Does Volunteering Abroad Hurt Developing Nations?

Lately, I was looking through old photos and I realize how much I miss the days spent in Cambodia, occupied with teaching English. I worked at a school that was an hour outside Siem Reap. There I lived among the other volunteers and the principal’s family. My memories are sweet and sweaty: full of making lesson plans, helping my students with sentence syntax, and playing games of freeze tag. Although my life there was so different from what I experience at home or in the western world, I had so many amazing, joyful days with the students and my fellow teachers. I have been carefully cautioned by a friend that this is where I stop talking about the ‘amazing impact’ volunteering abroad has had on my life, and not present other sappy, emotional anecdotes. So instead I will skip to the important part.

Despite my personal feelings, there is always the question: did I do more harm than good? Is it possible to volunteer abroad without promoting the image of the 'white savior'? If a person lives among locals and does not try to change their ways, can the implicit message of neocolonialism (using capitalism and imperialism to assert cultural dominance) be out-measured?

This discussion is often linked with the modern term ‘voluntourism.’ This is used for when a person from the developed world volunteers for a week or two in a developing country. Voluntourism is applied to high school and college trips, as well as programs that take travelers to organizations. Those who take part in voluntourism are unskilled for the particular tasks at hand, whether that is construction or medical help. It is hard to draw the line of where voluntourism ends. Does voluntourism end after a specific period of time volunteering? With certain tasks? By using a different mindset or approach? This ambiguous definition is why I will refer to the general term of volunteering abroad, which definitively covers what I did in Cambodia.

Many people go abroad without utilizing their specific skillsets to volunteer. Why build a library in Africa if you have no background in construction? In that case, it is better to simply donate to an organization that will hire skilled locals to do the job, solving the problem effectively and stimulating the economy. I will be honest when I say that I did not have many qualifications to teach English; I had to fill out an application for the volunteer opportunity that tested my grammar and spelling, but nothing more. I taught relatively basic English reading and writing, so I believe that I had the most of the skills to do so, yet I certainly do not have any expertise in teaching. This is a problem, as it is admitting that unpaid work often justifies a lower level of qualifications and experience—which should not be the case. Look at your skills and see how you could be of use to a community. When I was teaching, a man by the name of Bryon Lippincott came to visit the school. He, a photographer, and his wife, a writer, formed a company that created press, websites, and attention to non-profit non-government organizations. They would photograph, promote, and help NGOs that were working with disabled or disadvantaged children and others. This is the perfect example of two people who looked at the skills they had available and asked themselves, ‘How can we help?’

The time period over which a traveler acquaints him or herself with the country and volunteers also makes a huge difference in the outcome. Often, acts of international aid over a short period of time create more problems than they solve. Stability and long-term improvement are simply not achievable from short-term aid, as the ability to create and implement innovative strategies for development is limited.

“It can't all be about the volunteer which is what voluntourism sadly is becoming. It is meant to be mutually beneficial for yourself and the organization, as well as a sustainable project that doesn't rely on volunteers to keep running.” -Lauren Kate of Grassroots Nomad

A major concern with volunteering abroad is that of promoting globalization or diluting the culture of a place. This is a possibility, but it is no different from the same risk that is possible with all travel and tourism. The key in any situation abroad is to go in hungry to learn about a culture and with an acceptance of different lifestyles. An experience and open-minded traveler does not think that some cultures are superior or ‘ahead’ of others, but simply that they are different and each has their own value.

Volunteering abroad should never be just another item to check off your bucket list. I often hear criticism that volunteering abroad is a ‘feel good’ activity, as in people only volunteer in other countries to feel good about themselves and look good in the eyes of others. The focus of volunteering should be on those who are receiving help; however, there is nothing wrong with being happy for having helped. Service to the community is not lessened by the fact that the volunteer receives positive feelings because of what they did. Knowing that you helped someone is part of the human response system that reinforces actions that benefit the community.

Lastly is the largest—and most commonly addressed—issue with volunteering as you travel: perpetuating imperialism. Yes, in many cases, voluntourism results in neocolonialism. Those who are more privileged may act like they know what is best for a local who does not have the same amount of material wealth. But not everyone who volunteers thinks this way. And I think that a true volunteering experience promotes the opposite of an imperialist school of thought. If I had never volunteered I would not know of the pollution that plagues the Cambodian countryside simply because there is no proper disposal service, nor of the specifics of the Khmer Rouge and of the thousands of landmines that are still buried in the country. I would not have known that there is racial tension still alive in the country, as I found out the first of multiple times when a passing woman motioned to my skin and said the Khmer word for beautiful. With that knowledge my pride grew and my heart broke as a student told me that he didn’t care that the other boys thought the color of his skin was too dark; he loved playing soccer in the sun, and was not going to stop. If I had never volunteered, I would have tasted green curry made by western hands, but I wouldn’t have been taught to make the Cambodian spring rolls that are everyone’s favorite or been taught to dance like a proper Khmer lady. Volunteering and immersing myself in the culture of a society for a formidable period of time only ever caused my understanding and appreciation for the Cambodian people to grow.

 the little football player

the little football player

So if you are still interested in volunteering abroad, or will be traveling and are considering giving back to the countries you visit, take a look at this checklist:

  • Do you know where the money is going? Is it being used effectively and responsibly?
  • What skills will you bring to this project? Do you have knowledge or expertise that can be helpful? Can you complete the tasks with little training?
  • Are you planning to accept and experience the beliefs and cultural norms you encounter? Or perversely, do you hope to bring the modern world or civilized skills to a developing country?
  • Is the organization you are working with providing what the host country needs? Do the people you will be helping want your help?
  • Will the amount of time for which you are going to be volunteering amount to anything? Will it be long enough to produce a lasting benefit?
  • Is what you are about to do respectful to the host country?
  • Does the organization (or will you) patronize those you will be helping?

My feelings about volunteering abroad have deepened and changed over time, as I learned of the many negative effects that can result, and as I also saw how people can and will help each other. Elizabeth Sellers of Awesome Wave and Rosalilium put it perfectly: 

“It’s not really about how ‘we’ feel as the volunteer. We are already privileged to be traveling and learning about the world and other cultures.”

I was lucky enough to experience an authentic piece of Cambodian life. Now, I can see more clearly the issues in an area, as well as the strength of the human spirit. There are people all around the world that need a hand, the help of someone who is willing to listen to their history and learn their culture. In the correct set of circumstances, volunteers are citizens of a global community investing in the future of our world.

  "Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future." -Nelson Mandela

"Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future." -Nelson Mandela

If you have a differing view or experience volunteering in other countries, I'd love to hear from you in the comments!