Between midterms, assignments, and student elections, many of us have yet to find time to frantically plan our summers. Without fail, some of us will go abroad to a less-developed country and assume the task of helping a community there. In fact, at the end of every winter break, reading week, or summer holiday, I am faced with collections of Facebook photos of laughing children, laughing children holding hands with volunteers, and volunteers doing some sort of good. With programs titled ‘Hero Holiday,’ putting volunteers on a pedestal for ‘heroism,’ the entire enterprise seems too self-congratulatory and insincere for my taste.
Critics use the term ‘voluntourism’ to describe volunteer-abroad trips that involve light work and are riddled with tourist-y activities. While I acknowledge that this is not the case for all programs, the prevalence of such voluntourist itineraries is starkly
apparent. To appease uncomfortable skeptics like myself, the following are questions worth reflecting on before taking on volunteer work abroad.
Why are you undertaking this project? Is it to beef up your resumé, or to truly help implement an effective and sustainable change in whatever community you are working in? I sincerely hope your answer is the latter. Otherwise, I suggest that you stop reading this article altogether. I admit that these days it is hard to argue for the existence of selfless acts of kindness. Nevertheless, your work should primarily aim to benefit the community more than it benefits you.
Are you the best person to do the job? Programs that permit undergraduate volunteers to give injections or administer sensitive tests such as pap smears are highly unethical. If you are not allowed to perform that procedure here in Canada then the same ethical regulation must also apply in the locale you visit. Knowing how to hold a hammer does not qualify you to build a house, nor does speaking English qualify you to be an English teacher. The result of such programs is that limited resources have to be directed toward training foreign volunteers inexperienced in their given field of work.
This leads to my next question: do the locals have the capacity to do the same work? Having foreign volunteers build schools takes away paid jobs from local workers who are likely more qualified to do the same work. So yes, voluntourism has the potential to harm the local economy.
One might easily contend that there are just not enough locals who are qualified to do the work. If this is the case, why not invest in building local capacity to do the work instead of doing the work yourself?
I know of programs that allow undergraduate volunteers to consult with patients in groups, then present their diagnosis so that it may be evaluated by the supervising local physician. I see no sense in putting a middle-man between the patient and the physician. For the patient, there is wasted time interacting with inexperienced volunteers rather than the physician directly, so the benefit solely lies with the volunteers. One might argue that such programs, despite their inefficiencies, are crucial to training anyone pursuing a medical degree. Well, in that case, shouldn’t the programs be geared toward training local medical students? After all, they are much more likely to stay in the region after they have been trained than visiting volunteers, with the added boon of increasing the nation’s supply of physicians.
This line of argument begs the inevitable question: is your project sustainable? Like the example above, many programs simply foster dependency on external aid by supplanting services that can be administered with equal or better effectiveness by and for the locals. Throwing undergraduate students into a community year after year only serves to undermine the local capacity to better ones own community. Any program or non-governmental organization (ngo) that offers volunteer abroad programs must have an exit strategy to ensure that locals are responsible for their own well being. Programs claim that they have been building houses and roads for over a decade, but such claims prove the ineffectiveness of the program in creating sustainable and lasting interventions. Why else would they need to be in the locale for so long then? Sustainability is not a measure of how well a program can keep itself going. Sustainability is a measure of how well the program encourages the community to help themselves, for themselves in the long run.
Ultimately, this article is not meant to attack those who wish to or have done work abroad. There is merit in the desire to do something good in the world, and taking action on that desire is commendable. However, without self-reflection, I believe that the connotations of superficiality and destructiveness associated with ‘voluntourism’ are warranted.
I hope that in this article I have fostered a sense of critical thinking about what ‘help’ really means and entails. I hope that with a smidgeon of self-criticism, the whole notion of voluntourism will be abolished altogether. We must acknowledge the communities we visit as equal partners, and that they have the capacity to be responsible for their own well being. Do your share of research and affiliate yourselves with programs and ngos who have taken issues such as local capacity and sustainability to heart. As Oscar Wilde so succinctly puts it, “It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.” Let’s change the way we think about helping others in need.
Benedict Darren is a third-year Pathobiology and Global Health student.