By Bryan Schaaf

There have been two interesting articles recently about short-term volunteer work which is often referred to as “Voluntourism.” New York Times writer Jacob Kushner recently wrote an article entitled “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma” and Lisa Adams produced another entitled “How NOT to Save the World: Why U.S. Students Who Go to Poor Countries to ‘Do Good’ Often do the Opposite.”

These articles got me thinking about short term volunteer work in other countries – particularly because I have been guilty of both taking part. For example, I have helped organize medical and public health trips to the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Haiti. To be honest, the trips accomplished more for the participants than for the patients. Once in a while we did find someone who needed an urgent referral – but there was a lot of antacid dispensed for acid reflux and other routine conditions. Needless to say, once the team left there would be no more distribution of antacids. No local capacity was built, no systems strengthened, no long-term behavior change promoted. Adams notes that there is a “Tsunami of Interest” in students seeking public health experiences overseas, whether for CV-building or deep commitment to social justice, but either way most feel they get more out of the experience than they were able to give. 

Construction Site Voluntourism Project   Flickr   Photo SharingThe problem with voluntourism is the emphasis is on accomplishing things. It is difficult to know what a community really needs when you don’t understand the language, culture, and power dynamics. All the more risk then of working on something a community really doesn’t need when visiting over a brief period. This is  how a fifth church gets built in a small Haitian village that doesn’t even have clean water, how a school is constructed in rural Honduras without a staffing plan, how the developing world is dotted with water pumps that don’t work anymore. As Kushner points out, there are usually people in these communities who could build the structures and would be more than happy to be paid to do so. Yet, we feel our trips will not have been worth it if we didn’t have an opportunity to build something ourselves. We have an “Edifice Complex.”  

Ram Dass wrote a book called “How Can I Help?” in which he differentiates between “Helping by Doing” and “Helping by Being”. This book was very helpful to me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I cringe when I think about some of the ill-fated projects I tried to promote as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I felt pressure at the time to “produce” in order to justify my being there – but over time I came to see that there is no project that cannot be undone by a certain set of circumstances which may include corruption, instability, and/or lack of community ownership. Relationships on the other hand are lasting. Just being who you are can inspire change in others just as they can inspire change in you. 

I’m not willing to say volontourism is a waste of time and resources across the board. Voluntourism might spark a life-long interest in a cause, a country, or get someone stated on the path to becoming the kind of development worker, activist, or politician who really can change things for the better. Hopefully it helps people to think of how (1) the decisions we make on a daily basis such as what we buy and from whom; and (2) the decisions we take for granted such as voting affect people living in developing countries. These experiences may encourage people to become financial supports of the local and international organizations promoting community-based development based on evidence and not just good intentions.

Still, the risk of doing harm is real. If you go on a volountourism trip, go with an organization that will help prepare you. Adams notes the importance of “training students/volunteers to be familiar with the community they are working in, to be active listeners and exhibit cultural humility, not to make promises they can’t keep, and clarify their roles (so there are not misunderstandings) as to what they are and are not qualified/able to do.” All the same you should do your own homework. Don’t get so wrapped up building things that you forget about building relationships. Listen to people and be open-minded, including (especially!) when their priorities don’t match up with yours – and when those priorities might affect your project, plans, and/or timeline. 

Both Kushner and Adams provide valuable food-for thought regarding the risks and rewards of short-term volunteer work – both for the volunteers and the hosting communities. Please feel free to share your thoughts on voluntourism on Twitter @bryan_schaaf!