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Service Trips

[ 104 ] December 24, 2015 |


Your (or your children’s) service trips, or voluntourism, basically do nothing to help the world’s poor and are essentially all about the people of the wealthy world feeling good about themselves, not to mention getting some good selfies.

People on such short trips usually don’t stick around long enough to realize how ineffective they are being. In Uganda, I got used to seeing groups of young people come for week-long visits at the orphanage where taught English. They would play with the kids, give them a bracelet or something, and then leave all-smiles, thinking they just saved Africa. I was surprised when the day after the first group left, exactly zero of the kids were wearing the bracelet they had received the day prior. The voluntourists left thinking they gave the kids something they didn’t have before (and with bragging rights for life). But the kids didn’t care, because what they really wanted was school uniforms, their school fees to be paid, guaranteed meals, basic healthcare, and the like — the basics.

I recognize there are some short-term trips that do produce value, but if you went on a voluntourist trip and had to question if you really “made a difference” or not, the answer is probably not. Good intentions are not good enough. To use a medical analogy, an aortic dissection cannot be fixed by giving the patient an aspirin, wishing them well, and then walking away whilst patting yourself on the back for helping. Similarly, temporary measures do not solve the chronic and multifaceted societal problems many developing nations face.

Worse, they can even be harmful to children who struggle with abandonment issues. This should not be understated; have you ever considered the negative impact it routinely has on kids after they bond with someone for a week, and then that person disappears from their life? If your justification for going on these trips is “seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces”, then you’re part of the problem.


Comments (104)

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  1. BethRich52 says:

    Someone is feeling sour today.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Heaven forbid anyone point out problems that harsh anyone else’s “positivity.”

      • NewishLawyer says:

        The problem with Loomis is that is often sour without offering any viable alternatives.

        • Pseudonym says:

          The linked listicle has some useful “Instead” sections. I agree that it would be nice to have more discussion about what sort of volunteerism might be useful, or how otherwise to direct altruistic impulses more efficiently.

        • CD says:

          Easy: don’t go, and give the airfare to a genuinely useful NGO. The “service trips” are just pity tourism.

          • Mike G says:

            Unless you have a rare and valuable skill, like a medical doctor, stay home and send money. Haiti has no shortage of people who can bang nails into a board.

            For teenagers, most of these service trips are just cynically spiffing up their resume for college applications. I’ve seen some rich kids who build a whole website extolling their virtuous jaunt to an underprivileged hellhole so that it will live for evermore when anyone Googles them.

        • Linnaeus says:

          I don’t think it’s always necessary for the author of a post to offer a viable alternative (which assumes that the problem is even known or seen as a problem at all); that’s the kind of thing that can be discussed in comments, too.

  2. Davis X. Machina says:

    There’s a problem with these trips before they even leave — not everyone in a school can stump up the money to go, and everyone knows it.

    There are enough ways to beat a poor kid in a prosperous school over the head with his poverty already…

  3. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Well tourists do spend money which helps the local economy. Tourism is in fact one sector of the economy that really should be pushed a lot more by poorer countries. It is a good way to earn otherwise scarce hard currency, usually US dollars, but Euros and British Pounds are still good. With the strong US dollar tourism is a great deal now for people paid in that currency. Sure each individual tourist’s contribution isn’t going to save Africa but collectively they can add a lot of stimulus spending into local economies.

    • Captain Oblivious says:

      Ok, but play tourist, not Great White Savior. Go see the wildlife and scenery, take in the local culture, sample the food. You probably do more good that way, anyway, as you’re keeping people employed in the hospitality industry instead of taking low-skill jobs away from people who desperately need them.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        I agree completely. If every NGO and GONGO dollar was actually converted into tourist spending then the developing world would be much better off.

