Service Trips Abroad: Harmful or Helpful?

By Kira Goldring
 Unsplsh / Madi Robson
Traveling abroad can be more than just hitting tourist hotspots. It may also present an exciting opportunity to nourish your altruistic side; from joining Habitat for Humanity to advocating for wildlife conservation or leading youth groups in Kenya, there are myriad ways to volunteer your time while away from home. But are these opportunities really about the communities in need, or about the volunteers themselves?
Here are three reasons why service trips abroad are helpful for communities in need, and three reasons why they may mainly benefit the volunteers.


People volunteer for the wrong reasons


Volunteer or voluntourist?

Many volunteers raise money for their trips abroad, which usually cost a few thousand dollars due to travel expenses and the like. But this money is often used for the purpose of voluntourism, i.e., a trip focused on giving the volunteer an experience instead of fulfilling a need within a specific community. The money would be better spent by paying local workers do the jobs, as they may have the necessary skill sets themselves. Not to mention, it would provide locals with job opportunities. For example, in wake of the storm that hit Santa Eduviges in 2009, the swift response of the local civil-protection committee saved the lives of all the community members. When volunteers use the money they raise towards their own trips (and opportunities to look good on social media), the community often ends up losing out.


Perpetuating harmful stereotypes

A lot of the photos taken on service trips show people suffering, reinforcing the stereotype of third-world countries being incompetent. They also justify the colonialist-like attitude that Western volunteers are the only ones who can “save” the communities they’re going to help. These stereotypes are injurious, and send the untrue message that many countries – such as Uganda and Nigeria – are incapable of helping themselves.


Leaving the wrong kind of imprint

Although volunteers’ intentions are usually good, the impact they make on the communities they’re trying to help may not be a positive one after they’ve left. For example, those volunteering in orphanages have a handful of experiences to take home with them after they leave – but what about the children they are leaving?

Additionally, some volunteers who helped restore homes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake found that after they left, their projects exacerbated social divisions among the community members, because they needed more help with poverty than with rebuilding houses. Similarly, people in Ghana are less likely to buy health insurance because foreign volunteers often bring medications with them, leaving the communities more susceptible to disease while they wait for aid. Developing communities need long-term solutions to current problems, which many volunteers are not capable of providing.


Volunteering, by nature, is helpful


More hands on deck.

Many crises result in shortages, whether its resources, homes, money or manpower that is lacking. Particularly after a natural disaster or war, there may not be enough local hands on deck to help rebuild a community. For example, Syrians caught in the current civil war are short of medical supplies and food among many other things, and millions of refugees have fled. Many organizations based in Greece have welcomed volunteers to help distribute necessary supplies, medical aid, and food to these refugees. Additionally, after the two earthquakes hit Nepal and killed thousands of people in 2015, 3,000 volunteers have helped restore schools, homes, playgrounds, renewable energy, sanitation and more – and there is still more work to be done. In such dire circumstances, volunteers can be a huge help to restoring communities that have been torn apart.


Sharing important skills.

Some communities require a teacher to fulfill their needs, and oftentimes that teacher is a volunteer from outside the community. For example, there are many programs in which volunteers teach English abroad, which can ultimately help the students secure better jobs and accelerate their careers.  Or, take Nepal, where women are severely dependent on their male relatives for income; volunteers for GoEco help empower Nepali women and give them the tools they need to become independent, such as basic computer skills, reproductive health workshops, and vocational training. In 2017, 1,000 volunteers were trained by the Red Cross to help fight pneumonic plague in Madagascar. Every volunteer has their own skill set that they can bring to the table and share with someone in need.


Mutual exposure to new ideas

Both international volunteers and the communities they visit enter new territory when they work together. It’s likely that many members of the populations being attended to have never been able to leave their country – in some cases, even their villages – and volunteering abroad can help bridge the gap between people who otherwise may never have met. Because of these interactions, volunteers bring home a greater worldview that can help them raise awareness of global societal issues, to hopefully motivate others to volunteer as well. Studies show that communities with high levels of voluntary activity are associated with better health, lower crime rates and greater life satisfaction, so these volunteer-community interactions can be helpful to both parties.


Bottom line: While volunteering abroad could be a mutually beneficial experience, it also has the potential to do more harm than good. What do you think? Would you go on a service trip?

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