The Voluntourist’s Dilemma – The New York Times

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Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. Muscular Haitian masons stood by watching, perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.
Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. A 2008 study surveyed 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually. A few are celebrities supporting their cause du jour, who drop in to meet locals and witness a project that often bears their name. Many more come to teach English during high school, college vacations or during a gap year. Others are sun-seeking vacationers who stay at beachside resorts but who also want to see “the real (name your country).” So they go into a community for an afternoon to help local women make beads, jewelry or clothes.
Volunteering seems like an admirable way to spend a vacation. Many of us donate money to foreign charities with the hope of making the world a better place. Why not use our skills as well as our wallets? And yet, watching those missionaries make concrete blocks that day in Port-au-Prince, I couldn’t help wondering if their good intentions were misplaced. These people knew nothing about how to construct a building. Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.
Besides, constructing a school is relatively easy. Improving education, especially in a place like Haiti, is not. Did the missionaries have a long-term plan to train and recruit qualified teachers to staff the school? Did they have a budget to pay those teachers indefinitely? Other school-builders I met in Haiti admitted they weren’t involved in any long-term planning, and I once visited a school built by an NGO that had no money left to pay the teachers. If these brick-laying voluntourists overlooked such things in their eagerness to get their hands dirty, they wouldn’t be the first.
Easing global poverty is an enormously complex task. To make so much as a dent requires hard, sustained work, and expertise. Even the experts sometimes get it wrong. Critics of the Red Cross’s post-earthquake work in Haiti argue that the half a billion dollars the organization raised for disaster relief was largely misspent. Multimillion-dollar projects undertaken by the U.S. government ultimately failed to help Haiti export its mangos or complete a new building for Haiti’s Parliament on time. If smart, dedicated professionals can fail to achieve lasting progress over a period of years, how then is an untrained vacationer supposed to do so in a matter of days?
Sometimes, volunteering even causes real harm. Research in South Africa and elsewhere has found that “orphan tourism” — in which visitors volunteer as caregivers for children whose parents died or otherwise can’t support them — has become so popular that some orphanages operate more like opportunistic businesses than charities, intentionally subjecting children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money. Many “orphans,” it turns out, have living parents who, with a little support, could probably do a better job of raising their children than some volunteer can. And the constant arrivals and departures of volunteers have been linked to attachment disorders in children.
There are some volunteers who possess specialized, sought-after skills, of course. In Port-au-Prince I lived across from a Catholic guesthouse where groups of mostly American volunteers would spend their first nights in Haiti. Often I’d join them for dinner to hear about their experiences. I remember meeting an ophthalmologist from Milwaukee, who had just spent a week in a remote town in Haiti performing laser eye surgery. He recounted the joy he felt at helping people who were going blind from cataracts to see.
But not all volunteers come with an expertise like ophthalmology. When I asked one of the women who ran that guesthouse why she moved to Haiti, she told me that “a long time ago I felt called to be here, and I came based on that, not knowing what I was going to do.” In many ways, this woman is typical of the sort of voluntourists I’ve encountered. Many are religious — the sort of people who cite passages from the Bible, the Torah or the Quran that encourage followers to help those in need. Surely, they say, “love thy neighbor” takes on a different meaning in a globalized world. To many of these people, simply experiencing a foreign culture is not enough. They must change that place for the better.
Perhaps we are fooling ourselves. Unsatisfying as it may be, we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer. Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills. Because the mantra of “good intentions” becomes unworthy when its eventuality can give a South African AIDS orphan an attachment disorder or put a Haitian mason out of work.
I’ve come to believe that the first step toward making the world a better place is to simply experience that place. Unless you’re willing to devote your career to studying international affairs and public policy, researching the mistakes that foreign charities have made while acting upon good intentions, and identifying approaches to development that have data and hard evidence behind them — perhaps volunteering abroad is not for you.


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