        • Ronan says:

          Well this is so general that it really doesnt say anything.How much NGO and GONGO dollars are there? What would be their effect on ‘the developing world’? What ‘developing world’ are you talking about, there obviously isnt just one? What do you do with all the services that NGOs provide (outside of tourist hotspots) that do add value? And NGO work in states and areas that arent going to attract toursist in the forseeable future?
          Anyway,your hypothetical rests on a ridiculous counterfactual, that all of this spending could be converted into ‘tourist dollars'(whatever they are) Now, if you could convert all of that spending into individual payements to families in the developing world, or commit it to lobbying against weapon sales and on drug pricing, I agree that in the aggregate that would be more beneficial.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            Almost all the NGO people here live in the most expensive areas of Accra. The doctors in the poor north where nobody wants to go are from Cuba not any NGOs.

            • Ronan says:

              Sure, but so what? That doesnt really say anything about what use INGOs are in developing countries, what use they arent, how resources could be spent better, what this imaginary hypothetical volountoor (18-20 yr old) ‘tourist dollar’ could do to stimulate Ghana’s economy.

              edit: seems plausible that someone who spends their late teens volunterring in Ghana is more likely to return as a better paid tourist in the future.

        • Warren Terra says:

          If every NGO and GONGO dollar was actually converted into tourist spending then the developing world would be much better off.

          1) This is deeply unfair to the better NGOs – Medecins Sans Frontiers and such.

          2) It’s also blitheringly oblivious to the facts of a lot of international tourism. Someone who wanders around in the real country may spend their tourist money in ways that helps, but a lot of international tourism is extensively packaged and insulated from the real world – a foreign-made bus whisks the visitor from the airport to a luxury hotel owned by a mixture of foreigners and oligarchs, built mostly from foreign materials and full of imported furniture, fittings, appliances, etcetera, down to the linens, foodstuffs, and drinks. The tourists emerge from this foreign bubble mostly in organized excursions that don’t let a lot of money escape from the bubble. The contribution to the local economy consists of some low wage service work and buying some produce, with a tiny proportion of the vacation’s cost remaining in country.

      • Thirtyish says:

        Ok, but play tourist, not Great White Savior. Go see the wildlife and scenery, take in the local culture, sample the food. You probably do more good that way, anyway,

        Indeed. That’s probably the best use of privileged white people’s time and money in these destinations.

        • Ronan says:

          Im a little unsure of this ‘consumerist’ solution (it seems very close to Bush post 9/11 ‘everyone get shopping!’)Not only because no one has actually made the case that going as a tourist has better outcomes than going as a volunteer (it’s plausible, but no one has made the case in depth)But because it drifts very close to some sort of vulgar economistic, rational actor view of what drives people. I prefer to think (and think it’s empirically more plausible)that people are driven by values and morality rather than complicated cost benefit analysis of how best to utilise their resources. Volunteering in places outside your comfort zone strikes me as a better starting point than wanting to incorporate any obligations you feel to others into your holiday plans or latest shopping trip. (the general ‘you’, im not being specific)

    • PatrickG says:

      An alternative is spending a week doing some back-breaking labor. I personally recommend latrine digging.

      Sure, you might be some bright young kid who can’t dig worth shit, but at least you’re helping slightly. Plus, what better bragging rights than “I’m proud that people shit on my work”.

      Better than bracelets!

      • PatrickG says:

        Or, if you want constant gratification beyond what comes before wiping, donate to organizations like Toilet Twinning, and feel extra satisfied every time you flush.

    • Jhoosier says:

      Good point, but additionally people should take care where they spend those dollars. Paying for an all-inclusive package tour won’t get much of your dollars into the hands of locals — most probably goes to the travel agent or the company running the tours (which may or may not be local). While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, travel agents and tour operators also need to eat, it’s all a matter of knowing where your money’s going.

  4. Dilan Esper says:

    Lawrence O’Donnell’s KIND fund, which he promotes every Christmas, is a good antidote to this.

    • gratuitous says:

      Another good outfit that does more than bungee in and out is David Radcliff’s New Community Project. Is the visitor’s motivation to save the world or learn something about conditions somewhere else? If it’s the former, then yes, you might as well spit in the ocean. But getting engaged and staying engaged in someplace else can yield real, lasting results.

  5. catclub says:

    Stop Hunger Now meal packaging events are where groups of people get together and pack meals for overseas relief. It only takes a little thought to realize that all the ‘work’ those people do is done fairly badly, and that a small factory could easily replace it.

