Your service-learning trip could be doing more harm than good

By Laura Handly


The impulse is altruistic: Travel to a developing country and help communities in need. Many young people participate in short-term service trips that are largely targeted at enthusiastic, unskilled students. It is undoubtedly true that those who go on these trips benefit from the experience, but what is more problematic is the notion that these service groups also aid the local communities that they’re “serving.” It’s important to consider who actually profits from the burgeoning industry of voluntourism.

This $173 billion industry is rife with for-profit companies that commercialize charity in the developing world. Orphanages have become tourist attractions, with families being torn apart for profit. Friends-International and The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are leading a campaign against this growing sector of tourism in Cambodia, which they say endangers children and families. Similar cases have been documented in Nepal, South Africa and Ghana.  Lured by the false promise of an education for their children, families send them to these homes but in most cases, the donations from volunteer tourists go directly to the owners and the children are no better off.

Aside from explicit corruption, voluntourism invariably meets the needs of wealthy tourists before the needs of local communities. Most volunteers lack time and skill, so many programs create short-term projects that make the volunteers feel like they’ve made a difference. These projects don’t address the fundamental issues that communities face. Building schools in Haiti does not create qualified teachers, nor does the construction of hospitals reform broken healthcare systems. These issues are systemic and must not be abandoned when vacation is over.

Furthermore, voluntourism breeds dependency. In situations where communities receive short-term aid, local industries providing similar services suffer. Rather than creating the infrastructure necessary for self-reliance, these nearsighted voluntourist projects often make these groups more vulnerable to poverty and more dependent on foreign aid.

The situation is further complicated by the demographics of this relationship, with most voluntourist sights located in sub-Saharan Africa and most voluntourists coming from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It’s not a coincidence that this looks a lot like colonialism.

Supporting organizations that undermine local economies, reinforce power inequalities and exploit local populations is violence disguised as concern. Short of extensive research regarding the long term impacts of particular volunteer projects, and personal development of a transferable skill set, the world would be better off if you traveled simply as a tourist or just stayed at home.

Laura Handly is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].