‘Voluntourism’ makes us feel good
Editorial | Volunteering abroad is self-serving way to ‘help’ others
Ask people what their dream job would be, and almost every other person will probably say something along the lines of “traveling the world and helping people.” But how much of an emphasis do we place on “traveling the world” and how much on “helping people?” It’s usually more of a self-serving ambition to travel with the added bonus of helping people along the way (because, you know, anyone who doesn’t live in these United States of America is underprivileged and needs our help) for an additional feel-good boost to the experience.
Going abroad to help those who are less fortunate, no matter how noble the intention, will always be an inherently selfish endeavor. Yes, we can try to help people in need rebuild their lives, but ultimately the people benefiting the most from these projects are those who have the privilege of traveling and participating in them in the first place. For all the homes you might help to build, the emergency supplies and services you provide, the money you donate — these are all still only short-term solutions to deeply-rooted issues that will remain with a community well after the do-gooders pack up and go home. But the impact we might have on a community by helping rebuild a home is not nearly as significant as the impact they have on us. We still benefit from these experiences far more than those we try to help ever will.
The concept of going abroad is so glamorized that oftentimes we completely miss the point of the program in the first place — to provide aid and relief to those who might need it. Instead, the focus tends to be the location (usually a faraway, “exotic” location in Africa or South America) and the opportunities they provide for us (and our Instagram accounts).
And that’s a serious problem of this global volunteering industry. One of the most popular projects is building homes — but once these houses are built, families move
in and volunteers leave, the issues of poverty, hunger and education are still left completely unresolved. The new homes do not solve any issues at all. But the volunteers happily share stories of their successes with friends and families and encourage more people to go on service trips that provide so much short-term relief while ignoring deeper societal issues altogether.
Students at many universities across the country have the opportunity to go abroad on short “alternate breaks” programs to work on projects helping poor communities. At Rutgers, these are usually semester-long programs that involve regular meetings or classes. Students use the time leading up to their actual trip to learn about the culture and history of a community. This is a much better approach to service trips than simply showing up with a construction kit and simplifying the problems developing countries face to one of basic infrastructure.
We live in a very insular society, and so it is important for us to have these experiences abroad — yes, even if it is for the selfish purposes of personal growth and development. But that’s the thing: We have to acknowledge that we aren’t going out to save people. Instead, we should be educating ourselves and keeping an open mind to understand the complexities that surround issues faced by cultures other than our own and recognize that no matter how much relief we try to offer, it’s not our job to be anyone’s saviors.