    But that is not the point. The point is to make them donors of cash.
    Just like working on building a house for Habitat for Humanity.
    If they participants just feel good about themselves. but never donate, not much harm. But if they become real donors, then it is worth it. I would guess the voluntourism is similar. Making real donors.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      I was on the local Habitat board here. Let me tell you, that volunteer labor isn’t just for show or morale (although it does that, too). The group never would have been able to fund professional construction.

      • Latverian Diplomat says:

        There’s definitely a fundraising aspect to it. But they are also really glad to see people with construction experience volunteer regularly. Because they can really help get things built.

      • Pseudonym says:

        Are the one-time or occasional unskilled volunteers (like me) actually helping much though? I’m sure the experienced people who show up every week contribute a lot, but I think my money probably counts for more than my painting ability.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Many hands make fast work. They’d put one skilled guy in charge of a few people, and they’d be like extra hands for him. It adds up.

          Skilled carpenters, for example, spend an awful lot of their time doing unskilled work. The parts that require expertise are the most important elements of their work, but they’re banging together a lot of 2x4s in between. Lots of hands to do the easy stuff allows them to concentrate on their real, special competencies.

      • Warren Terra says:

        Certainly when I was in college – which isn’t recent by any means – the local Habitat For Humanity had more offers of inexperienced volunteer labor than it could handle given the amount of materials it had, such that it was basically charging local youth organizations who wanted to provide volunteers (because it needed to raise money for materials in order for there to be something for the volunteers to do).

    • sonamib says:

      I don’t know. I’ve heard that a lot of those “voluntourism” agencies are really travel agencies and not actual helpful NGOs. NGOs that actually want to do good know that this bullshit doesn’t help anyone and don’t do it. That’s what I heard on the local news here anyway. They treated the voluntourism agencies as scams for well-meaning affluent young people.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Regular tourism is often much more beneficial to developing countries than NGOS or GONGOS (Government Organized NGO) in that the money is spent with local hoteliers, merchants, resturants, and cafes rather than given as outrageously high salaries to expats.

        • sonamib says:

          This makes sense. But I’m curious : are most hotels in Ghana locally-owned or ar they big multinational chains? If it’s the latter, a lot of the profit is heading back North anyway…

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            I don’t know what the numbers are. The very big and expensive ones tend to be owned by European companies although there is a Holiday Inn by the Airport (US owned). But, all the smaller more reasonably priced ones seem to be owned locally. When my parents came here I put them up in the University of Ghana Guest Centre. When the Africa-Asia: A New Axis of Knowledge Conference was held here a lot of the foreign scholars stayed at the Yiri Lodge which is owned by the Institute of African Studies here on campus.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          That was my first thought: these people would be doing more good renting a room in a hotel, going to the attractions, and tipping well.

        • Yankee says:

          Here on the Oregon coast, where we do get the odd tourist dollar, people want “industrial” jobs, since changing beds or clerking in a taffy shop doesn’t pay a “living” wage. If your sustinence here is dependent on their prosperity there, that puts you at the end of the line, doesn’t it? Plus I think some might get tired at smiling at clueless out-of-towners for a living.

          When working folk from Ghana can can tour Big Easy, Grand Canyon, and so on, we can talk again.

    • SamInMpls says:

      I had this argument about participation vs. impact when I worked at a Management was fairly transparent about making it a social function for employees. I felt that we could have more of an impact if we offered to do what or our company does well for small organizations that would greatly benefit from our expertise. My opinion was not well-received.

      • Pseudonym says:

        Could you elaborate?

        I wonder whether a model like the legal world’s pro-bono work would be effective in the tech industry. Or how well it works in the former case too.

        • Michael Cain says:

          When I worked for the state legislature here, after a while I could go into pretty much any of the state departments and find millions of dollars worth of necessary software work going undone. I suspect most states are the same. I was having lunch with a former tech colleague who had moved into education who was quite sure that some of the problem could be fixed by one of the “weekend of coding” things her university ran. I pointed out that that was precisely the kind of code that the state didn’t need. The state needed code that came with test plans, documentation, and support when there was a bug to be fixed or features added.

