A lot of people consider doing volunteer work abroad. While the desire to help another community is admirable, it's vital that you reflect on what will actually be beneficial to others and how your good intentions can be misguided. There are a lot of advertised experiences that seem life-changing but are actually harmful to local economies and don't provide effective long term solutions. We want to help you make sure that your time is dedicated to an effort that actually makes a difference.
My first question to these volunteers is this: Why did you go abroad to help? The cheapest programs cost over $500 dollars per person, often not including flights, which would be a more than generous and much appreciated donation to the Boys & Girls Club down the street from your house. And as far as time and labor goes, food pantries, afterschool programs, and humane societies can always use a few extra hands. There’s no shortage of work to be done locally in Western countries like America. In fact, (though this article will refrain from using moldy, antiquated terms like first-, second-, and third-world), Paul Farmer—co-founder of the nonprofit Partners in Health and a professor at Harvard Medical School—did emphasize Western countries’ own failures in upholding their standard of affluence when he coined the term Fourth World, which refers to the ailing and impoverished pockets of “wealthy” countries that champion capitalism and claim societal excellence.
These pockets of struggle that Farmer refers to are not few and far between. So when you’re feeling particularly philanthropic, don’t forget about the work that needs to be done right across the street, instead of across the ocean.
A lot of the work you can do locally is, simply put, very, very easy... Donating your old clothes to a homeless shelter. Stacking canned goods at food pantries. Helping kids with their math homework once a week at the Boys and Girls Club. All things that high schoolers and college students, chock full of idealism and humanitarianism but often lacking in know-how and valued skill, can do. Better yet, can make an integral, routine part of their lives, rather than a checkmark on their life’s to-do list.
The overwhelming majority of volunteer abroad programs focus on infrastructure. Building a school for an impoverished neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Building a clinic for a rural town outside of Tegucigalpa. Most programs are construction-based, yet these service-oriented programs aren’t exactly targeting experienced contractors.
There’s an important distinction to make between a group of voluntourists spending a week ‘rebuilding’ communities around Bulawayo versus something like Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit that supports medical professionals providing care to people in the Majority World. People with these kinds of specialized skills are in high demand in locations that are lacking in higher education and the world-class resources our doctors have here in the States. So an ophthalmologist that travels to the Philippines to perform Lasik on citizens who need to see in order to be employed is providing something they wouldn’t have had such easy access to otherwise.
Helping to construct a new school, church, or clinic may seem like a tangible way to provide real benefit to a community, and it's satisfying to see such real results of your efforts. But these construction based projects can actually be harmful to the communities by taking away decent jobs from legitimately competent laborers that live in the community. A week of free labor from a bunch of eager, compassionate American teenagers may seem like something under-resourced countries could use, but it takes away a week of decent wage from people in countries with already stunted economies. These people from Western countries that so fervently stress the economic necessity for access to opportunity are stripping locals of opportunities. And hammering the last nail on a building and then heading home the next day isn’t even attempting to address the larger economic and social implications of these communities’ struggles.
To address these implications, we have to think outside the scope of 10-day trip and towards the long-term effects of our voluntourism. A teacher going overseas to teach Cambodian students advanced mathematics is an admirable effort that is closer to the ophthalmologist in the Philippines because they are using valuable skills and specific expertise to help people who need them. But these kinds of efforts are most productive when they are used as a way to share their ideas and expertise regarding how to teach complex topics with local teachers who will be in the classroom every year rather than just a week, month, or even semester. International correspondence could have a more sustainable impact on under-resourced education systems by preparing existing teachers with much-needed resources and ongoing educational programs and expertise, whereas newly constructed schools can often be difficult for an impoverished country to fund or hire teachers to fill.
It’s an admirable thing to want to use your vacations to help other people rather than lounging on the beach, but volunteering effectively isn’t just about good intentions. Despite being considered an affluent nation, the United States still has 45 million people living below the poverty line, whole cities drinking grey or yellow water, and 500,000 people without a home. There’s still plenty of work to do in your neighborhood, and you can actually make a bigger impact with the money, time, and energy you would have used flying overseas. And if you have a specialized skill that you think would be useful abroad, make sure you’re not only providing labor but also considering how you can help citizens sustain the work you did after you’re gone.