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Was Volunteering Abroad the Most Selfish Thing I've Ever Done?

Health clinic in India

It’s good to know what’s wrong with the world… But it’s important to know that sometimes, no matter how wrong it is, you can’t change it. A lot of the bad stuff in the world wasn’t really that bad until someone tried to change it.

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

In 2011, I left home for small rural village in southern India to volunteer for the first time. Although I had originally signed up to help at an orphanage, my project was unexpectedly switched after I arrived in India to teaching English at an ethnic tribal school.

Of all the images that were etched in to my memory during my three month long trip, the faces of three sisters who attended the school have remained the clearest. All three had mouths naturally turned into contemplative frowns with the upper lip puffed out, boldly defying the poverty they had always known. They all had the air of someone accustomed to having to fend for themselves.

In fact all 40 or so children who attended the school more or less fended for themselves. The government had implemented a program that took the children from their homes and put them into a nearby overnight school for two reasons:

  • It gave the kids a chance to receive an education.
  • It helped their families provide food and clothing to the kids.

Though these were positive intentions, classes were rarely conducted, leaving the kids to roam the schoolyard unsupervised, untaught and uncared for.

The faces of the three sisters made a strong impression on me because they initially remained aloof from me and the other volunteers, whereas the other children fought for our attention. Maybe they already knew, from their experiences with previous volunteers, that I too would eventually leave them. Defying logic, these girls ended up growing the most attached to me of all the children. It always gave me a special pride when I made one of them smile, remembering how distant they had been before. I didn’t realize at the time how unfair I was being, and unfortunately, I'm not alone. With the rise in voluntourism's popularity, so has the debate around who exactly volunteers are helping: local communities, or themselves?

How Much Can We Really Do?

One day, one of the sisters, Radhika, presented me with an open wound on the back of her thigh. Many of the kids suffered from an unknown and itchy skin rash, characterized by bumps that would inevitably be scratched until bleeding. I had previously asked the teachers what could be done about the rash, but was never given any definitive reply about it.

After Radhika approached me, I searched for a first aid kit inside the school office, and discovered one that was moldy and useless. I couldn’t explain to her, with my non-existent Kannada, the local language, that I would come back the next day with my own supplies, so I had to settle with an unsatisfactory attempt to clean it, followed by a smile that wouldn’t stop the itching.

I was deeply shaken by my inability to help these kids, even though that’s what I thought I came to do.

The next day, bandaids and neosporin in hand, I pulled Radhika aside and quickly cleaned and covered the wound to the best of my ability. Word traveled fast. By the time I finished cleaning up, I had six kids in the office, all pointing out their various scrapes, sores, and itchy bumps, most of which I was completely powerless to mend.

In that moment my heart broke. I was deeply shaken by my inability to help these kids, even though that’s what I thought I came to do. It was this incident that opened my eyes to the selfish side of volunteering. In actuality, my presence there wouldn't help improve their condition of living nearly as much as a donation of medical supplies or to have a qualified individual train staff members in basic first aid. These kids didn't need a one off, quick fix. They needed a sustainable solution with long-term goals in mind.

More Good Intentions than Impact

Volunteer teaching in India

I had truly wanted to help improve the lives of these kids, and naively thought it could easily and quickly be done. Some volunteer programs, if properly and responsibly conducted, can make a difference, but my trip to India made me realize the pitfalls of the new travel craze, voluntourism.

The unfortunate reality of voluntourism is that many people, including my past self, are simply seeking an adventure, an opportunity to see and learn about a new place, or an escape from the current monotony of their own lives. Volunteering abroad fits the mold of doing this and fulfilling some deeper, altruistic desire to do good and give back to the world at the same time.

These intentions are all well and good, but combining a personal trip with volunteering can be tricky -- especially considering that most voluntourists attempt to go abroad with a limited amount of time at their disposal. Except in the case of highly specialized projects (for example, Operation Smile, an organization that provides free cleft lip surgeries in developing nations), volunteers who only spend 1 - 4 weeks involved in a project aren't likely making a life-changing affect on the host communities. As apparent by reading several publications, from The Guardian to travel blogger, Nomadic Matt, voluntourism may be increasingly popular, but so is the conversation surrounding whether these good intentions are matched by our actions. Ultimately, there's the risk that if you choose poorly, your voluntourism program will give you the satisfaction of cultural immersion and adventure, but won't do much good for the communities they're linked with.