        • Mike G says:

          There is Telecoms Without Borders, a French-based NGO that goes to poor countries and disaster areas to setup communications networks. A worthy group.

  6. sonamib says:

    I had the same reaction when I read an article about a French guy who stayed one month in Togo and taught at an elementary school. A lot of things seemed to be wrong with that. First, the guy was an engineer student and had zero knowledge of pedagogy. Second he stayed only one month? Do these children change teachers every month? How the hell do they learn anything?

    • catclub says:

      The book Help, by Garrett Keizer, has a chapter on missionaries.
      The interesting thing is that they are usually pretty helpless in the new location. But he says more. Good book.

  7. Lev says:

    I’d argue that they can have one other benefit–they can show members of one of the most provincial, self-obsessed, inward-looking societies in all of human history (give or take a Tsarist Russia here or isolationist-era Japan there) that people in developing nations are normal people with dignity who have hopes and ambitions too. Does that matter much? I don’t know. Could complicate a worldview or two.

    • Ronan says:

      Yes, this is a good point. Ive never done service trips or voluntourrism, but it’s very difficult to judge what ‘good’ it brings through the way Erik has framed this,(personalised attacks backed up by smug self-righteousness).Erik’s framing makes it about the individual, so lets look at it at the individual level.(rather than at a broader,systemic level) What might someone in the recieving country get out of it,what it might encourage them to do? What friendships and contacts might it build up? What it might encourage the westerner to do with their life and privileges, broaden their horions etc. Of course, rather than highlight the problematic aspects, give a generous account of what might drive someone to do this,ask what’s the good and how can you continue that without the negatives, we get the usual “wealthy world feeling good about themselves, not to mention getting some good selfies.”

      Of course, if you want to make this case, it’s been done a million times before, and much more eloquently

      • Ronan says:

        ..which is pretty much the OP (as always) viewing the world through the prism of domestic US politics. Scoring political points in the US with developing world plebs as background characters, rather than analysing the situation on its own merits. The OP is basically the blog equivalent of a selfie in the devleoping world.

        • Pseudonym says:

          Complaining about clueless white people is definitely very Stuff [Liberal] White People Like, and picking on selfies has an unfortunate gendered aspect. So what should we do instead? The linked listicle at least has some useful tips in the “instead” sections, albeit more targeted towards health care professionals. I guess Erik’s suggestion would involve dismantling global capitalism, something that presumably will require more than a two-week volunteer stint. But aside from supporting better policies and donating money carefully, what should or can we do as work that works?

          • Ronan says:

            Ive no problem with the article, and my complaints were much more specific to Erik’s schtick than LGM collectively. What do you do? I dont know. If you want to work in developing countries (in humanitarian aid, development etc) I guess the most important thing is (1) get a useful skill (2) get a language (3) be aware of your position and the damage you could do. There are different seasons of this stuff though.
            If you want to tackle global inequality then (as Angus Deaton says)maybe lobby your governments on drug pricing in developing countries and on arms sales. Perhaps aim to work in those industries that do lobby on these issues. These solutions , though, are restricted on educational and time constraint grounds. What can the man in the street do? I dont know tbh, beside give to good charities and support less restrictive immigration policies.
            I dont think voluteering is inexcusable on an individual level though. It might generally be ineffective, but a good bit of the time its a lot of peoples entry into these sorts of careers (and not only careers, there is plenty of voluteering internationally below the educated elite level)

      • sonamib says:

        Erik’s point is not controversial. I’ve heard the exact same thing in the local news, here! They aren’t really known for their liberalness.

        And I think you’ve misunderstood Lev’s point. He was saying that this was good to give some perspective to Americans. I don’t really buy that argument, because it’s hard to connect in a meaningful way across such a huge cultural gap in just a few weeks. I think you’d be better off reading some local novelists*.

        *The Nigerain author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is great btw.

