The Platform

Barbie Savior/Instagram

While volunteering abroad in impoverished communities looks good on paper, it doesn’t always help the intended communities in need.

On the surface, the concept of volunteering abroad is fueled by good intentions. Every year, people pay significant sums to travel to new countries and witness different cultures firsthand, while simultaneously helping a local community. However, no matter how good the intentions are, volunteering abroad can sometimes do more harm than good.

When traveling abroad, many feel a desire to show the world what they see, especially through social media. However, many Western volunteers who take photos of the low-income communities that they volunteer within fail to realize the stereotypes they perpetuate. NPR’s Malaka Gharib writes, “A seemingly innocent selfie with African kids, for example, can perpetuate the idea that only Western aid, charity, and intervention can ‘save the world.’”

The local children appear helpless, while the Western volunteer appears as a superhero. With social media’s large role in day-to-day life, it is easy to forget how impactful it is, and how much it can communicate. It also can invade the privacy of the subjects in the photo. This is not to say that volunteers cannot take photos, but volunteers need to think more critically about the photos they take and the narrative they convey.

Many organizations offer the chance for volunteers to build facilities, such as wells or schools in impoverished communities. Rather than spending money by hiring locals, projects can be completed more affordably when volunteers, who pay to be there, come to build necessities. However, oftentimes volunteers are not qualified to build either.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Barbie Savior (@barbiesavior)

According to an American volunteer in Tanzania: “Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

Not only does that call for more labor and time, but many locals could greatly benefit from being able to work and build to help their own communities. The vast amounts of money that volunteers use to pay for their travel could go to help fund local organizations that can provide the same help more effectively.

According to The Guardian, Americans volunteering to build houses in Honduras made no difference. It concluded that had they donated money instead of labor, there would have been 15 times as many houses built. Oftentimes monetary support is more helpful than short-term volunteer contributions.

Sometimes called orphanage tourism, orphanages are often popular with volunteers. However, most volunteers do not realize they are perpetuating the danger that many children face at these institutions, rather than helping. It is estimated that around 80% of the children at orphanages are not actual orphans, but are placed in these institutions due to poverty.

Oftentimes their family is encouraged to give up their child with the promise of their children having better education and food. Unbeknownst to them, the children are often beaten, forced into labor, malnourished, and prevented from going to school. Many of the people who set up these institutions see the children as a means of profit. Children can be kept malnourished and unfed to gain attention and sympathy, which gains more donations, meaning more money for the director.

Kate von Doore, an Australian lawyer, has made the argument that orphanage tourism is a form of modern slavery. Orphans are also made to dance and beg tourists, creating a dynamic where they are viewed more as tourist attractions than people. The money that many volunteers donate to what they believe to be a good cause instead helps to separate children from their families and inadvertently continues a cycle of abuse.

Not only that but the more volunteers that these orphanages receive, the more emboldened they become to continue doing what they do. Decades of research have also shown how harmful orphanages are to children. Children need to be in homes, with families, to learn about emotional attachment, a crucial element of brain development. Children need consistency in their lives, but volunteers coming in and out can cause children’s ideas of attachment to become skewed, creating unhealthy short-lived attachments and separation anxiety.

This is not to say that volunteering is a bad thing. Part of volunteering abroad is learning about the cultures, and if volunteers truly want to make a change, they can listen to what the community has to say. Many reputable organizations do good volunteer work — researching is key. Instead of taking potential jobs from locals, volunteers should support charities that work alongside the community. However, people need to grow more conscious of their own impact and critically think about their intentions and what volunteering means.

Sophia Zhen was born in New York City to two immigrant parents. Growing up in a diverse place such as New York, and inspired by her own parents’ journey, she had always been interested to learn more about the world outside from the classroom setting. She enjoys learning more about her role as a global citizen, and has recently started writing about global issues.