Little white girls & boys arent the problem; the way we currently volunteer abroad short-term is

by Lawrence Loh, MD MPH


Increased awareness of global disparities and ease of travel has fuelled increasing participation in short-term volunteer experiences (or “voluntourism”) abroad, with volunteers tending to be youthful; often students in high school, university, or professional school, but also including young professionals embarking on their careers. The activities they undertake are varied, depending on their level of training and career trajectory, but most often involve the provision of service (e.g. construction of houses, or mobile health clinics) over a period of weeks while visiting a low-to-middle income country (though research, education, and observation are increasingly common.)

An ever growing number of high schools and universities have started to offer “study abroad” or “alternative spring break” programs, usually weeks up to three months abroad, with even private corporations (“industry volunteers”) beginning to follow suit. A survey of first year medical students in the U.S. showed that nearly 65% expect to go abroad at some point or another in their training. Sending institutions, often unable to cope with student demand for overseas experience, highlight concerns that students also pursue short-term experiences through unaffiliated non-profits, or even an ad-hoc basis.

Established global health and development organizations have long questioned the effectiveness of such short-term volunteerism, with many perceiving that the sole value of such experiences is in fostering a longer-term career desire among participants to address social justice issues. Besides this benefit, though, these organizations often express concern that short-term volunteers are often blissfully ignorant of the minimal real benefit and potential harms of their work on communities abroad.

This may have been true in the past. However, in recent months, social media has captured a hard swing of the pendulum against participation in voluntourism, often led by former participants themselves. One sentinel piece from February 2014 was written by Pippa Biddle entitled “The Problem with Little White Girls.” Disillusioned with her experiences in Tanzania and the Dominican Republic over six years, her singularly critical piece went viral with nearly 2 million views sparking a widespread online discussion about the merits of voluntourism.

Biddle’s piece also spawned what seemed to be an eternity of “me-too” critiques of volunteering abroad, including a June 2014 piece entitled “#instagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism”, written by Lauren Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta. In their piece, they describe stories from three separate volunteering experiences in Ghana. Scathingly, a quote highlighted in their piece reads: “Voluntourism is ultimately about fulfilment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.”

The silver lining in these pieces is that these former voluntourists are exhibiting an awareness about the harms and issues surrounding short-term volunteering abroad as it is currently conducted: the minimal benefit, the Saviour complex, the irresponsible photography, the dependence on local resources, and so on. In that sense, they do stand against the assumption that that voluntourists are unaware of these critical issues, and by raising them, have opened a discourse around concerns that those of us in the short-term volunteering community have been aware long before these folks even first bought their ticket.

What is less clear, however, is their message and solution. Many of these articles apparently try to discourage individuals from participating in short-term volunteering altogether. The negativity put forward by these pieces makes it seem that the only solution that is potentially left for many of the authors is for an end to short-term volunteering abroad altogether. Some global development organizations even call short-term volunteering abroad a “worst practice”. The solution inferred from all these pieces is that even current volunteers should cancel their travel plans and send the subsequent refund to a locally-run endeavour – because there is absolutely nothing good that could potentially come from short-term volunteering abroad.

As with any pendulum shift, it is important to remember that there is a middle ground. We have seen a shift from the idealism of volunteers who will go despite consequences, to the social media circus that demonises every aspect of volunteering abroad. As with many things, the reality lies somewhere in between, and so does the solution to the problems at hand.

Why the backlash does nothing to solve the issue

Our societies value volunteering, charity, and altruism, and people look for ways to serve

Many of the recovering voluntourists share something in common – even those who have decided to write against the phenomenon. North American society typically values the opportunity to serve, given the significant amounts of charity donations and volunteer hours given by Canadians and Americans to causes at home and abroad. Arguably, if these volunteers aren’t mucking things up in Tanzania, what’s to say they wouldn’t be mucking things up on a First Nations reservation or in an urban ghetto in Detroit instead? Yet domestic short-term volunteering hasn’t experienced the same scrutiny, despite the similarity of issues around dependence and local community leadership that also remain unaddressed. The recent push to encourage individuals to “stay home and serve in their home country” ignores the fact that many of the issues that occur abroad with short-term volunteering can easily occur in working with the myriad communities at home.