        • Ronan says:

          I know Erik’s point is not controversial, as my link to Ivan Illich makes clear it’s been made for at least half a century (really longer)My problem is Erik’s ‘point’ , as much as he has one, is both banal and uncontroversial and idiotically made.
          And as Nick mentions below, it can actually add value to both the Westerner and the people they are going to(having said that, I personally would discontinue the practice, or at least put more demands on people bringing skills and commiting more time. edit: but that doesnt mean the framing is helpful, to attack well meaning young idealistic people who might be mistaken in their callowness isnt really the way to go. Very reactionary)

        • Ronan says:

          I agree re Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie btw

          • sonamib says:

            I also like the Congolese In Koli Jean Bofane. Very fun to read.

            And yeah, it looks like I’ve misread you. I apologize. You’re right that it might be more helpful to reframe the conversation as “You want to help? Well, here are some better ways to do it…”

            People who bring in valuable skills aren’t a problem either… It’s even better if they’re teaching their skills to the local people so that they will be fine by themselves in the future. That’s what one of my uncles used to do. He used to go in 6 week stints to a large hospital in the Katanga region of Congo and teach the people there how to run a big modern hospital. Now they’ve acquired the intsitutional knowledge, and don’t need him and his team anymore.

            • Ronan says:

              Being young and idealistic is a great thing, more meaningful than my misspent youth at the bottom of ten cans of disgusting cheap lager ;) (though,in fairness, it was fun) People who are young, aware of their place in the world and want to do *something* though might not be aware enough to know what that something should be,should be encouraged and guided not harrangued. (which Im not saying youre doing,of course)

              edit:just so it’s clear,thats agreeing with everything you said

              • sonamib says:

                People who are young, aware of their place in the world and want to do *something* though might not be aware enough to know what that something should be,should be encouraged and guided not harangued.

                This is absolutely true. It’s better to harang the voluntourism *agencies* because those should definitely know better.

                I’ve read your Ivan Illich link. I agree that it’s a great speech.

        • Ronan says:

          ie the link (it’s decent, you should have a look)

          “I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.

          I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it – the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages.

          Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction – except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously – “salesmen” for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.

          Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared. “

    • Origami Isopod says:

      So we’re back at “Enlightening rich Westerners is ultimately more important than improving the lives of poor people.”

    • Ahuitzotl says:

      they can show members of one of the most provincial, self-obsessed, inward-looking societies in all of human history

      Not that I have any great love for American self-obsession, but this is a load of old bollocks. Most societies are provincial and self-obsessed, and the more powerful the political entity, the more they feel free to look inwards not outwards. Societies that aren’t like this are the exception.

  8. SamInMpls says:

    When I read this it reminded me of an old Doonesbury strip I can’t find right now where, IIRC, Phred asks BD to imagine the VC showing up in the United States and handing out lollipops to children.

    • CrunchyFrog says:

      I remember it. used to have a good search function but they’ve since replaced it with one that can’t find anything. 11 years ago when Kerry got the nomination I went looking for the 1971 strips Trudeau did of John Kerry and they were easy to find. More recently I can’t find anything unless I know the approximate date.

      This does remind me, though, that circa 1975 in my Junior High we were shown a movie short that had been used as the indoctrination film for US conscripts sent to Viet Nam. A good part of it was devoted to doing “good deeds” for the local villagers. What a different time that was – we all saw that and immediately recognized it for the propaganda it was. Show the same thing today and the audience would be split along mindless patriot/rational person lines.

  9. Nick never Nick says:

    I worked for about 3 years as a teacher/administrator in a nonprofit in rural Thailand that was part community college, part community development organization. It was founded by a local person of note, and was reasonably integrated into the local politics and system. However, it depended for its attraction to students on having a body of foreign teachers. These were almost entirely European gap-year students, who came through for periods as short as two weeks. It fluctuated a lot — in the time that I was there, we would have stable periods with committed volunteers who stayed for a semester or a year or longer; other times we would have huge crowds of boozy, excited teenagers. It was my job to orient them (I had been an exchange student in Thailand and understand the place and its language), which was no easy task since it had to include how to live and teach appropriately in Thailand, and how to exist there safely. Many of them were never able to understand that Thailand, far from being a playground for the young, is actually quite dangerous to live if you step outside the boundaries that Thais set for themselves. One woman was beaten up quite horribly for interfering in a fight between a woman and her boyfriend in a disco.

