Volunteer Abroad Programs Reviews: Criticism, Controversy, and other Considerations

In a companion post on the subject of volunteer abroad programs for high school students, I suggested that students who really want to “make a difference” in the lives of others should volunteer locally instead of traveling abroad to do community service. I asserted that “voluntourism” is really about feeling good about yourself and gaining some “perspective,” more so than it is about serving others.

In this post, I’ll dig a bit more into this idea that volunteering abroad is not the selfless act that some believe, and also review some of the controversy and criticism of volunteering abroad.

Pop Culture Criticism of Volunteer Abroad Programs

I have personally volunteered abroad on several occasions. Mostly as a high school student through my youth group or in college on “alternative spring break,” but also more recently in Guatemala through a non-profit organization supported by a former employer. Although I certainly felt differently as an impressionable high school student, as an adult I’ve come to realize those experiences volunteering abroad benefited me far more than the local people. This notion, in and of itself, does not make volunteering abroad a bad thing, but I think it’s healthy for volunteers to recognize that acts of “charity” are also self-serving. For the self-righteous skeptics out there, I’m tempted to quote from my freshman year philosophy paper on the Kantian Theory of Good Will, but I will instead reference some ways that recent pop culture has been playing with this idea. There’s the Onion piece on student Facebook profiles that recalls, for me, a quote from a blunt-talking college advisor, at a highly respected private boarding school, that refers to service learning trips as “white kids hugging brown kids.” And then there was this fantastic exchange between Ray and Marnie in Season 3 Episode 6 of the HBO series Girls:

Marnie: One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t spend a semester abroad in Africa, you know, doing volunteer work and stuff like that. Ray: Well, maybe that’s for the best. Marnie: What do you mean? Ray: Well, you know, I think it’s been pretty clearly shown by now that Western aid is the very thing that has been keeping Africa so underdeveloped and impoverished. It’s a good thing. Teach a man to fish and all that. Marnie: That’s a little bit racist, right? Ray: That’s not even a little bit racist. That’s not even remotely racist. That’s a rigorous truth about a very flawed policy.

The Controversy of Volunteer Programs, Broadly Speaking

I’m not suggesting people get their foreign policy facts from a TV show, and I recognize that I am grossly simplifying a really complex subject and confounding foreign aid, which takes a variety of forms, with just the small sub-set of foreign aid that we call volunteering abroad. However, we should recognize that Ray has a point, albeit one that more accurately reflects his character’s brand of opinionated, street-savvy intellectualism than the actual situation on the ground. It is well documented that in some cases foreign aid can create a culture of dependency and divisiveness within communities, among other problems.

But that’s beside the point. What we’re really talking about here is volunteer programs and the actual impact volunteers have on their host communities compared against the relative benefits the volunteer extracts from intimate interactions with another culture. It’s incredibly difficult to make a long-term difference in the fight against entrenched poverty over a semester, a month, or a week. Even the venerable Peace Corps, which sends volunteers to the developing world for 2 years, has its share of critics, many of which are former volunteers and directors. These bright, young people, with aspirations of making the world a better place, grow frustrated by the realities of development work and instead scale back their ambitions to helping a handful of people make better choices about how to use their land in a sustainable way or start a small business. In other words, teaching someone “how to fish.” This is how real impact is measured over a two-year cycle, to say nothing of a 2-week volunteer abroad program. Additionally, there is the very real possibility for voluntourism to do more harm than good, as this CNN opinion piece points out. And here’s an especially insightful TEDTalk from Daniela Papi, who stopped offering “voluntourism” programs through her NGO because of the many issues associated with what she calls “sympathy tourism.”

Volunteer abroad programs image
Playing with local kids is one of the most memorable parts of volunteering abroad. But how much of a difference are we really making?


Volunteer Abroad Programs for High School Students

I’m calling attention to these criticisms and controversies, because I think it’s important that people researching volunteer abroad opportunities ask the hard questions of a prospective program. There are hundreds of such programs for teens looking to volunteer overseas (to say nothing of the thousands of groups organized every year through schools and religious organizations). As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there are clearly educational benefits to high school students that volunteer abroad and organizations that act with integrity can mitigate the potential to do more harm than good in their host communities. However, what I find most disconcerting about the way many volunteer programs operate is that the glossy marketing materials and the promise of “making a difference” gets in the way of actual education about development work. One for-profit business that markets themselves as the “Peace Corps for Teens” parades their impressionable high schoolers through the arrival airports of host countries wearing t-shirts labelled with “Be the Change.” It’s a noble goal, but one that preys on the sensibilities of students and parents when, in fact, any real discussion about what really works in development is absent, because that would completely subvert the purpose of the trip. More mature “voluntourists” can handle the hypocrisy and grapple with the pros and cons of their service, as this traveler to Haiti so eloquently does. But most high school volunteer abroad programs would rather you didn’t know this controversy exists, because it would undermine the business model. (And, I should add, most of these programs are run by for-profit businesses that are making far more than a dime off the plight of the impoverished, which is perhaps the ultimate hypocrisy).

That’s okay. I’m willing to say it, while also recognizing that there is legitimate educational value in the experience. For the less pessimistic take on this issue, please read my companion post on service learning’s educational benefits.

For some suggestions and reviews of volunteer abroad programs, check out this post.