Intentions are complex, but most volunteers really do want to “make the world a better place”

Disappointingly, in their hindsight, the social media critics have forgotten that before they went abroad, something motivated them to pursue short-term volunteering. If they were honest, it certainly wasn’t “I want to self-fulfil / make my Facebook photo the envy of social media / have a little girl in Ghana think of me.” (If it was, then that’s a different issue altogether, and their articles are definitely a value-add.) From our experiences, most young people who choose to go abroad are often constrained by time and finances but are filled with energy, idealism, and a certain naïveté that pushes them to “save the world”. They do so despite the obvious limitations that current short-term formats impose upon their ultimate impact. While one can sympathise that the critics felt unsettled on return in recognising their limited impact, this disillusionment could have easily been averted by appropriate pre-departure training, proper guidelines, and management of expectations.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but individual experiences differ; some experiences are better than others

Many of the critics present their arguments in the typical logical fallacy that early-adopters apply to a failed experiment; their negative experience clouds their recommendation to those who are prepared to follow. The viral pieces can often be paraphrased as such: “Well, we went abroad to volunteer, and we were not prepared. Thus, we ended up having no impact and causing terrible harms to the communities we thought we were helping. Our conclusion is that no one else should ever volunteer abroad short-term. Ever.” One can quickly forget that these articles represent one person’s opinion, built on the facts and philosophies carefully selected to support that viewpoint. Thankfully, such criticism cannot temper the youthful idealism we identified earlier, which is actually a good thing (as we’ll explore in the next section.)

Telling people something is bad rarely induces behaviour change

Perhaps the most compelling argument against telling people not to volunteer abroad is that such advice is often ineffective in stopping them. Behavioural psychology shows that education alone often does not influence individuals to change their ways. In the same way, a society that values the charity and the autonomy of individuals, together with institutions that support them, will continue to encourage those with the means and desire to pursue short-term volunteering abroad. They will pursue these experiences irrespective of the number of wagging fingers they have to face down, because, hey, they’re doing good, right?

Speaking of “bad”? Current short-term might just be done badly, versus being intrinsically bad.

There is no doubt that in many cases, the way short-term volunteering abroad is being done right now is not particularly impactful; ad-hoc, “parachute in” types of experiences are particularly culpable and filled with people who go abroad without guidelines and without consulting the local community. But just like any development work abroad, is it that short-term volunteering is inherently bad? Or is it simply being done badly at present?

The 53rd Week's Director of Operations, Dr. Lawrence Loh, discusses responsible short-term volunteering at the University of Toronto

Why it is critical to fix this 

A focus on long-term work abroad has left a short-term blindspot

In considering volunteering abroad, there has long been a bias in the development community towards long-term experiences. The proliferation of short-term has been dismissed variously ranging from “child’s play” at best to “indecent and useless” at worst. Even Paul Farmer, the Harvard internist founder of Partners in Health, who has inspired a generation of medical students to pursue global health work (both short-term and otherwise), offered only limited insight at the University of Toronto (when asked about short-term volunteering abroad):

“Well, Im not a big fan ... Im not in a reactionary way saying thats always a bad idea. After all sometimes young people who are not trained — if they do no harm — do become engaged in a lifelong and much more serious manner because of these initial, very ill-conceived efforts […] sometimes the unexpected consequences of purposive social action ... are that you get sort of trapped into decency over time.”

Discussions with delegates from established organizations often also yield similar responses. In conversations I had with one delegate from a major global health organization, I was told: “If we see short-term work on someone’s CV, we decide that counts very little towards any meaningful international experience. It doesn’t reflect the sacrifice that we expect of people volunteering abroad.” When further challenged that not everyone comes from independently-wealthy, well-networked backgrounds to be able to pursue precarious, poorly remunerated, longer-term experiences with established organizations, the response was: “That goes back to the sacrifice we expect to see.”

The net result is that a bias towards long-term work has left many short-term volunteer experiences without appropriate review, guidelines, implementation, and evaluation. This in turn has given rise to many of the issues described by the critics today—and has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the more established organizations that champion longer-term work.

This focus of “pushing people towards decency” and defining “decency” as long-term work has meant that we are content to leave short-term experiences as “indecent” and to dismiss such work out of hand. Leaving aside the fact that short-term needs and objectives always support longer-term visions, this blindspot also ignores the reality for many idealistic students and skilled young professionals…

For many, short-term is their only opportunity to volunteer… and they will continue to do so.

Let’s take the argument that short-term volunteering, in its current form, is indeed “indecent.” Why would it ever continue to happen?

Well - short-term volunteering represents people trying to remain true to their values despite the pressures of modern life. They have only two weeks of vacation a year, but want to give and “do good”, using their funds, skills, and expertise to help a cause. The majority of the North American population is unable to sell the house, car and kids and add to their debt to move to Africa for 20 years and contribute in a long-term manner.

For young professionals with families, for students and trainees with training obligations and debt, short-term represents a means by which they can bring their skills and experience to bear. With the ease of modern transportation, the institutions and organizations that drive these experiences, and folks who still cling to that idealism of doing something good abroad (plus any number of communities that seem to be willing to host them), the growth in this phenomenon is clear.

Short-term thus also represents an investment – a poorly used one, but one with potential

We also cannot deny that short-term experiences represent an investment on the part of the volunteers, the sending organizations, and the receiving communities. Why are we ignoring the potential value that such work could have?

