Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Curse of Volunteering Abroad

Two years ago I posted on the problems of direct country to country aid. Apparently well-intentioned Westerners are also doing harm in another way, volunteering:
The study reveals that short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than good. Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home.
There are also problems of Americans giving money to orphanages which are kept purposely squalid to elicit more pity. These:
"orphans" might have been bought from impoverished parents, coerced from loving families or simply rented for the night. An official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents. And these private ventures are proliferating fast: the numbers increased by 65% in just three years.
And don't just send donations either:
We have seen it with the dumping of cheap food and clothes, devastating industries and encouraging a dependency culture. And now we see it with "voluntourism", the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet.
And finally, here's why we do it:
Inevitably, the needs of impoverished communities are subverted by the demands of wealthy visitors. Alexia Nestora ran the North American arm of a major "voluntourism" group and admitted such firms loved orphanage stops. "They sell the best and are the most tearjerking projects to pitch to the media. Volunteers come away with the classic picture with an orphan and tell all their friends about their experience
I wouldn't totally negate the value of the experience of short-term mission work. I spend enough time here trying to convince you you're rich, when one trip abroad can do it much more effectively. But my fear is that this becomes a way to pay to remove global guilt instead of actually solving the problem. If you want to go on a trip, go on a trip. If you want to help specific people in need, I'm convinced the only ways are to live with them or have them live with you.


  1. Interesting post. Wish I could argue with it.

  2. Patty6:21 PM

    Are you familiar with the work of the Chalmers Center in Chattanooga? You would like much of what they are about. http://www.chalmers.org/

  3. Lindsey,

    I'd love to hear your exact thoughts on this, as someone who is currently fostering a child from Haiti.


    I have! Actually Brian Fikkert, their Professor of Economics and Community Development and the author of When Helping Hurts, came and spoke at my church this year.

  4. Hey! Interesting post to read while here in Haiti. I would just point out that the study is specific to sub-saharan Africa, and then specific to orphanages.

    There are lots of cases where you absolutely need outside help to teach people the importance of sanitation, to provide medical care, etc.

  5. I think you're right. Specialized care (doctor, engineer, etc) can be helpful in the short run, but they may also be discouraging local specialized workers in the future.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.