Since my volunteer stint ended, I have become more acutely aware of the scams volunteer organizations conduct to pocket volunteers’ money, without actually helping the community. Although there are definitely cases of international volunteers doing good, there are equally as many cases of volunteering abroad being detrimental to communities. This happens when there's a high turnover rate in volunteer projects involving children (negative psychological affects on the children), volunteers are brought in to do a job better done by a local (for example: who's better suited to build a school in, say, rural Madagascar: a 19-year-old from white collar Wisconsin or a local who has built his own house and assisted in constructing numerous others?), or if the program has been created as a quick money scam, as seen in numerous reports about volunteer in orphanage scams. In short, good intentions don't always equal impact.

Why It’s Important to Research Your Volunteer Program

My own failures as a responsible volunteer are becoming more apparent the more I realize how I personally was keeping the children from the stability and education they needed. This was in part due to having my project switched without my knowledge, but the fact remains that I filled a position that I knew I wasn’t qualified for. I was not a trained teacher. I couldn’t even speak their language. Sure, I may have had a few good laughs, but a responsible organization who was truly concerned with bettering the lives of the local community and the longevity of our project would not have allowed this.

Furthermore, my volunteer project had no practiced system in which I could easily step in, fulfill the necessary requirements, and then leave with the confidence that someone else would arrive to fill my shoes. There was no sustainability or capacity building.

I had appeared in their lives in order to satisfy my curiosity about a third world country, obtain the feel good moments that accompany volunteering, and then I left, without truly giving them anything in return.

I do, however, take much of the blame. I didn’t take the time to research the program to find out if it was reputable or benefiting the community. I was too focused on what an incredible experience I was about to have and how I was going to change the lives of tons of little kids. It has only recently dawned on me how vain and self-absorbed that desire is. Who did I think I was to even entertain the thought that I could arrive in India and magically fix things? I was one person, working for a mere three months at an ineffectual and unorganized project.

I now understand that to truly be a responsible volunteer and keep this from being a selfish act, anyone interested in volunteering needs to research their project as much as possible. Talk to former volunteers, ask where your money is being spent, and get in touch with local organizations who may know the gossip about what your potential project is really up to. Make sure there's training if you're signing up to do something you're not yet qualified for. Make sure they have a long term plan. Ask questions, and if they won't answer, try somewhere else!

There’s Guilt in Saying Goodbye

kids in Nepal

On my very last day of volunteering, the children excitedly gathered around me for pictures, and through a fragmented and garbled translation they understood I was not coming back. Up to this point, I was admittedly relieved to be leaving; I was frustrated by the lack of progress with the project as well as with all the hardships that accompany living in rural India. But when I stepped out of the school yard, returning the frantic waves of the kids, I didn't feel relief so much as sadness.

The reason for my inexplicable sadness didn’t hit me when the kids chased me down the street calling my name. It didn’t hit me as they swarmed around me at the bus stop, touching my face and bestowing blessings. It didn’t hit me until a few weeks after I returned home: I felt guilty.

For me, my time there will only be just a glimpse into the stark reality that these kids faced every day. They got to see their parents only once every few weeks, if their parents were still alive. They slept on hard dirt floors. Each only had two pairs of clothing that they washed weekly in a dirty pond. The chances that any of them will ever leave their small town are slim. But I had the ability to leave as soon as my previously decided brief commitment ended.

Knowing this, I still formed attachments with the kids -- was excited about connecting with them even. In retrospect, this is what makes me feel most selfish. I had appeared in their lives in order to satisfy my curiosity about a third world country, obtain the feel good moments that accompany volunteering, and then I left, without truly giving them anything in return. As a paying volunteer I had fulfilled my term obligation, but as a person I was being thoughtless and unwittingly supporting a volunteer project that negatively affected the communities it was involved with.

The Real Meaning of Impact

Everyone who considers being a volunteer MUST take the time to think logically and reevaluate their motivations to avoid being another careless voluntourist. Spend the extra few hours to ensure that the volunteer company you’re interested in is recruiting volunteers for the right reasons and using them ethically to further their goals.

The world could use more people willing to dedicate their time and efforts to a project that benefits humanity, but the approach must be well thought out, and the implementation must be sustainable. Even with my negative experience, I have confidence that at its essence, volunteering abroad is impactful and able to bring about change.

In short, volunteering is the most selfish thing I have ever done, but it doesn’t have to be yours.

Photo Credits: Fredrella Jessy Surjono, Mandi Schmitt and Ayesha Amin.

Mandi Schmitt

Mandi has studied, volunteered, interned, and lived abroad in all sorts of fascinating places, including Rome, London, India, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. She started writing for Go Overseas as a Columnist before coming on full time as the PR & Special Projects Director. Keep up with her on @Mandi_Overseas and Google+.