    All of the volunteers came to us through a for-profit organization called Eye-to-I, who paid us to take them in. This was the main use to us, we got money from them, our only real source of cash. After a series of unfortunate events with fragile tourists (one had a nervous breakdown when there was a communication slip-up, and she had the shattering experience of getting off a Thai bus in Udon Thani and not being met), I made the decision to cut them off because they sucked — the resulting financial cratering showed me that money mattered more than ideals. Basically, taking care of the foreign volunteers ate up a large amount of our resources and time, they were largely ineffective, and as you point out, didn’t teach particularly well.

    However, they did have this advantage (Thai teachers also teach very poorly) — they acclimated the students to speaking with foreigners, and they trained the better students to deal with foreigners. A few of our students were eventually able to go to Thai universities (which happened because of the founder’s pull), but some of the more outgoing ones eventually founded their own tourist agencies which take in paying volunteers and distribute them through the countryside. It’s a pretty good way to make money in Thailand, though there’s a lot more competition now than there used to be.

    Also, a surprising number of students ended up marrying volunteers as well, which gave the school a bit of a high reputation for a while . . .

  10. DrDick says:

    This really is the central problem with all elite charities, and why private charity cannot perform as well as public services.

  11. Roger Ailes says:

    Yeah, but she also endorses Chipolte.

  12. CrunchyFrog says:

    So keep in mind that right-wing churches built their self-images as “good” based on being pro-life, “adopting” and occasionally visiting 3rd world village like the ones described in the article, and giving away Thanksgiving dinners and Xmas toys-for-tots to the local homeless. For these reasons they are “good” and any one who supports legal abortion is equal to Hitler. End of story, never going to vote Democratic even if the GOP takes away their Medicare and Social Security.

    All of these “good” acts are seriously self-delusional. This article covers the problems with “adopting” a 3rd world village. I’ve seen big box churches replace their playground structures and ship the old (unsafe) one to the 3rd world village, where assemble it, take lots of pictures, and consider their good deed done for the year.

    The pro-life stuff is equally nonsense. In their promotional materials they always feature a 9-month pregnant mother and 6-month old babies sitting up – because the reality that abortion usually applies before the woman shows and when the fetus is microscopic just doesn’t have the same zing. They oppose medical care for the pregnant woman unless she can afford it herself, and for the child once born unless the mother can afford it. And for all the wailing they do about all the full-term babies they imagine are being killed daily, they have no problem with fetuses dying worldwide due to freedom bombs or horrible health conditions that their parents live in.

    And you can guess that the Thanksgiving and Xmas day things are also laughed at by the full-time social workers, who know that the people the right wingers pretend they are helping would do much better with adequate social programs that the GOP has defunded.

    Lately, though, the trend is to replace some of this with a focus instead on doing “good deeds” for the military. “Wounded Warriors” and “Children of Fallen Soldiers” are just two of the charities that have popped up for these causes. Both of these do entail some right wing grift, of course, as funds are skimmed for “administration”, but doing this allows the right wing to feel good about themselves while contributing to the military empire that causes or contributes to so many of those 3rd world problems.

    • Captain Oblivious says:

      I’ve long argued that one of the attractions of the “pro-life” position, especially to men and post-menopausal women, is that it’s a no-cost way for them to persuade themselves and others that they are morally superior to the rest of us, while ignoring all the other ways in which they are morally and ethically repugnant.

      I’m not saying that everyone who is anti-abortion or who adopts third-world orphans is an immoral monster, only that immoral monsters with authoritarian complexes are attracted to the “pro-life” position because it’s cheap cover.

      I don’t know that voluntourists necessarily fall into this group. It sounds like a lot of these people are young and probably do want to help. The problem may not be their intent, but the guidance they’re receiving.

      • CrunchyFrog says:

        I don’t know that voluntourists necessarily fall into this group. It sounds like a lot of these people are young and probably do want to help. The problem may not be their intent, but the guidance they’re receiving.

