31 March 2011

Volunteering Overseas: A Socially Conscious Action That Only Looks Like It Helps

Cracked.com has a post titled 6 Socially Conscious Actions That Only Look Like They Help. One of the listed actions is "volunteering overseas." The site is meant to stir the pot a bit and push buttons, but they do a pretty good job with it and I have reproduced what they wrote with pictures and captions included. Yes, it is a simple look at the issue and I have said many times that I am not wholly in opposition to overseas volunteering and do not think it to be all bad.  With that said, the present state of international volunteering, especially short term voluntourism, is not doing the job well.

Note: All that is below is an exact reproduction of the Cracked.com post.  I thought that putting it in a block-quote was adequate, but I want to be explicit in that I am not claiming this to be my work and have reproduced it here in its entirety since I believe it should be read as such.
The Idea
So, lately your yearly vacations to the International Cheese Rolling Festival have left you feeling unfulfilled. Don't despair: There's always voluntourism, a growing movement that allows you to travel the world while helping the needy. A recent survey found that two-thirds of American high school students have considered this type of volunteer vacation.

This isn't a new trend among rich white people, either.
Traditional organizations mostly look for volunteers with relevant skills: doctors, nurses, dentists, qualified teachers and people fluent in foreign languages. Still, they also welcome unskilled travelers who can do stuff like clerical work and cleaning while the professionals offer the help that's desperately needed.
How We Half-Ass It
Acquiring a professional skill can take years of effort, and typing up vaccination reports doesn't exactly make for great travel photos to send back home. So instead, the boom in voluntourism is focused on prepackaged tours offering unskilled volunteers a wide range of exciting activities: weeklong stays looking after children in AIDS orphanages, short trips to Africa to build houses and stints teaching English in isolated parts of South America.

"These people need my liberal arts degree and ability to swing a hammer haphazardly."
So what? It's better than your standard vacation, where the only person you "help" is your own fat ass up onto a waterslide, right? Wrong: In most cases, this practice actually hurts the people it's trying to help.
Let's say you work in construction. One day, your neighborhood suddenly floods with energetic, iPod-toting young people who joyfully start doing the same job you're doing, but for free. Imagine the American immigration debate, only the immigrants have no skills, and they aren't just working for less money, but for free -- their only compensation being a series of photos about how caring they are posted to their Facebook pages when they get back home.
So the result is wonkily made houses sprouting up everywhere, built by people who don't know drywall from the holes they're putting in those walls, pushing local workers out of much-needed jobs and screwing up economies that are already screwed up enough to warrant charity work.

"Ooh! Rita! Get a picture of me pouring my CamelBak into this little girl's water jug."
Long-term effects aren't much better if you're into helping children, either. Voluntourists jump at the chance to make a lasting difference in the lives of cute underprivileged youths. But the thing is, they really want pictures of those malnourished children swarming about their knees in gratitude -- that's the picture that gets you laid back home at the pub. But the most lasting good is done to the community by training other local teachers to teach English, and nobody wants to sleep with the guy who brings home pictures of himself surrounded by competent adults looking at books together. So local teachers go untrained, and confused students end up getting a new and completely inexperienced English teacher every month or so.

"Hey I think our teacher might be a dumbass."
Foreigners who volunteer for short periods in orphanages can do even more harm. The steady flow of Western media attention on AIDS orphanages means they get tons of funding that could otherwise have been devoted to keeping those children with their surviving extended family instead. One study of Cambodian orphanages revealed that only 25 percent of "orphans" there had actually lost both parents. In the worst cases, this leads to children being placed in orphanages by both of their alive but desperately poor parents, because they can only get someone to help their kids if they completely abandon them to rich people who take pictures alongside them, like a substantially more tragic version of that guy in the Donald Duck costume at Disneyland.

On the plus side, you and your girlfriend get to spend a fun week playing with cute kids and taking blurry cellphone pictures of temples. Surely that's worth some premature orphan-ing.
HT Linda Raftree