecessary setback to actively doing harm to the communities in which they volunteer. Third world countries often fall prey to high school and college students finding an easy way to artificially gain experience for their resumes without going through the vetting process required in America.

These people often over-exaggerate their skill sets to turn themselves from an everyday pre-med student to a regular Albert Schweitzer. The Scientific American recounts a story of a girl who travelled to Tanzania claiming to be an experienced medical student. Only later, doctors on the site discovered she was an undergraduate student with no training that was delivering babies without assistance and actively harming both the mother and the child.

Vice reports that each year in Tanzania, there are twice as many foreign volunteers as trained health professionals. These voluntourists crowd out the work of actual doctors, who allow them to do work because of the financial incentives associated with doing so.

Significantly, this anecdotal proof that voluntourists put little thought into what actual contributions they’ll be making when they travel abroad is the 21st century’s version of the white man’s burden. Financially comfortable residents of Western countries travel to third world communities under the pretense of helping, but more often abuse these opportunities to pad their own resumes and social media feeds with claims about how much the experience changed their lives.

Just taking a look at the captions of photos of high school students posing with malnourished children reveals that their thoughts are very rarely positioned towards encouraging others to contribute their assistance and are almost always solely self-glorifying.

The Scientific American reports that each year, $4 billion is spent on the medical voluntourism industry alone. However, there are a number of better alternatives to spending thousands of dollars to contribute next to nothing.

Pippa Biddle, Youth NGO Representative to the UN for the Jane Goodall Institute, suggests using the money you’d be spending on flights and lodging to instead fund NGOs that hire locals to do the jobs, creating jobs that help break the cycle of poverty and ensuring that the job is trusted to those who have the necessary skills.

If you still want to volunteer one-on-one with others, you can volunteer locally in places where your skills are more applicable. Not only does this no longer waste time and effort, but you can make real change by utilizing your ability to speak with the elderly or tutor low-income children and by building long term relationships with them.