Don’t do it for the ‘Gram: Ethical Volunteering Abroad

As spring break rolls around, many UM students are going to migrate to warmer destinations across the globe, just as the Canadian Geese they so dearly love did just months ago. For some, this break is a time to go home and get some much needed R&R, while for others it’s an opportunity to explore a new place. Then there are those who choose to volunteer their scarce time and vast skills in [insert name of developing country]. Short-term volunteer trips are a common activity students take part in during school breaks. These trips usually involve volunteering at medical clinics, teaching children, or helping to build schools or houses. Not all of these trips are pointless, but oftentimes their fatal flaw is that they’re voluntourism schemes focused on participants having a fun vacation rather than making positive and lasting impacts on a community.

I’m not saying that these students’ efforts are not commendable. Students on volunteer trips go in with good intentions, determined spirits, and positive attitudes. With only a backpack, a carry on, and 1/8th to 7/8ths of their university degree, they are truly roughing-it as they enter an unfamiliar community with the hope of helping out. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for each of them to make a significant contribution to bettering that community during their one week stay, but I’m not saying it’s going to happen, either.

These service abroad trips lose their impact when the focus is on what the students will get out of the experience, rather than how the community will actually benefit. They end up being short and uninvolved, with minimal time spent actually working, and very little done to keep in touch with the community. As a result, participants do not make as big of an impact as they hoped, and sometimes even end up hurting the community by putting a strain on resources.

Making matters worse, these trips abroad often serve as a creative way for participants to pat themselves on the back for “helping” an underserved community. Though the reasons for going may be noble, the sense of satisfaction voluntourists gain for doing the bare minimum is anything but. An easy rule of thumb to see if you are rewarding yourself too highly is to think about whether you’d feel as good about yourself if you had done an equivalent amount of work back at home. If the answer is no, than it is probably just an inflated sense of accomplishment due to being in an underserved area.

Productive and ethical service abroad is entirely feasible, but the first step is to make sure the goal of your trip is to partner with the community to help them get what they actually need, rather than what you think they need. Developing an equitable partnership is extremely important if you want to make lasting social change.

If you want to make sure your spring break service trip is ethical and meaningful, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I going? Am I passionate about the issue, or am I passionate about my resume?
  • Will my presence be a burden on the community?
  • Am I going to be actively setting up the groundwork for change to happen?
  • Will I create and maintain a lasting relationship with the community?
  • Do I bring unique and valuable skills that are necessary for the trip’s success?
  • Am I committed to shedding my biases and engaging with the local culture?

If you answered no to or felt unsure about any of these questions, you should reevaluate your reasons for going on your volunteer trip. In my eyes, the end goal of any volunteer trip abroad should be to engage with and meaningfully learn from the community while laying down the groundwork for social change. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can always spend your break slipping around on the streets of Ann Arbor.

Sona Raju,

Staff Writer, What the F Magazine

Art by Jessica Burkle,

Staff Artist, What the F Magazine

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