Volunteer travel has increased in popularity drastically over the past few decades. Though it's wonderful that so many people want to help abroad, this type of travel has opened up some pretty sticky questions around ethics. How and where does volunteering -- a typically altruistic act -- become more about the volunteer than the community? What's the real impact? What should we be thinking about when getting involved in volunteer projects abroad? Do our short-term actions have unintended consequences in the long term?
Waiting for a Mattress: How Volunteer Aid Increased Unemployment
Recently, I was thinking about this inability to look ahead while eating breakfast at one of my favorite eco-lodges in the Dominican Republic. It's a country I’ve worked and played in for over seven years and come to know well.
The lodge's dining area is perched on the edge of a steep mountainside and opens towards the ocean. Thick wooden beams support a palm frond roof and frame the DR’s northern coastline. I had been talking about a development in the bottom left corner of this frame. I’d thought it looked strangely like the urban storage facilities that surround the New York Metropolitan Area, whose cold March I’d only recently left.
The rows upon rows of identical shiny metal squares were houses, I was told.
A few years earlier, The Samaritan Foundation built the village to house over 200 impoverished families. They included those who'd found themselves out of work and displaced after a sugar cane factory in Monte Llano shut down. Offering medical care, clean water, a school, and other services, the 'village' looked like an amazing opportunity. People quickly moved in.
Many of the residents lacked steady employment. Further, they had lost the strong community ties they would have relied on to support them in a time of need when they moved. So, understandably, they were grateful when volunteers began to arrive in waves. They brought with them food, clothing, toys, and household goods.
As is typical of service trips in the area, volunteers mostly visited the village during the day and returned to walled-in resorts and beach-side hotels in the evening. While in the village, they would hand out gifts, like new mattresses, only to those present to receive them. People who were home benefitted the most. Those commuting to low-paying jobs missed out on the much-needed supplies and appreciated luxuries. So, the latter group began quitting their jobs, choosing to stay home to wait for gifts instead of working to earn a living.
I’ve never been able to verify this story completely. But, after years of seeing similar things myself throughout the DR and elsewhere, I have little reason to doubt there's truth to it. What had been an altruistic initiative to give a community a fresh start, had turned into a developmental nightmare.
Yet this isn't an isolated event. There are far more stories that shine a severe floodlight on volunteer travel than just that of Samaritan Village. Stories of orphanages and purposefully decrepit schools built solely to attract foreign dollars blast into the social consciousness a few times a year. They serve as an example of what can go wrong with volunteer travel.
When not properly managed, these projects can cause some negative long-term outcomes. Communities can develop a decrease in self-sufficiency or loss of specialized workers and industries. Poverty becomes fetishized.
Of course, that was never the intention. This type of volunteer work started off from a good place, but somewhere along the way went wrong. What happened? And why?
Volunteers are Unaware of their True Impact
The vast majority of volunteer experiences are not consciously counterproductive or exploitative. Most voluntourists don't go into a community thinking they'll do harm. Yet, the lack of ethical boundaries (requirements, outside monitoring, etc.) that make voluntourism possible are the same blurry lines that lead to paternalistic development practices, the fetishization of poverty, and even the exploitation of children.
Yet this damage continues to happen because it's largely invisible to the rest of the world. As in Rob Nixon argues in his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, slow violence is easy to ignore and easy to write off as no big deal, flying under the radar until it’s creating large and widespread change, exacerbating the vulnerability of already vulnerable peoples.
To me, that sounds a lot like what’s going on with voluntourism. The true, and at times negative, impact on communities abroad isn't seen by those outside the community. Potential volunteers are unaware, and as a result, will continue to unwittingly contribute to the problem until it becomes an even larger issue.
Of course, voluntourism is different from volunteer-based development work. The presence of volunteers with specialized skill-sets, such as doctors and engineers, can be a huge help to communities in need.
But to practice responsible voluntourism, we need to track the impact of volunteers. We need to better match their skills to community needs. Volunteer projects need to emphasize community needs before volunteer benefits.
How Voluntourism Can Actually be Dangerous
Another big concern in the international development circle is making sure that jobs that need qualified individuals are filled with qualified individuals. As James Sutherland, the International Communications Coordinator at Friends-International, a children's charity in Southeast Asia, states "many volunteers have absolutely no childcare skills, and they're being asked to perform a duty of care for children who are vulnerable," he says, "In a developed country, that would not happen."
Young high schoolers like my past-self are told that they can teach English in Africa. College students are put in scrubs and used as doctors assistants in South America. Somewhere between Googling “volunteer trips” and booking, the people taking part are convinced that they really do have the skills necessary to be successful at what they are signing up for. Sometimes, that results in dangerous behavior.
