When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good

Sometimes the best way to help isn’t to volunteer but rather to “shut up and listen.”
So-called voluntourism often does more to benefit the volunteer than the host country.
So-called voluntourism often does more to benefit the volunteer than the host country.
YakobchukOlena via Getty Images

Recently, on a Facebook group advocating responsible volunteering, a soon-to-be nurse from the United States asked for medical placement recommendations in one of four African countries. Several group members shared resources demonstrating potential harm of short-term international medical volunteering. Her response: “No thank you I’d rather be encouraged to go volunteer than discouraged.” She promptly left the group.

As an academic who has been researching international volunteering in Tanzanian health facilities since 2011, the exchange was familiar.

“Voluntourism” is a booming multibillion-dollar industry. Many volunteer placement companies market themselves as sustainable, helpful, even crucial.

However, there’s a growing body of scholarship demonstrating that the potential inadvertent harms of short-term international volunteering often outweigh the positives. Voluntourism can reinforce paternalism, expecting hosting communities to be passive and grateful “recipients.” Volunteers’ efforts often shirk pressing issues like infrastructure and resource shortages, or unknowingly duplicate existing resources. Sociologist Judith Lasker finds most global health volunteering benefits the sending organizations and the volunteers more than the host communities. Anthropologist Nicole Berry’s work reveals that volunteer medical missioners often prioritize their own interests rather than local needs.

There are, in turn, many counter-critiques to these concerns about voluntourism, the most prominent including: People’s intentions are good. Not all volunteers are trying to boost their CV or social media profile. Not all volunteering placements are bad. Criticizing good intentions discourages people from trying to do good in the world. You shouldn’t critique the problem unless you have a solution.

People tend to use examples from their own volunteering experiences to demonstrate that projects can actually be helpful, often relying on statements that start with “I believe” to justify voluntourism. Many reports overestimate the effect of the work, based on no independent empirical data whatsoever. The voices of those purportedly helped are almost entirely absent from volunteer testimonials and the websites of companies that arrange these trips.

Certainly, there are times when volunteers are crucial. Voluntary labor was central to long-term post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans: While federal disaster funds were delayed by contract obligations with for-profit companies, volunteers helped disaster victims rebuild in the long term. During the 2016 floods in Louisiana and Texas, a volunteer “Cajun Navy” came and rescued people trapped in their homes. These volunteer efforts were critical.

But they are the exceptions, not the norm.

“Communities don’t passively wait for foreigners to fix things.”

My personal research shows that many unqualified volunteers have actively displaced Tanzanian health professionals. High schoolers and undergraduates deliver babies or participate in surgeries. Many foreign volunteers presume, despite lacking qualifications, that they can “do it better” than local health professionals, jeopardizing quality of patient care.

Similarly, in Cambodia, orphanages have grown significantly merely to meet foreigners’ desire to help, with children who are not orphans being used to attract voluntourists and donations. Studies demonstrate orphanages are harmful to children’s development, and efforts are underway in Australia to ban orphanage voluntourism.

These studies are empirically rigorous, though possibly discouraging and inconvenient to prospective international volunteers.

In 2012, Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole coined the term “white savior industrial complex.” He argued that powerful people simplify complex problems in other countries to construct a space for themselves to feel good about making a difference. There are complicated histories informing challenges in so-called developing countries, and foreigners’ efforts do little to address those systemic issues.

Indeed, people who live in popular voluntourist destinations are already doing the hard work to create systemic change. Ugandan TMS Ruge has established several enterprises designed to make local communities more economically independent. He advocates against voluntourism, as it undermines locals’ initiatives. Examples like this are replicated throughout the developing world, yet these voices are underrepresented in our media. Many of them are critical of foreigners’ efforts because their interventions fail to understand the drivers of the very problems voluntourists hope to address.

YakobchukOlena via Getty Images

The critical point is this: Context matters. Communities don’t passively wait for foreigners to fix things. During disasters, the majority of meaningful volunteers are usually from the communities themselves. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans stepped in to clean up and rebuild. After Mexico City’s earthquake last September, residents worked tirelessly with first responders to clear rubble and find survivors.

Often communities do need assistance. But monetary or resource support, or long-term engagement with skilled individuals, is often more helpful than a short-term volunteer whose skills translate poorly in context.

It may be discouraging learning that volunteering is no “plug and play” affair. The soon-to-be-nurse on Facebook assumed it was possible to volunteer abroad without being a voluntourist, if only the right recommendations could be found. She sought to render the voluntourism dilemma simple, so she could find a role for herself in it.

Are there good organizations? Good volunteers? Ethical engagements? Certainly. But there is no independent vetting system for voluntourism like there is for charity. It’s extraordinarily difficult to sift good organizations out from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff.

Some argue that voluntourism is crucial to raising consciousness of profound inequalities affecting the world, which can lead to more globally engaged citizens committed to social justice. But is elevated consciousness really enough to justify the inadvertent harm that volunteers might cause?

There are excellent alternatives to voluntourism that also raise social consciousness. Conscientious travel supporting locally owned small businesses, organizations emphasizing fair trade learning principles and vetted study-abroad programs are good options.

“During disasters, the majority of meaningful volunteers are usually from the communities themselves.”

What is the “solution” to the voluntourist’s dilemma? This notion that anyone offering a critique should have the solution is another version of the white savior industrial complex: It attempts yet again to render a complex problem simple.

It’s like saying we shouldn’t talk about racism or sexism or wealth inequality unless we can propose easily actionable solutions.

If you truly want to help, find locals already doing good work. Humbly ask if you can assist. Don’t help in ways they don’t ask for. Often the best help isn’t what your own two hands can do for them. Rather, it’s how you can amplify local efforts and voices in the long term.

As former aid worker Ernesto Sirolli suggests, sometimes the best way to help isn’t to volunteer but rather to “shut up and listen.”

Noelle Sullivan is an assistant professor of instruction in global health studies at Northwestern University. Twitter: @ncsullivan

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