Volunteers should reconsider the impact of their service trips abroad

Volunteers should reconsider the impact of their service trips abroad

Contrary to popular belief, the absurdly common mission trip or “service experience” probably didn’t do much good. Yes, you may have gotten dozens and dozens of photos with impoverished Black or brown children for your Instagram. Those children may have been better off if you had stayed put in your comfortable college apartment.

In the U.S., folks love going abroad to spread their religion, yet in the process, organizations often don’t provide what people really need—food, clean water, education, and vaccines. Instead, poor communities abroad begin to develop a non-sustainable economy based on ineffective and unreliable White saviors.

These “voluntourist” trips — hybrids between volunteering and tourism, are so unsustainable because they leave entirely too many uncertainties and hypotheticals. In the wake of a disaster, what happens after all the American volunteers get bored with the coverage or don’t see it on the news anymore? What happens when volunteers simply aren’t interested in an area anymore, and the economy built on receiving aid and selling souvenirs collapses?

Two week trips don’t leave a sustainable, lasting impact on regions because they face poverty, a complex issue that isn’t a one-solution fix. That very same poverty is often the result of American and European colonial endeavors, whether those were militant or economic. Countries in Africa and other regions like the Middle East were chosen by White Western leaders in order to drain the region of resources.

Now, the descendants of these people from Westernized nations are throwing away massive amounts of money to go on “good Samaritan” endeavors. The intention of these trips may be to make an impact, but most often the only individuals truly impacted are the voluntourists themselves.

Trips are often comprised of teams of most, if not all, untrained, short-term volunteers. People play with kids, preach in a foreign/unintelligible tongue, then leave a week later with the feeling that they were the sole savior of Central America.

Usually, untrained volunteers and unskilled leaders attempting to build a school, orphanage, or clinic aren’t much help. These projects take away potential jobs and income from local construction workers. Also, what good does building a new school do if there is no plan to actually improve education over the long term in these countries?

Medical missions can leave an impact, but not when people are administering poor health care that is beyond their trained abilities. If this is the case, your trip is only catered to benefit you with a “medical experience”, and isn’t taking the wellbeing and benefit of these people into account. 

What impoverished communities in developing countries really need is funding to develop sound medical infrastructure — medical facilities, trained and well-paid staff, and the purchase of food, medication and supplies. That $1,500 round trip airplane ticket could have easily started to do this, whereas your two hands for a week couldn’t.

The money spent on voluntourism could have been donated directly to the community and be put to better use. Voluntourism is, according to the New York Times, a 2 billion dollar a year industry. Imagine the long-term impact that money could have if it was actually invested in the local communities. Individuals originally from these communities know what’s best for their own people, not American tourists.

It is time for Americans and organizations to reconsider their efforts abroad, ensuring that they are effective, impactful, and ethical. There are many ethically sound programs and trips out there, but regardless, it is essential that an individual questions their intentions when going on a service trip abroad:

Would you still go on this trip without a phone to take pictures with poor Black kids?

Are your accommodations lavish or sufficient?

And lastly, who is really benefitting most from the experience? 

Because it should not be you.


Ruben Tarajano is a sophomore majoring in public health. His column runs biweekly. 

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