Traps of Voluntourism: How to avoid harming when you're trying to help

It’s April again and students’ summer schedules are booking up.High school students are scrambling for an enriching summer program that they can put on their college applications and volunteering abroad sounds like the perfect fit. 

In recent years, there has been a rise of Palo Alto High School students who attend service abroad programs. Just last October, junior Antonia Mou wrote an article for Verde about summer service programs, stating that many of her peers started posting about their experiences with overseas volunteering on social media. “It’s just something that is really prominent in our community because we’re pretty wealthy,” Mou says. 

Aside from appearing well-rounded on college applications, doing service abroad offers students a chance to meet new people, expand their world view past the limits of California, and help communities in need, which is why volunteering abroad is appealing for many students.

However, there are a lot of traps that are easy to fall into when volunteering abroad. Participation in these programs sounds amazing, but when we’re caught up in promises of enriching experiences and making a difference, we may not stop to think about the implications of what we’re signing up for. With all the intricacies of each program and each location, it’s hard to tell when your volunteering would actually be service, and when it would be unknowingly selfish. 

“Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly”

Jacob Kushner

In many cases, programs advertising themselves as service opportunities can be unintentionally destructive to the communities they operate in. One aspect of this is unskilled volunteers taking the places of skilled, local workers in construction projects. 

In a 2016 New York Times article, journalist specializing in foreign aid Jacob Kushner talks about his experience with “voluntourists” in Haiti building schools. “These people knew nothing about how to construct a building. Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly,” Kushner said. “Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they just donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.”

 In developing countries, well-paying jobs in semi-skilled labor are hard to come by, according to a 2019 report by the World Bank. Consequently, the last thing that these communities need is volunteers without adequate training replacing locals that need the jobs and know how to do them. 

In addition to potentially depriving families of income, unskilled, volunteer-fueled labor can have destructive impacts on the long-term infrastructure of the community. “Public works serve the community better and last longer when locals do them,” wrote Tina Rosenburg, a The Guardian journalist who specializes in the business and impacts of voluntourism, in a 2018 article. 

One American volunteer, Pippa Biddle, detailed her experiences volunteering in Tanzania in a 2014 Huffington Post article, recalling that she and her group of fellow high school volunteers “were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men [in the village] had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

Furthermore, the profits gained from hosting foreign volunteers incentivizes community institutions to provide more volunteering opportunities. Unfortunately, this shift in the function of institutions can have inadvertent effects on the very economics of developing communities. When community establishments work primarily to serve the interests of foreign volunteers, the people who these establishments are supposed to help suffer. 

“But they don’t really know what was going on inside the orphanage”

Sinet Chan

According to Friends International, a child-focused non-government organization, the number of orphanages has increased by 60% between 2005 and 2015 in Cambodia. More facilities to care for more children in need looks good at face value, but according to Save the Children Australia, a nonprofit aid and development agency dedicated to helping children in Australia and overseas, these orphanages don’t exist to accomodate children. They accommodate tourists. Half of the orphanages are concentrated in popular tourist destinations and, according to the U.N., an estimated 80% of these “orphans” still have a living parent that can potentially care for them. There has also been no recent increase in Cambodian orphans, just orphanages. 

Essentially, Rosenburg wrote in an analysis on the topic in 2018, these orphanages don’t exist to accommodate extra orphans, but rather to profit off of the huge rise in Australian tourists willing to pay to work in them. In addition, according to Save the Children Australia child protection expert Karen Flanagan, these orphanages are so profitable that “people in developing countries are seeing that opportunity and they’re taking children from families or trafficking children, from poor families generally, to meet this demand.” 

Volunteers wanting to work in orphanages have transformed these institutions into a country-wide profitable industry. Orphanages are incentivized to stay open and take in children with living and able parents because foreign volunteers pay so much money to work in them, wrote Rosenburg. One of the children in such an orphanage, Sinet Chan, told The Guardian journalist Christopher Knaus that she thought she would have more food in the orphanage and have a chance to go back to school. 

“But actually what I imagined was wrong,” Chan said. “He [the orphanage director] dressed us up looking poor so the visitors could see us, they feel pity for us, and they donate more. But they don’t really know what was going on inside the orphanage.”

Art by Aidan Choi

Aside from the damaging effects that foreign volunteers can have on communities, doing service with the wrong motivations and the wrong attitude can be disastrous. As people living in a wealthy community wanting to help people not as fortunate as us, it’s incredibly easy for us to slip into the role of being a “savior” rather than a “server.” 