        Oh, as I live with and interact with people in this group constantly I can firmly attest that they strongly want to help. They want to feel good about themselves. But they are under the spell of a brainwashing megacomplex that is funded by the largest right wing corporations.

    • Karen24 says:

      All of this. When the church I belong to wanted to support a church in Africa, we contacted our denomination’s headquarters and asked them to see what the African governing body wanted. The African Presbyterians put us in contact with a church getting started in Botswana, and that church sends us requests which we then work to meet. We don’t send anything unless they ask us, and mostly we send $$$. Also, the relationship has continued for 20 years. We helped build a school and a clinic and pay for a malaria specialist to visit a few times each year. It’s far from perfect, but it’s considerably superior to the fundie alternative.

      Also, if you have a chance this December, read the “Good King Wenceslas” parody in Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather.”

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        I don’t know about Botswana. But, I am member of a Presbyterian congregation in Ghana and Presbyterians here like in Scotland at the time of John Knox describe themselves as Evangelical and adhere to a Calvinist theology. It is my impression that Protestantism everywhere in Africa is what would be described as fundamentalist in the US. But, it may just be in Ghana and Nigeria that this is the case.

      • Ken says:

        Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather.”

        Oh my yes.


        Also don’t forget the “Little Matchgirl”.


    • DrDick says:

      The ultimate reality of much of private charities of this type is they are really about making the donors/volunteers feel good about themselves rather than making significant and lasting improvements in the lives of the recipients.

    • Pseudonym says:

      Maybe it’s not an accident that the photo in the OP is from an Evangel University service trip.

  13. LeeEsq says:

    People want to do good and they tend to want a more active part than just sending in money and letting professionals handle it but less than devoting their entire lives to it. While these service trips are ineffective because a week or a month is too a short of a time to have much of an effect, there could be at least some personal and overall value in longer service trips that last at least a year or longer.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      The “personal value” to the volunteers should be downplayed, IMO. Why should poor people have to suffer more for their “self-improvement”?

      • LeeEsq says:

        Because your dealing with human nature and the alternative isn’t going to be the poor getting the most efficient form of aid that they need but that they aren’t going to get anything at all.

  14. mombrava says:

    I went to a Jesuit university that promoted service trips, both in the US and abroad, and I was always deeply ambivalent about the whole thing. On the one hand, they generally involved work with long-term projects that were either run by Jesuits or other Church-related entities, and thus had an impact that went well beyond the week or so most students spent on site. On the other hand, despite all the talk of solidarity, contemplation and reflection, the trips were often treated as one-off ways of feeling better about your privilege rather than the beginning of a life devoted in one way or another to being men and women for others–there was a cult of mini-martyrs who went on them time and again and talked about how hard everything was, how great they were, etc, and yet didn’t seem to have any sense that the poverty of the places they were visiting had anything to do with capitalism more generally. After graduating I spent two years as a full time teacher in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Unlike the kinds of experiences mentioned above, I was fully integrated into the faculty for two years and was wholly responsible for the students in my care. I don’t know that I was tremendously successful by any of the metrics implied by the post–the school sucked overall and English turned out not to be tremendously important to the economic life of the country (I went back a few years ago and all the tourists spoke French). But I learned Kriolu and Portuguese, have been fortunate enough to get paid to read and write about Lusophone African literature, and have a whole bunch of relationships with former students all across the globe. The point being, I guess, that “service trips” can be a good thing as long as they aren’t pretending that the point is service at all.

    • Jhoosier says:

      My church youth group used to do the Appalachian Service Project, think church Habitat for Humanity. While I’d like to think we did some good rebuilding and repairing people’s homes, I think there were two paths you could go down: you could get a deeper sense of the unfairness of life in our country, how it affected especially Appalachia (a lot of the people we helped, the husbands had black lung from the mines) and the feeling that something has to be done, or you can look down upon the poors and feel that you’ve saved the world after a week of doing a shoddy job roofing someone’s house.

      Incidentally, we got to go to Matewan one time, and we actually watched the movie (there or in advance I can’t recall, though certainly a few of the adults were nervous about it). That was also my first experience with bluegrass.

