Let’s Spill the Tea on Volunteer Trips Abroad (It Gets Juicy!)
For years, a bucket list experience of mine was to travel on a volunteer trip. I wanted to make an impact in the world by improving the living conditions of those in impoverished parts of the world. I also felt like I could take advantage of the travel opportunity, and experience a culture completely opposite of my own. Truly, all I wanted was to be helpful to others. I wanted to wake up in the morning and involve myself in meaningful work.
I understand that 2020 has wreaked havoc on any prospective travel plans in the near future but please, please, please reconsider those volunteer trips abroad.
You read that right.
There are a few controversial aspects about these volunteer trips. Many of you may even question the volunteer trips we host to Uganda and Nepal. We are gonna spill the tea.
During traditional mission or volunteer trips, meekly competent, under-qualified candidates pay to travel to the poorest, most impoverished nations to service their community. To qualify for a spot on the trip, one usually has to have the money to fund their excursion. That’s it. In layman’s terms, privileged people from first-world countries can visit stereotypically needy and destitute regions of the world and exploit the natives for a sensationalized Instagram post or claim to be woke about the injustices about the greater, non-white world around them.
Voluntourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry. The most active participants come from The United States (of course), Germany, Denmark, United Kingdom and Spain.
A bit of exaggerated truth in the previous video just for laughs, but let’s get real.
First off, the purpose of a volunteer/mission trip is to voluntarily perform charitable acts to benefit an underprivileged community. Technically, you can serve domestically if the multi-layered concept of poverty really bothers you. Remember, the United States suffers with poverty, too (link education/poverty blogs)!
Poverty is caused by a complex mess of factors, and a week long volunteer trip will not resolve much of anything. Most trip organizers don’t consider candidates’ previous educational or work experience before accepting them into a program. This is where I introduce you to the “white savior industrial complex”. The concept suggests that most of the volunteers “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” (Sullivan). It’s true.
The poorest countries in the world aren’t suffering because they’re lazy or dumb. The poorest countries in the world are war-stricken, or suffering with generations of poor leadership, greedy with money or reliant on imported trade and labor. They undermine the capabilities of women and don’t allocate their funds to programs and facilities that encourage equitable access to educational and financial prosperity for all. Unless you can resolve those trigger points in a seven day excursion, you should reconsider traveling (or run for office in the U.S.).
Voluntourism also suggests that the members of that community cannot be self-sufficient. This is insulting and degrading. Enlisting the help of a dozen 20-somethings to handle the construction of a school or a house without any prior experience, rather than supporting local advocates and activists who have devoted themselves to conducting real change through program and legislative initiatives, oppresses the local community. These voices will remain suppressed in the media because of (insert charitable voluntourism trips name here) from (insert wealth first-world nation here) brought a busload of young adults to paint a building and play with the students.
There have even been reports of some organizations purposely postponing renovations and reform just to capitalize on the hardship of these rural areas.
Listen, just because you had dreams of participating on a volunteer/mission trips doesn’t necessarily mean you are this entitled, egotistical imbecile. Your heart was in the right place; we feel you! There are countless places in the world that do need assistance, but the help they require really isn’t the answer you want to hear.
The local community is absolutely capable of re-stabilizing their own lives if they are provided with “monetary or resource support, or long-term engagement with skilled individuals” (Sullivan). It’s all about empowerment!
Before you enter panic mode and viciously attack us for our volunteer trips to Nepal and Uganda, let us explain how we differ.
In order to be transparent with you, we have to travel back to 2015. When the devastating earthquake hit Nepal that year, Saroj and Lanna gathered their peers at the University of Connecticut to fund-raise relief funds for those affected. After three months of lemonade stands, car washes, and a 5K road race, they successfully raised about $10,000. They were reluctant to absentmindedly donate to a random charity without understanding exactly how the money would benefit the communities.
The duo took initiative and flew to Nepal themselves to decide where the money was needed most. The village of Ramche in the Sindhupalchok district of Nepal, lost its school most recently to the earthquake, and previously to a landslide. The funds were used to reconstruct a new school, and the entire trip birthed the beginnings of their business model for Impact Everything.
Our trips operate differently.
We plan closely with organizations at the anticipated country of travel. We provide the funds to establish the schools we center our trips on, but the core work is done solely by qualified members of that community. The resources used to construct the schools are made from local, sustainably sourced materials from the country of origin.
We interview our volunteers months in advance. It isn’t enough for us to blindly welcome any and all interested participants. We conduct group interviews with our team when questioning each candidate to assess their maturity level, prior work experience, skills and talents and their true intent for wanting to volunteer. It’s an intensive process for us to determine who is the best fit for the job. We welcome a limited number of volunteers, and we believe they are the best and brightest to support our mission. No savior complexes allowed.
We always seek ways to employ locals. We hire locals to complete the major tasks on our trips, such as construction and education. The volunteers are there to just assist. Plus, we find alternative ways to support the locals, too. For example, we pay the host families who house our volunteers, and chefs who cook the food for the volunteers.
We know our place. We don’t accept projects we cannot maintain. We aren’t afraid to step back when our plans don’t follow through. This could be because of a natural disaster, dependence, malpractice or corruption. One notable experience was when we attempted to build a school in Saroj’s hometown in Nepal. We had to cancel our plans due to caste discrimination and corruption.
Our programs are long-term investments, developed with an end goal in mind. We don’t just construct a school and leave. We work with the local population to develop a sustainable system and curriculum to withstand years after our departure.
Here’s the deal.
We are just as passionate as you are about volunteerism and making an impact, but we strive to do so in a sustainable, ethical manner. Our intent is never to make light of a person’s financial, physical, emotional or political hardships. We appreciate host families embracing us, foreigners into their home, and introducing us to their beautiful culture. In return, we hope to improve their situation and prepare the youth of tomorrow, for a better, brighter future.
Recognize that that communities you are volunteering to help are very likely disadvantaged BECAUSE of where you are from. Colonization by Europe and the Americas have destroyed many parts of Africa. So, don’t build a school to continue that narrative. Establish the foundation for a new story that empowers the existing beauty of that country, and dismantle white-washed curriculums that primarily highlight a singular perspective. Representation is key, so shed light on fierce black, Hispanic, Asian role models. Allow the students and the natives to feel proud of their culture and their history!
Conduct your own research. Discover organizations that directly sponsor local organizations. Delve deeper within yourself and identify the skills you can redirect toward a longer commitment of service. Plan an entire trip yourself, a real vacation, to these destinations instead of categorizing them as inferior or miserable. Travel outside your comfort zone! You will be glad you did.
Or, perhaps utilize the time it would take for you to plot an entire trip abroad for the purpose of volunteerism, and educate yourself on those current events imploring you to travel there, instead… Oh, the things you will learn!
Did I scare you? What surprised you the most?
Sullivan, Noelle. Opinion: When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good. 11 Feb. 2018, www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-sullivan-volunteering-abroad_n_5a7de894e4b044b3821d1627.