Palo Alto High School Junior Jenni Solgaard has always been wary of falling into this role with her volunteering. “The reason ‘I want to do service’ is the wrong attitude to go in with is because you’re going in with this idea that you can just go in and within the span of one month, make a difference,” Solgaard said, “That is incredibly arrogant. You’re falling into this trap of wanting to be a hero and feeling good about yourself. A savior trap. It’s very patronizing.”

The savior complex takes the attention away from the service we want to do, away from the people we want to help, and instead centers us as the hero. When we fall into this trap, we can forget our limitations as foreign, often unskilled volunteers, and forget that we come from a place of privilege and can never fully understand the challenges that other communities face. 

“Voluntourism and the savior thing are similar,” Solgaard said. “Voluntourism is ‘I’m going to have fun for a little bit, I’m going to be a good person, I’m going to feel good about myself’ and being completely oblivious to all the damage you might leave behind. Which in many cases happens.”

To avoid this attitude in her volunteering, Solgaard researched many different programs before deciding on Amigos de las Americas, a youth volunteer abroad and Spanish immersion program that focuses on cultural immersion and exchange, using service not as a goal but rather as a catalyst for building community relationships.

“It’s not your project, it’s the community’s project. It’s not your idea, it’s their idea.”

Jenni Solgaard

“The reason I chose Amigos was the cultural exchange aspect more than anything else,” she said. “That’s why I felt okay going with Amigos. Because I did feel really uncomfortable with the whole ‘I’m going to help people even though I don’t have any skills’ kind of thing. The whole ‘I know what’s better for people’ gets on my nerves, but Amigos isn’t like that. It’s not your project, it’s the community’s project. It’s not your idea, it’s their idea.”

Palo Alto High School Senior Leanna Colanino, who also attended Amigos and is now a trainer for new volunteers, can attest to Amigos’ focus on community. “A lot of the other programs typically only go for like a week or two and then they just go in, do their own thing, and leave,” Colanino said. “Amigos focuses on building sustainable relationships with the community and projects. We collaborate with community members to figure out what they want.”

Like Solgaard, Colanino researched extensively when deciding where she could volunteer. She knew she wanted to do an abroad program to explore new and different cultures. “The more I looked into Amigos, the more I knew that was what I wanted to do because of all the good things I’ve heard about them,” Colanino said. “I also compared that to a lot of other organizations and I didn’t really feel the same sort of strong connections.”

When researching programs, be realistic about the outcomes of your service and keep in mind that the impact that you’re hoping for may not be possible without being destructive. If service is what you want to do, make sure that the program you work with is centered on that. Some summer programs have more of an emphasis on doing service, while others focus on the cultural experience. Neither focus is inherently bad, but before you sign up for a program, you need to be clear on which is more important to you and investigate potential programs to find the best fit. 

“Other programs typically go for a week or two and then they just go in, do their thing, and leave”

Leanna Colanino

“I feel like a lot of [the programs] could be really dangerous if I’m gonna be honest,” Colanino said, “A lot of the organizations don’t have the best intentions, especially those in Latin America because it tends to be a very common place to go.”

Ensuring that your service abroad won’t have unintentionally harmful impacts is a tricky and complicated process, full of traps that are easy to fall into. But service abroad programs are not the only way to make a difference in a community. There are many ways that you can help here at home and have a bigger impact without the hefty price tag that usually accompanies service abroad.

Social Justice Pathway teacher Eric Bloom believes that by volunteering in your own local community, where you know the culture, language, and needs, “you can actually add some value, add some benefit to people’s lives simply doing little things,” Bloom said “I think if [students] really want to have an impact, they should do what they are best able to do, which is raise money here, find legitimate organizations, and donate money and equipment.”

With the right precautions, service abroad can have a positive impact, but it’s important to do more good than harm and be mindful of the inadvertent effects we could have. While we have good intentions, the program we choose may not have the same objective or predicted outcome. Service can definitely be a win-win situation, but the people you help must gain something in return, or you cannot consider that to be service. 

“True service-learning has to include a program where they are assessing a need,” Bloom said. “Working with those people that they’re serving so they can understand how to give them what it is they need and then evaluating whether or not it was successful.”

Written by Karlene Salas and Anya Lassila