Students go abroad to serve other communities, but are they doing more harm than good?

Students go abroad to serve other communities, but are they doing more harm than good?

I spend a lot more time scrolling through Instagram during the summer, watching European backpacking trips, glamorous internships, childhood pets, and island vacations fly past me, all in perfectly-contained squares.

At least once each summer, it's almost guaranteed I'll come to a certain type of photo. A few years ago, these photos seemed indicative of some deeply felt philanthropic goodness or worldliness I did not possess; now they just make me cringe. You know the sort, especially if you're in college or your early twenties: a young white person surrounded by a group of impoverished black or brown children in a classroom halfway across the globe.


In fact, you may not even need to turn to social media to see these photos. Your university may showcase pictures from trips like these in its admissions pamphlet ("look what our students are doing to change the world"). You may even have experienced a trip like this yourself.

"Voluntourism," as it's known, seems harmless at first glance. Yes, maybe students are wasting their money when they spend thousands to go abroad for a week or two, but, ultimately, they're engaging in service projects, and that can't be bad for a community, right?

Actually, it can be. Many of these trips, wherein wealthy, predominantly white students go abroad to countries in the global south, involve students engaging in service work they are completely unqualified for. I know economics majors with no construction experience who spent two weeks building wells in rural China and nutrition majors who traveled to schools in Central America to "teach English" for a week without any knowledge of teaching, or Spanish.

With students typically paying $800 to $4,000 for these short international volunteer trips, and their ubiquity on Instagram, it's no surprise voluntourism has become a huge industry—one that continues to grow.

Work the World, a popular program for healthcare internships and volunteer trips abroad, organizes two-week trips to Peru for $2,140. Projects Abroad, a similar program, has a two-week "rainforest conservation" trip to Peru that charges $3,665 excluding airfare. The minimum wage in Peru is approximately $850 a month. Despite strong organizing efforts and multiple strikes, Peruvian doctors make under $1,500 a month—meaning that many of these doctors make significantly less than what students pay to shadow them for a few weeks. Most of the money students pay goes to the American nonprofits and companies that typically set up the trip.

American college students often leave after a stint of voluntourism feeling "transformed," whether they're working in a hospital, classroom, or rainforest. However, due to students' lack of qualifications, their service is often useless, and may, in some cases, lead to new problems, such as unsafe infrastructure or an insufficient school curriculum or interrupted routine.

For many of the nonprofits, schools, and orphanages voluntourists work with, donating the money would have a greater impact than their service work. Maybe this would ensure the service work becomes a job, filled by a paid community member who can do the work in half the time.

Most voluntourists have good intentions; they want to confront their privilege, learn more, and, in the simplest sense, they want to help.

But students traveling 4,000 miles away to see poverty may be fueling voluntourist programs that fail to confront the structural inequalities that create that poverty. They are likely to distance themselves from the poverty in local communities surrounding the university and "feel grateful" for American prosperity rather than recognizing they are complicit in perpetuating similar inequalities in their own communities.

Do your research. As a short-term volunteer, you will not have much time to learn about the culture of the area unless you do so beforehand. Learn as much as you can about the language and history of the region so you can understand the differences you experience as opposed to spending your week feeling shocked. Learning about a region's history can also help you determine whether your service is a component of social justice, and hopefully allow you to delve deeper into root causes.

Use your skills. Don't go to Tanzania to build a library if you have no construction experience; use your medical degree or your farming experience (or whatever other skills you may possess) as your guide in deciding your volunteer work.

Don't use poor people as props. Even if you volunteer abroad for an extended period of time, don't revel in misconceptions about how you're "saving Africa." If you're not going to remember their names in six months, you probably shouldn't post photos on social media of yourself surrounded by orphans. There's just something wrong with utilizing someone else's poverty to boost your self-image.

Volunteer closer to home, and/or for longer periods of time. In two weeks, it is impossible to adjust to cultural norms and overcome language barriers. While there clearly is value in learning about another nation or culture, in terms of effective service, this can only be done over a longer period of time. Programs like the Peace Corps allow you to immerse yourself in both service and the community, which is essential for more meaningful service.

Actually stay home. Volunteer in your own community. While Maryland is the richest state in the country (and many of Baltimore's college students come from other areas in the state), nearly 24 percent of Baltimore lives below the poverty line. This percentage increases for children, with 35 percent living below the poverty line and 61 percent living in low-income households, according to the latest census data. You go abroad to do service because it never even crossed your mind to start here. But Baltimore is home to many nonprofits that work with student volunteers, such as Reading Partners, Health Leads, YO Baltimore, Safe Streets, and Irvine Nature Center.