OPINION: Quit going on mission trips and volunteering abroad



Every year, thousands of rich Americans travel the world to help people. It may seem like the best thing to do — travel the world and help the less fortunate out along the way. But your unskilled labor and short-lived connections aren’t doing as much good as you think.

Voluntourism, as it is commonly referred to, is not an inherently new form of tourism. It involves people going on vacation to more impoverished countries to volunteer their time as well as experience the finer sides of tourism. Experts have begun to question whether this volunteering is really doing the good it is supposed to.

When people head to countries to provide their time and labor, they often don’t think about how the community will be affected. Building someone a home might provide them with shelter, but a home won’t feed them, give them clean water, or provide them medical help. It won’t pull them out of poverty.

People often go with a complete misunderstanding of the culture and values of the people they want to help. It seems like enough to just know that there is poverty and a presumed neediness in the community. This can lead to condescending and superficial relationships that make the volunteer a “savior” and the communities into charity cases.

Teaching English might seem like it would be easy — I mean, you’ve spoken English your whole life — but many “voluntour” teachers don’t understand the local language and do not have any previous teaching experience.

Volunteering at an orphanage? It has been proven in numerous studies that the constant forming of connection with volunteers only to have them severed after a few days or weeks can destroy a child’s psyche. There are also cases of orphanages that will purposely maintain the poverty and image of need so they can receive donations from volunteers. It is a good, sustainable profit machine for the owners, and the volunteers can feel like they made an impact.

There are many cases where volunteers will do all this work building a house, but due to their unskilled labor, the community members will have to go back, take everything apart, and rebuild it before work starts again the next day.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be more helpful to just donate your money to the project so the work goes to the community members and it can also provide them with income? Probably.

I am not telling you to never go on a mission trip or never do a volunteer excursion, but if you do it, do research to make sure it will actually be helping and not just inflating your ego.

Here are five tips to make sure the program you’re using will make a difference:

  1. Make sure the project is sustainable. It should be something that addresses an underlying issue such as poverty and does more than just build a home (a home won’t pull someone out of poverty).
  2. Make sure the project partners with the community. You should be working directly with community members to make sure things are being solved in a way that works for them.
  3. Choose a program that promotes cultural learning and understanding. Make sure you will not be pushing your own culture and values onto those you are helping. Study the culture before you get there so you have an understanding of what they value, and then you can help using their values.
  4. Do not go to make yourself feel good. The project should have nothing to do with you and making you feel like a good person. If that is why you want to be there, don’t volunteer; just spend your money and stimulate their economy.
  5. Use a program that is well-known for making a difference. Do not just trust whatever your organization or church sets up for you. Do your own research to make sure that the above criteria will be met.