As spring break approaches, many are probably looking forward to sitting poolside or sleeping off the semester thus far, but a growing number of students are actually gearing up to volunteer. Taking a week or two off of school, work or break to paint primary schools, work in orphanages or teach English abroad is one of the most popular trends in travel. While some criticize volunteers for padding their résumés and exacerbating community issues, others support the cause for the promotion of intercultural understanding, personal growth and doing meaningful work abroad. So, as approximately 1.6 million volunteers, or “voluntourists” as they are called, embark each year to far off destinations, the question becomes: is voluntourism harmful or helpful? The answer lies in how you help.
Avoid the savior relationship: This one was initially hard for me to understand. What could be more altruistic than wanting to help? That is, until I had a handful of professors kindly point out that walking into a community with the intention of “helping” often reinforces a power dynamic that places volunteers in the role of savior and locals in the role of victims in need of liberation. This can be simultaneously dehumanizing and disempowering. While it is tempting to want to have an answer to the wounds of the world, it is more beneficial to be there to share in the work and learn. Meeting a community or individual where they are in partnership bypasses the presumptions of “helping” and reinforces connections on more common ground.
Make sure the project is participatory: A similarly presumptuous pitfall is assuming that volunteers and organizations know what the problems in a given community are and how to address them. Volunteers come from a background of relative privilege — a particular vantage point through which to interpret the problems of a given community. However, locals may define needs differently. Allowing the community to participate in defining the issue and solution, and working towards it, leads to more fitting and lasting results. However, this kind of community partnership usually takes more than a week to cultivate, placing importance on organizations that have established a reputation for participatory community development.
Take time to learn about and identify the real problems: Ignorance might seem like bliss, but one of the goals of voluntourists nowadays is to educate themselves about global issues through experience. Instead of assuming that social problems exist in a vacuum and their only source of relief is a flood of well-intentioned volunteers, it is crucial to take time to examine issues like poverty and think critically about how they fit into the bigger picture. Many of the privileges the first-world benefits from are tied to the poverty that the third world experiences. It may not be pretty, but this is one way to address the roots of poverty instead of sticking a band-aid on hunger and heading home.
Make sure that your presence in the community is positive: No one wants to feel like a zoo animal or museum exhibit in their own community or home. This is something that seems intuitive, but that I personally did not understand until I imagined what I would feel like having groups of foreigners come through my neighborhood and marveling at how unfortunate I am. This can be an unfortunate repercussion of some voluntourism programs that funnel new batches of wide-eyed volunteers in every other week. When evaluating it realistically, if a program is doing more for its volunteers than for the community, it is probably time for them to pack up and go home.
Voluntourism can be a unique opportunity to learn, grow and make connections, but it can also be an opportunity to exacerbate inequalities, and mask colonialist ventures as “doing good” for the global community. While intentions (save those of whom simply want to boost résumés while lounging on foreign beaches) are usually whole-hearted, the impact or outcome of voluntourist ventures often fall short, which makes being cognizant of how the work is done all the more important.
Collegian Columnist Caroline King enjoys cats, long walks on the beach, and social justice, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cgking7.