Are you thinking of going on a humanitarian trip this summer? Maybe going to Guatemala to build some schools, or going to India to teach English? Although many who do go on these trips have admirable intentions and goals, it is important to identify the disadvantageous aspects of these missions. There can be material and philosophical drawbacks to going on humanitarian trips that are rarely spoken of. The purpose of this article is not to convince those who are going on humanitarian trips not to go, but rather, to shed light on a different side of these trips that many are unaware of. The act of inexperienced people volunteering outside of one’s home country and the practice that will be critiqued in this article is referred to as ‘Voluntourism.’

A large problem with voluntourism is that the majority of the volunteers have limited experience, which results in little material improvements being made within communities. “Most students bring few relevant skills to their volunteer sites. They are not required to commit to long-term involvement either,” says Dr. Andrea Freidus, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina. Remedies that are urged by organizations can act as a band-aid solution that cover up larger issues at hand (eg. providing select children with an education for a period of time to try and quickly solve the overarching problem of a flawed school system). Dr. Freidus also states that “Volunteers take part in service projects like basic construction, painting, tutoring in English and maths, distributing food, or ‘just being a friend’ to children perceived as alone and in need of social support,” which further demonstrates how students are assigned to uncomplicated tasks with no lasting, or long-term influence. Furthermore, questioning the intricacies of how these trips transpire is incredibly important. For example, how are 10 high school students with no prior experience in building houses expected to aid the impoverished population of a small town in Mali? In addition, what significant change is going to occur when high schoolers with little to no teaching background try to teach people with low education levels to speak English in 1 month, 3 months, or even 10? Although there are instances where these trips can result in material change (i.e. all-hands-on-deck situations such as natural disasters), the majority fail to do so.

Additionally, when looking at these trips through solely an economic lens, the money that is expended on these missions can prove more beneficial elsewhere. According to Go Overseas, it costs, on average, around $1000 to send a high schooler on a humanitarian trip. If just 10 students were to participate in these trips, it would accumulate $10,000 that could be given to non-profit organizations in the hometowns of where they are going, which would undoubtedly result in more change. “If you’re going in with drips and drabs of money and you’re building the occasional school and etcetera and not fitting it into a broader framework of development in collaboration with other actors, you are doing more harm than good,” says Dr. Catherine Weaver, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Here, Dr. Weaver answers the question of “Isn’t it better than nothing?” by implying that just having an abundance of money and altruistic goals can unintentionally make tough situations much worse. In fact, the money that volunteers have continued to give the humanitarian trip industry has caused it to be worth around 2 billion dollars annually. If this money were to be reallocated and given to existing organizations within small towns, it would drastically improve the foundation of countless communities. Continuing with the conversation of affordability, many students feel the need to spend their money on these missions because they believe that they are a valuable asset when applying to colleges and universities. However, Michelle Rasich, Rowland Hall’s director of college counseling, gives insight into how schools view these trips: “It doesn’t make a big difference. Colleges look at access, equity, and affordability. Who can afford to take days off from work? Many students are committed to jobs that they have to have in order to help their family financially.” She further explains the central reason that humanitarian trips are unlikely to give students a one-up by stating that “colleges are aware of the accessibility, and they don’t ever want to have an implicit bias in which they inadvertently favor students of wealth and privilege.”

Even if you could argue for voluntourism being beneficial to communities in need, the philosophical downsides of the phenomenon are unquestionably problematic. Primarily, a white savior complex, the idea of a westerner attempting to provide aid in developing nations as a means of self-service. Of course, just the act of going on one of these trips does not automatically mean you are a version of a white savior; rather, it is important to note that many people can unconsciously buy into this complex. This white savior complex is rooted in the need of people from developed countries to help the less fortunate, in an attempt to “save” them from their hapless situations. Dr. Weaver explains that “The assumption that relatively unskilled Westerners can drop into a community and do good simply by being well-intentioned implies an inherent superiority in their identity and culture.” Dr. Weaver specifies that the feeling of superiority is, in most cases, unintentional, but that voluntourism as a whole is rooted in the “underlying assumption that it is exposure to Western culture that will, by nature of its being Western, solve the problems of ‘undeveloped’ nations.”

Despite the fact that not every instance of humanitarian trips produces a negative outcome, the material and philosophical disadvantages of these trips demand attention. Students rarely come with the proper experience to create a consequential change in developing countries, and trips can cost hundreds of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. So, as you plan your summer agenda for this year, it could be beneficial to think twice about partaking in voluntourism by attending a humanitarian trip.