In the CBC DocZone documentary, Volunteers Unleashed, a young premed volunteer who was assigned to help with an important medical procedure passes out in the operating room, as the doctor rushes to help her, the patient goes into distress. It sounds like a sick joke, but it’s not. You walk into the doctor’s office only to be told that a kid will be doing your procedure today, that they’ll be learning on you, and you have no option but to let them do it because there is no other medical care available.
Getting surgery is scary, but having that doctor be assisted by a completely untrained teenager who just learned to read a blood pressure cuff that morning is straight-up terrifying. Furthermore, it puts those being treated in very real danger.
In the Christian community, the purpose of service trips, or Missions, is made even muddier as the first tenant of the adventure frequently is to “grow closer to Christ”. By leading with an intangible concept as the primary purpose, something that can not easily be measured or quantified, it’s possible to call every trip a success without having to examine the real impacts participants are having, and how they might actually be hurting the communities that they are going into.
All of this is to say that we should put our skills where skills are needed. As a volunteer, treat finding a project like you would finding a job. Be picky, really read the job description. As a volunteer placement organization, make the role and responsibilities clear from the outset. Require that volunteers have a certain level of qualifications and skills -- which, by the way, some organizations are already doing through programs that are specifically meant to send trained engineers, doctors, and nurses into communities who need their skills.
The "Savior Complex" and Not Recognizing Locals as Leaders
I remember flipping through channels when I was nine or ten years old before landing on the image of a small, dirt-stained child wearing a donated softball jersey two sizes too big. A female narrator speaking on behalf of the Christian Children's Fund or any of the dozens of other organizations that sell "Sponsor a Child" packages begged me to give him a chance. It was up to me, she said, to save them.
From there, those images of small, mostly black or brown children found their way into other places. They appeared in my sidebar ads online, fundraising mailings, fridge door (after my family 'sponsored' a kid in Brazil). Eventually, they filled my Facebook feed. Friends and friends of friends posed for fake candids surrounded by young, anonymous faces.
These ads mean to help. Instead, they position impoverished and generally dark-skinned children as an 'other' whose survival depends on the generosity of those more fortunate. They lead well-meaning, predominately white and privileged people to believe that they must intervene.
This is a problem because it gives the false impression that only we as outsiders can help and keeps us from recognizing locals as leaders. We're less likely to see communities that differ from ours as equally capable. As a result, we use development strategies that aren't particularly helpful or adapted to the communities we're in.
It also leaves out a significant part of what it's like to live in a developing country (take, for example, the image above. It was taken in a developing country but is quite different from what you'd see in a Save the Children ad). It leaves out the hope, the progress that's being made. The reality is that voluntourism and privilege are deeply intertwined, and not always in a good way.
Is it Really 'Better than Nothing'?
At times, volunteer placement companies, voluntourists, and their advocates will claim that their work is better than nothing (some, not all). They argue that they're creating more good than would be possible without their presence. Except, this isn't always true. If you get the wrong volunteer on the ground (i.e. someone who's very disrespectful to the community, unqualified, or uncommitted) or operate a volunteer project without the buy-in / involvement of the community, a long-term vision for sustainability, or don't regulate the projects properly, you could end up dong more harm than good.
For example, when volunteers give handouts (candy, pencils, money), they're supporting a "dame" or "gimme" culture. These cultures see begging, not work, as a way to improve their quality of life. Again, there's the example of untrained students brought up earlier.
The "better than nothing" argument isn't good rationalization. It's a red flag and probably a sign that whoever is using it is ignoring potential problems.
There's a reason why the argument exists. Volunteers want to believe that they can help, no matter how unskilled they are. For the people who take part, it's educational, adventure-filled, and emotionally fulfilling. But this argument doesn't help the communities we claim to be helping. With the very real ethical issues and the long-term repercussions that may take decades to fully reveal themselves, voluntourism isn’t “better than nothing,”. It’s dangerous when done thoughtlessly.
There is something that's better than nothing. Own your ignorance and travel as a tourist. Embrace your role of visitor instead of claiming the role of savior. The way to help a community isn’t to presume you know how to fix it and that going there yourself will be a solution. Instead, seek out those who know the community and development best. Help them help the communities.
I still haven’t gotten around to visiting those rows of identical houses, and I don’t think I want to. I think it would be hard to stay optimistic about what good can be done in the face of how badly good intentions can turn out. We can do better than what we’ve done. We have to play the long game.