Whether it’s celebrities or ordinary teens with an organized secular group, the practice of traveling outside the United States for a service trip has become a widespread practice — and a multi-billion dollar industry. While this activity seems noble, the voluntourism industry often serves as a feel-good activity that doesn’t address problems at their roots.
Indeed, the sheer cost of traveling abroad limits the pool of eligible volunteers and often serves as a guilt absolver for wealthy individuals.
In Jacob Kushner’s New York Times Magazine piece, he encourages those considering volunteering “to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills.”
Volunteering abroad can often exploit the communities it claims to help. We have all seen the social media posts gushing about how voluntourists’ hearts have been changed by the children who demonstrated unparalleled joy because of their gracious help. These comments are then paired with a posed picture of said child with volunteer. While I am not accusing every volunteer of exploitation, the self-congratulatory nature of showcasing one’s good deeds comes off as insincere as they appear to care more about the perception of their work rather than the work itself.
But even more concerning than superficial social media posts is the lack of follow-through. For example, while providing medical care to those in less developed communities appears to be a magnanimous, beneficial effort, it has the potential to cause more harm than good if the volunteers aren’t properly trained — and they often aren’t. The Scientific American recounts an example of this danger occuring in Tanzania, in which volunteers with no medical training performed medical procedures like circumcisions and delivering babies unassisted, often to the detriment of their patients.
The practice is comparable to historically exploitative Christian mission trips. Less overt than simply building Western churches in these communities, some voluntourism projects pair development with Bible readings and prayers, connecting receiving necessary infrastructure to conversion. In the modern context, obviously not all volunteer trips are bad or maliciously intended, but in order to sever the ties between the modern rendition of the practice and its destructive, violent past, those who take part in volunteering abroad must interrogate the rationale behind the trips. This practice is self-serving when the main goal of the trip is conversion.
Further, one must question the significance of the volunteers’ work. While I agree that small, incremental steps to larger change are important short-term, my concern is that by focusing on small, gratifying projects, we continue to put off longer-term goals, breeding a perpetual cycle complacency.
Kushner concludes in his piece: “Unless you’re willing to devote your career to studying international affairs and public policy” or research “the mistakes that foreign charities have made while acting upon good intentions … perhaps volunteering abroad is not for you.” Rather than simply going for a week to build infrastructure, I urge volunteers to really interrogate their motivations and think beyond a single service trip, whether it is in their own communities or abroad.
Volunteer work doesn’t excuse people from their responsibility to address the global wealth disparity. It’s a band-aid that doesn’t absolve people from confronting the underlying causes of poverty.
Madison Stephens (21C) is from Little Rock, Ark.