Volunteering abroad is becoming increasingly popular, especially among college students. For most of us, it sounds like the perfect trip: you get to spend time helping the sick and impoverished during the day, lay out on the beautiful beaches of Costa Rica on the weekends, and hit up the bars at night. In other words, you get to explore a vacation spot but feel good doing it because you’re mainly there to “help people”.
But how much help are we really doing by going on these week-to-month long trips? Could we even potentially be hurting others with these “voluntourism” trips? Dorinda Elliot certainly thinks so: http://www.cntraveler.com/ecotourism/2013/02/volunteer-vacations-rewards-risks. In this article, she argues that real “help” can’t be achieved unless we have a deep understanding of their culture and the issues going on in their country. Additionally, since these trips are only a few weeks long, she believes that long term improvements can never be made in these areas of need. In fact, going in without being aware of the cultural and political issues of the foreign country can even be hurtful. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have stereotypes of the people living in third world countries. However, like all stereotypes, they are not always correct. When we go into their country without seriously taking the time to learn about their lifestyle and culture, our actions could be seen as offensive or even hurtful to the natives. While Americans like to think they are the “angels swooping in to help”, let’s be honest here: we cannot seriously help a community that has been stuck in poverty for years in two weeks. Most volunteers lack the skills necessary to do serious work, and more importantly, the work we do is not always helpful. For example, we can’t go to a community in Africa and build wells if they don’t receive water in that area. However, most American volunteers don’t take the time to learn about what the local community needs and assumes that all poor African neighborhoods could use wells. When we hold the view that we are better than them, that could lead to some serious miscommunication problems.
Does this mean we should just get rid of voluntourism all together?
This debate about whether volunteering abroad is helpful or hurtful really interests me because I’ve personally been on these trips before. Last summer, I went to Costa Rica on a medical service trip for two weeks. We were a group of pre-health college students around the country opening free clinics in very poor neighborhoods. Personally, I thought (and still think) this trip honestly did impact me and expose me to certain human interactions that I would not have experienced in Michigan.
I’ll be honest. I walked into their neighborhood completely horrified and saddened by how dirty the entire place was. I saw shivering and starving dogs wimpering on every street corner. When I walked inside one of their homes, it looked exactly the same as the outside: no walls, no floors, and no doors. Just cement and dirt everywhere. Sick babies were coughing and throwing up on the ground inside their home because they didn’t even have trash cans. I felt uncomfortable and sick to my stomach, and I felt horrible for everyone living there. But this wasn’t a fair assessment of who they were as people. I was seriously judging them, as I’m sure they were seriously judging me. Our leaders encouraged us to talk to the families and share stories with them, and while we were scared at first, the ice was immediately broken we realized how welcoming they were. As I spent more time with these families, my attitudes gradually started to change. Watching the children laugh and play with each other, seeing the elderly woman kiss me on the cheek numerous times, and exchanging stories with different members of the neighborhood made me envious of their life. I envied that they were able to live so simply and still be so happy with their life. I envied that they were welcoming to me while my first notion was to judge them. I envied that they had more compassion than most people I know back in Michigan.
Yet, I don’t think this two week trip changed my life in any way. Nor do I think I changed any lives by opening up a free clinic. After reading the debate about voluntourism, I wonder if I even did help these Costa Rican natives at all. Sure, I gave them free medicine to those who needed it, but I don’t think it will help them in the long run because their lifestyle probably did not change. I’m scared to think about whether I actually hurt these families in some way. What if I did more harm than good by going into these communities?
I’m interested to hear your opinions about this issue! Have you been on these kinds of trips before? What were your experiences like? And finally, do you think voluntourism is really helpful or hurtful?