  15. Joe Bob the III says:

    I think it would actually make a pretty good college application essay if a kid wrote about how they skipped the service trip and just sent $2000 directly to the beneficiaries instead because that is an incredibly more effective form of charity.

    Another good example in that same genre is food drives. If you are actually running a food shelf, collecting canned goods from individuals is more PR than feeding people. Food shelves need cash. They can buy wholesale. They can get literally truckloads of surplus food just for the cost of freight and handling. If a person were to give a food shelf the same amount of cash as they spent on a bag of donated groceries, the food shelf could obtain at least three times as much food with that money.

    • Michael Cain says:

      Our local food bank encourages cash donations, and for people to donate time doing sorting, inventory, and packing. I don’t recall ever seeing them ask people to donate groceries.

    • Ken says:

      A woman at my church lives in an apartment building where a food pantry drops off each week. And each week she brings the food that no one has claimed to church, and puts it in the donation basket, where it goes back to the same food pantry. I sometimes hum “The Circle of Life” under my breath…

      • CrunchyFrog says:

        Ha! Reminds me of a story my friend told. In high school the call went around for food donations for the poor during the holidays. He talked with his mom (dad long disappeared) and they found some older, non-expired stuff and he put it into the food pantry box at school.

        On the morning before the holiday (Thanksgiving, I think), a truck came by their apartment and dropped off a box of food goods for them, including a couple of the items he donated. He says that’s when he realized that his family was officially poor.

  16. Jhoosier says:

    Being a foreign language university, a lot of my students go abroad on the month-long breaks. I’m still not 100% sure what they do there, but one student told me he worked as a cook in Phnom Penh.

    I think it’s great they get to go overseas and see the world — that’s what I encourage them to do. But quite often they come back and resume life as clueless as they were — or worse, with a totally negative view about the rest of the world. One guy had his wallet stolen 6 times (losing about $2000 in all), and his response isn’t, “I should be more careful and not wander into parts of Buenos Aires that I’ve been explicitly told are dangerous”, it’s “I don’t want to go abroad again because Argentina is dangerous.”

    • Gregor Sansa says:

      He walked around with hundreds of dollars in his wallet even after it had been stolen multiple times? What the fuck? That is an incredibly large amount of money in the third world.

      • Jhoosier says:

        Don’t ask me. To be (somewhat) fair, in Japan it’s not uncommon to have several hundred dollars in cash on you. Until recently no place but the largest department stores would take credit, and even now it’s hit or miss when you’re out at restaurants and other shops. The way Japan handles money deserves its own rant, but suffice it to say Japan is a nation where you use your designer purse and smartphone to reserve your seat at Starbucks while you order your drink.

        But yeah, you’d think after the 2nd or 3rd or 4th time, you’d start to think, maybe I shouldn’t be carrying around all this money.

  17. AMK says:

    Well for starters, colleges could stop pretending these trips show anything about applicants other than “my family is wealthy enough to send me abroad for a few weeks.” Many elite schools have publicly downplayed the emphasis on SAT scores for the same reasons (“my family can afford the private tutors”) so it shouldn’t be hard for them to make some noises about service trips.

  18. Comparative advantage holds for altruism as it does for self-interest. My daughter asked this year for her Christmas present to be a charity donation, and she steered me to a smallish Scottish outfit called Mary’s Meals (as you can guess, the founders are Catholic). It started out as a broad-purpose charity in Bosnia, but then decided to specialise. What they do now is school meals for poor rural children in Africa. So they seem to have got good at it: community involvement, local sourcing, no-frills technology, monitoring and evaluation. Let’s face it, few 18-year olds are useful enough at anything to make a difference.

  19. Brett says:

    Do any of those voluntourist types come back from their trips with a sympathy for the plight of poorly off folks in their home countries, or do they just go back into a bubble regarding domestic issues having seen Real Poverty* out far, far away?

    * And before fucking Dilan Esper or Lee Esq show up, yes, I’m aware that poor folks abroad are usually worse off than poor Americans. But on the other hand, these folks are probably going to spend most of their lives living in their home countries – it sure would be nice if they took more of an interest in the plight of folks at home too.

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