By Ashley Duong
In 2014, 289,408 college students studied abroad for academic credit. International Study Abroad Program at UCI states on their website that there are hundreds of volunteering opportunities abroad and highlights twenty-two well-known programs on our campus.
However, while most of these volunteering type programs have good intentions, their benefit to local communities is questionable. Often, they are not as serviceable to the targeted countries as they advertise. It may seem more insincere than a hands-on approach, but it’s sometimes more helpful as students to simply donate or raise money.
The largest problem with the volunteering industry is that it frequently has a misguided sense of what they should do to help. As members of the developed world, a “we know better than you” mentality can take over and as a result, heads of programs do not bother to collaborate with the locals they are attempting to help and have little understanding of what forms of aid are actually useful.
Sustainable development expert Ernesto Sirolli said it best in his TED Talk about volunteerism.
“We Western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic,” he commented.
“If people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone. This should be the first principle of aid. The first principle of aid is respect,” he continued.
Sirolli correctly identifies the most disregarded, yet significant parts of providing aid: respect and communication.
Instead, attempts at providing aid lead to ill-considered but well-intentioned failures.
These failures can do more harm than good, even robbing local businesses of opportunities. In a Huffington Post article, writer Pippa Biddle exposes the failures of her own high school trip to Tanzania.
“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library,” she explained. “Turns out we…were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to rebuild the structure…It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work.”
This poses the question of whether or not the presence of foreign volunteer groups is what developing countries actually need.
Students from these groups are paying money, using resources and sometimes invading the spaces of certain peoples in the name of volunteerism. As young adults, we are simply not fully equipped to provide the necessary services that most of the developing world needs. And so, by taking part in these programs now we may not be doing the good that we intend to do.
Joe Mason, a globe-trotting videographer for NGOs, suggests that the money spent on these programs could be used more productively.
“What if the money spent on airfare, hotels, and food could be turned into a new training center for agricultural development in northern Kenya, where rural farmers learned more effective methods of growing food for themselves, and for selling their crop for a profit?” he questioned.
It’s good that as students and the leaders of the next generation, we want to provide aid and help to the developing world. As members of a global society and people in positions of influence and power, it is our duty to help those who are not as privileged as we are. But before rushing off to sign up for the next volunteering abroad program, take a moment to evaluate the actual usefulness of what you are about to embark on. Choose long term programs that focus on a specific, important issue and make sure that you have a skill set which will help achieve the goal of the program.
Ashley Duong is a first year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.