Voluntourism: Why you should rethink going on a humanitarian trip this summer
Ruchi Agarwal

Are you thinking of going on a humanitarian trip this summer? Maybe going to Guatemala to build some schools, or going to India to teach English? Although many who do go on these trips have admirable intentions and goals, it is important to identify the disadvantageous aspects of these missions. There can be material and philosophical drawbacks to going on humanitarian trips that are rarely spoken of. The purpose of this article is not to convince those who are going on humanitarian trips not to go, but rather, to shed light on a different side of these trips that many are unaware of. The act of inexperienced people volunteering outside of one’s home country and the practice that will be critiqued in this article is referred to as ‘Voluntourism.’

A large problem with voluntourism is that the majority of the volunteers have limited experience, which results in little material improvements being made within communities. “Most students bring few relevant skills to their volunteer sites. They are not required to commit to long-term involvement either,” says Dr. Andrea Freidus, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina. Remedies that are urged by organizations can act as a band-aid solution that cover up larger issues at hand (eg. providing select children with an education for a period of time to try and quickly solve the overarching problem of a flawed school system). Dr. Freidus also states that “Volunteers take part in service projects like basic construction, painting, tutoring in English and maths, distributing food, or ‘just being a friend’ to children perceived as alone and in need of social support,” which further demonstrates how students are assigned to uncomplicated tasks with no lasting, or long-term influence. Furthermore, questioning the intricacies of how these trips transpire is incredibly important. For example, how are 10 high school students with no prior experience in building houses expected to aid the impoverished population of a small town in Mali? In addition, what significant change is going to occur when high schoolers with little to no teaching background try to teach people with low education levels to speak English in 1 month, 3 months, or even 10? Although there are instances where these trips can result in material change (i.e. all-hands-on-deck situations such as natural disasters), the majority fail to do so.

Additionally, when looking at these trips through solely an economic lens, the money that is expended on these missions can prove more beneficial elsewhere. According to Go Overseas, it costs, on average, around $1000 to send a high schooler on a humanitarian trip. If just 10 students were to participate in these trips, it would accumulate $10,000 that could be given to non-profit organizations in the hometowns of where they are going, which would undoubtedly result in more change. “If you’re going in with drips and drabs of money and you’re building the occasional school and etcetera and not fitting it into a broader framework of development in collaboration with other actors, you are doing more harm than good,” says Dr. Catherine Weaver, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Here, Dr. Weaver answers the question of “Isn’t it better than nothing?” by implying that just having an abundance of money and altruistic goals can unintentionally make tough situations much worse. In fact, the money that volunteers have continued to give the humanitarian trip industry has caused it to be worth around 2 billion dollars annually. If this money were to be reallocated and given to existing organizations within small towns, it would drastically improve the foundation of countless communities. Continuing with the conversation of affordability, many students feel the need to spend their money on these missions because they believe that they are a valuable asset when applying to colleges and universities. However, Michelle Rasich, Rowland Hall’s director of college counseling, gives insight into how schools view these trips: “It doesn’t make a big difference. Colleges look at access, equity, and affordability. Who can afford to take days off from work? Many students are committed to jobs that they have to have in order to help their family financially.” She further explains the central reason that humanitarian trips are unlikely to give students a one-up by stating that “colleges are aware of the accessibility, and they don’t ever want to have an implicit bias in which they inadvertently favor students of wealth and privilege.”

Even if you could argue for voluntourism being beneficial to communities in need, the philosophical downsides of the phenomenon are unquestionably problematic. Primarily, a white savior complex, the idea of a westerner attempting to provide aid in developing nations as a means of self-service. Of course, just the act of going on one of these trips does not automatically mean you are a version of a white savior; rather, it is important to note that many people can unconsciously buy into this complex. This white savior complex is rooted in the need of people from developed countries to help the less fortunate, in an attempt to “save” them from their hapless situations. Dr. Weaver explains that “The assumption that relatively unskilled Westerners can drop into a community and do good simply by being well-intentioned implies an inherent superiority in their identity and culture.” Dr. Weaver specifies that the feeling of superiority is, in most cases, unintentional, but that voluntourism as a whole is rooted in the “underlying assumption that it is exposure to Western culture that will, by nature of its being Western, solve the problems of ‘undeveloped’ nations.”

Despite the fact that not every instance of humanitarian trips produces a negative outcome, the material and philosophical disadvantages of these trips demand attention. Students rarely come with the proper experience to create a consequential change in developing countries, and trips can cost hundreds of dollars that could be better spent elsewhere. So, as you plan your summer agenda for this year, it could be beneficial to think twice about partaking in voluntourism by attending a humanitarian trip.

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