As a high schooler, I traveled to a few different countries in Southeast Asia as a volunteer. My classmates and I led camps, constructed buildings and handed out food and medicine to locals.
The experiences were good for me. They taught me about other cultures, helped me to bond with my friends and fueled my desire to help other people; the intense poverty of the places I visited broke my heart and increased my ability to understand those in different life situations than my own. I grew as a result of these travels.
Still, I can’t help but question if these trips were more beneficial to the people I interacted with or to myself. Service trips, while they can do good, can also waste money, disrespect local culture and encourage a savior mentality.
According to the Doctor’s Channel, a medical service trip trip to Tanzania can cost about $3,200 per person. If six people were to go on this two-week trip, the costs would be equivalent to a local doctor’s annual salary. The money that my classmates and I spent doing construction work could have easily been used to pay a local group to complete the project. Not only would the job have gotten done, but it also would have allowed those who needed money to earn it.
The service organization Voluntary Service Overseas argues that individuals who do not have training as doctors, teachers or other occupations with direct skills should not be serving overseas; they take up unnecessary space. Instead, the organization only sends trained, skilled individuals to other nations.
Just as a group of high schoolers or students taking gap years cannot be expected to complete a project as well as a local group can, they also cannot be expected to understand nuances of local culture. In my experiences, the leaders of my trips tried their best to make sure that we were polite and sensitive to the people we were visiting. Still, we could not have learned everything.
From hand gestures and communication styles to beliefs about the ways men and women should relate, countries around the world have different ways of interacting. When traveling, respecting these cultural differences is important.
In her article “The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism,” Pippa Biddle writes about the difficulties of being respectful to another culture during a short-term trip.
“I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning,” she writes. “I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”
Short-term service trips are often used as a way to feel good about oneself. The Instagram account Barbie Savior mocks the way some individuals approach their trips. It features pictures of Barbie posing with impoverished children, teaching in a classroom and doing manual (but not difficult) labor. Though the account takes things to the extreme, it reflects the self-serving and attention-seeking aspect of service trips.
Volunteering abroad should not be a way to escape “real life.” It should not be a way to bring attention to your humanitarianism. In every way, from finances to the mentality behind them, trips should be about serving others.
In his article “Against the Cult of Travel,” Brett McKay cautions individuals of this thinking.
“Many people hope that traveling will help them change or find themselves, but if you can’t become the person you want to be right where you are, then you won’t be able to do it when you’re 5,000 miles distant,” he writes. “Because, of course, wherever you go, you bring yourself along with you.”
Before you consider going abroad, look for ways to serve your community, ask yourself if you are truly needed overseas and evaluate your motivation for going. Service is important, so be sure you do so effectively — whether overseas or in your hometown.
Collegian Digital Managing Editor Hannah Ditzenberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @hditzenberger.