Opinion: Students seeking to make an impact should volunteer locally, not abroad

The shortcomings of voluntourism
ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY
ZACH KOH/THE VARSITY

We’re often told that we must develop into global citizens as the world becomes a global village. In trying to gain this global perspective, many students choose to volunteer abroad in low-income countries. They find that these experiences are eye-opening and meaningful, and give them insight into inequalities around the world.

U of T encourages students to go on a variety of volunteer missions. In the medical field, these opportunities can range from a dentistry outreach program in Uganda — a yearly program that collaborates with not-for-profit organizations to provide dental services in the Ugandan countryside — to an ophthalmology project in Costa Rica.

Even outside of medicine, the placements are diverse: students can assist in soup kitchens in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, or help hospitals with basic tasks such as triage. U of T also has a scholarship that provides students with a course on teaching English as a foreign language, so that students can do so abroad for two weeks.

While these opportunities are alluring, they tend to verge on romanticized voluntourism a practice whereby tourists travel with the goal of both doing volunteer work and gaining valuable cultural experiences. However, these volunteers often leave without having contributed to tangible or sustainable change.

The bulk of general volunteer placements are arranged through a third party. As a result, U of T can’t be held accountable for how much impact a trip actually has on the local community. However, this isn’t the case for medical trips: since the university has international partnerships with local organizations, it has more leverage in creating a lasting and meaningful experience for everyone involved.

For example, the Dentistry in Uganda Program has partnerships with not-for-profit organizations like the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation. Medical missions have specified agendas and goals, and the students and professors attending them have medical expertise that is inherently valuable and relevant to those communities.

In contrast, it isn’t clear how meaningful short-term general international volunteer placements are for the communities in which they take place.

Take, for example, a university student teaching English to Tanzanian children for two weeks. Those children are not only learning from an inexperienced teacher, but they also see their teacher leave within less than a month. Not only can this separation break their hearts, but it also makes it unclear whether the temporary role of foreign teachers truly contributes to furthering learning and development.

As Sarah Pycroft, a UK teacher who volunteered for students in Sri Lanka, wrote in The Guardian, “[The other volunteers] suggested I teach them colours… I thought: ‘How do you not realize that every single previous volunteer would have taught them colours. You taught them nothing. They were good at colours because they knew it already. You’ve had no impact.’” The constant turnover of volunteering does not allow for continuous learning.

Voluntourism companies have been under intense scrutiny as non-government organizations across the world question the validity of sending youth to low-income countries without any expertise to do “difficult and sometimes inappropriate work.” To make matters worse, many companies fail to perform background checks, a routine procedure for jobs involving children, according to The Guardian

This reasoning also applies to other general volunteering opportunities, such as volunteering in soup kitchens abroad. There’s no benefit in paying an excruciating amount of money or spending a scholarship, to do a job that a local Costa Rican could do. Transitioning these voluntary positions into paid ones could help local workers, and ease the burden of unnecessary expenses for overseas volunteers.

There are alternatives to volunteering abroad. Canada has many enduring socioeconomic and medical inequalities. The relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers, for example, is one that could benefit from a sincere desire to connect with these communities on their terms. 

First Nations and Métis peoples across Canada are at higher risks of arthritis, asthma, and diabetes. In Ontario, “the prevalence of diabetes in Aboriginal people is three times that in non-Aboriginal Ontarians,” according to a government report. These inequalities put a significant strain on rural hospitals, and many hospitals in Indigenous and rural communities are appreciative of an extra hand. 

One can have a helpful and life-changing experience volunteering with various organizations such as L’Arche — community houses that provide safe and inclusive homes for disabled folk — or local soup kitchens, such as The Scott Mission.

Instead of allocating expenses toward voluntourism trips abroad, students should volunteer to aid local hospitals and shelters. These general placements still provide an interdisciplinary understanding of inequities without spending thousands of dollars. Moving forward, U of T should encourage more students to go on volunteer missions closer to home.

Joel Ndongmi is a first-year Social Sciences student at Victoria College.

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