Present criticisms often come across as: “Sorry, we don’t know how to best use short-term volunteers. In fact, those of us that have gone before have really screwed things up, so it’s better if you don’t go?” This is unfortunately not a serviceable solution. It would be more practical to figure out how to ensure more responsible participation.

The tragedy is not that short-term is occurring at all, but rather, that it is occurring in a non-impactful manner. Sure, everyone can agree that short-term in its present form is a tragedy: there are great hopes and intentions behind every volunteer trip, but these are often not matched by outcomes.

However, what critics fail to notice is this simple equation:

The need exists

The desire to help and participate exists

The means exist

Taken together, volunteers, sending orgs and communities will continue to invest resources into these short-term efforts. If we accept this then our only logical next step is to figure out ways to do short-term better. We need to come up with models that exist within established projects and guidelines that minimise the potential harms of these experiences and extracts the most out of this goodwill. In essence, we are adding one more element to the equation: the potential for meaningful outcomes exists. It is this potential that currently remains unexplored.

Discussions among multiple short-term volunteer group leaders around developing a community-led collaboration

The giving economy and the crowdsourcing of volunteer work

The factors described earlier suggest that short-term volunteering abroad will remain popular and continue to grow. And as we’ve suggested in our critique of the critiques, this is a good thing, if it is properly nurtured and harnessed.

Take this for face value and take the idea that someone wants to spend money and a week-long vacation serving a community abroad. See it from the other perspective: that people want to spend it on giving back to a community, to giving to a cause. This is the giving economy, rather than the taking economy. If we were to discourage participation, what would we rather see them spend money on? Hot cars, sweatshop goods, hedonistic pursuits? #leh?

If telling people “not to go” is ineffective, this means that dismissing short-term will only result in losing this vital audience to the status quo. The result will be less giving, or ongoing work in currently limited short-term efforts. Both of these outcomes would continue to tragically waste the efforts of all involved, by delivering poor outcomes and potential harms to the communities that are supposedly being helped. 

Can we not see it as a positive first step that people want to do something good and meaningful with their time and money? Together with the need that truly does exist, the real challenge is not to stop people from going, but rather, to match their good intentions with genuine outcomes. This is a far more reasonable alternative than saying “don’t go”. Just because things were poorly done in the past doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

Stemming from this, the one thing no one is really talking about is the idea that short-term volunteering abroad represents the crowdsourcing of altruism. In a world where people can use their personal cars as taxis, or their personal homes as hotels, here people can use their personal vacations to join with larger causes and contribute their time and energy positively. One way of improving impacts could lie in collaboration. A solo short-term experience can have limited outcomes, but properly coordinated and crowd-sourced, could these experiences build on each other to accomplish bigger, more impactful changes than any of them could push independently? 

In essence, perhaps one way to make short-term better is to harness this potential in aggregate. “Crowdsourcing” volunteer work. Everyone gives as they can, be it skills, time, resources – and this is channeled towards accomplishing lasting change on an overarching, locally-directed cause. This minimises the harms of the ad-hoc and pushes for community change that would otherwise be beyond the reach of a single short-term experience. 

53rd Week volunteers undergo on-site ethics training

The way forward

It’s easy to dismiss voluntourism out of hand. It’s much harder to figure out how to make it work.

However, the harder solution has the most potential value: recognize the hearts and intentions of these volunteers and craft volunteer ecosystems that meet genuine, locally-identified needs in the communities that are visited.

We will need to establish and evaluate appropriate collaborative, locally-led models. We will need to instill appropriate values among volunteers and advocate for projects that target locally-prioritised, upstream goals that have lasting value for communities. We will need to develop and adhere to strict guidelines and training to minimise harms and maximise responsibility and ensure that volunteer skills are most appropriately harnessed, and we need to continue to advocate to raise awareness around these issues and bring an end to poorly-done short-term work.

The social media backlash is positive in one way: it shows that we are more aware than ever of the issues and limitations of short-term as it is current conducted. At the same time, as short-term participation reaches a critical mass, we should be more than ever hopeful that they could address meaningful need in this world, if properly done. We need clear guidelines, dos and donts. We need responsible standards and efficacy. We need projects that are appropriately done, locally led and relevant, that have defined exit strategies. Pre-departure training. Cultural sensitivity training. Collaborative models. The list goes on. 

Done poorly, and given ongoing demand, short-term volunteering will continue to be a tragedy. Done right, they could be part of a grand solution; they could point the way to a more pragmatic, crowd-sourced approach to volunteering that could help address crucial global needs.

The death of good intentions, altruism, and charity in short-term volunteering is heavily overstated. Even the critics themselves likely had their own noble and naïve reasons for going abroad in the past. We can continue to vilify such experiences as self-serving and useless, or we can recognize their continuing popularity and find ways to minimize harms and optimize their outcomes.

Either way, short-term volunteering abroad will only continue to be “indecent” or worst-practice if we allow it to be.

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