US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home

William Easterly is a well-respected economist, author, and aid critic at New York University. One of his books that influenced me quite a bit is “The Elusive Quest for Growth: An Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.” In it, he lays out a passionate, cogent case that U.S. foreign aid has not delivered the economic and social benefits donors should expect. You can keep up with his writing at his blog, Aid Watch. Much of it is a consistent stream of criticism around ways aid is portrayed in the media, with timely quarrels with the numbers and policy recommendations.

An interesting side effect of this work has been a rising call for American voluntary aid workers to stay home. In fact, you might even say that the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristoff to popularize awareness of conditions in struggling regions has been met with frustration at Americans’ corresponding desire to do something.

This do something spirit, perhaps amplified in our age of Internet-enabled media and visibility, has even been given a new name, voluntourism.

The frustration with Americans pitching in generally, and voluntourism specifically, is exemplified by the blog Tales from the Hood - at the center of a group of bloggers with titles like Blood and Milk, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, and Wronging Rights – that regularly launches salvos across the bows of DIY do gooders and “amateur” aid workers. Its not clear how they themselves cut their teeth in aid, for whom they practice, and the lasting results that they have produced.

The basic claim of these writers seems to be that “amateurs” – volunteers, really – don’t know enough about aid and development to get it right. They are instead indulging an altruistic “feel good” impulse that would be better left at home. One blog, Coyote Communications, puts it this way:

The priority now for sending volunteers to developing countries is to fill gaps in local skills and experience, not to give the volunteer an outlet for his or her desire to help or the donor country good PR. It’s much more beneficial and economical to local communities to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, etc., than to use resources to bring in an outside volunteer to do these tasks.

In this way, these authors are bringing home the same gripe the British paper The Times leveled at Barack Obama during the 2008 election: since he didn’t have much international experience (read knowledge, skills, etc), he wasn’t fit for the job.

Here are just two points to consider if you tend to agree with this line of thinking:

  • Official Development Assistance (ODA) levels in 2008 reached about US$25bn, up from US$16bn in 2003 (OECD, 2010) – or, about a quarter a day per person. Private US charitable assistance is roughly 10 times that amount, with individual donors contributing about 75% of the total – about $2.00 per day, per person. The fact that more people are becoming interested in where those dollars are going, and want to help put it to good use, is interesting to me. I’m glad Americans are owning up to their financial power in the aid world, and are taking the opportunity to become more informed about their impact by finding ways to contribute more than dollars.
  • In recent years, the average age of American volunteers overseas has risen, with more and more people over 50 taking the opportunity to learn more about the world and contribute their knowledge, skills, and experience in new contexts. The picture of large numbers of ill-equipped, under-skilled volunteers getting in the way of “real aid” doesn’t necessarily jive with a sizable portion of reality. According to a 2009 CNN report, applications to the Peace Corps (a federally funded international volunteer program) by persons over 50 rose 44 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Young people are still a huge force in international voluntary organizations. In addition to providing youth with hands-on experience in varying conditions, in the best of circumstances these experiences expand their world view, foster positive social ties with local youths, and contribute meaningfully to the quality of life in the host community.

    I recoil a bit at the “chilling effect” that the vocal derision of efforts like 1 Million T-shirts can have on the general public’s attitudes toward aid. Do we really want to cultivate “why bother” over “yes we can”? Is it really better to pull the plug than to work smarter? I think about the incredible contributions MIT students are making, through voluntary efforts, to communities around the world – from the development and implementation of clean water systems to the design and delivery of better wheelchairs. By engaging early with community partners, learning alongside faculty, and working hard in often resource scarce environments, these students are making lasting, necessary contributions to the quality of life in communities around the world. Students are learning as they go, yes. Mistakes are made along the way (it would be irresponsible for any development worker to not admit their mistakes). Some students give up or move on. Many succeed.

    And it is for those successes – and the opportunity to learn from them – that we must always strive. We cannot settle for a compromise. And I’m not sure the communities in which these students are working would welcome the kind of “stand down” attitude the most vocal critics of voluntourism advocate.

    In a recent speech to international aid policy experts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton closed by stating, “We can succeed, and when we do, our children and grandchildren will tell the story that American know-how, American dollars, American caring, and American values helped meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

    We won’t get there by retreating to an isolationist posture that leaves international assistance to “experts.” I believe we’ll get there when private aid programs learn to work hand-in-hand with local organizations within a framework of national development priorities. We’ll get there when these private aid programs use the knowledge and understanding derived from these partnerships to mobilize their volunteer base for purposeful activities that contribute lasting human, environmental, and material benefits to the lives of people in these communities.

    I hope that students, including those at MIT and other technical universities, will engage in this debate around “voluntourism” and contribute your voice and experiences to the discussion. I worry that, if left to the detractors, America’s long tradition of mutual aid and citizen-to-citizen assistance will become another  politicized and polarized facet of American life where the cynics and the critics carry the debate, and the day. Instead, lets discuss ways technical, financial, and humanitarian assistance can be made more effective and beneficial – at both ends of the transaction.

    25 Responses to “US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home”

    • I agree with you. I don’t think anyone has ever put together a good theory on how voluntourists harm people or documented these ill effects. Ironically, some of the people who hate voluntourism like tourism because it promotes growth.

      That said I think this post from Good Intentions are Not Enough is worth reading.

      I still think they do more harm than good, but at least they have a rationale for the negativity.

    • Thanks for posting this. I’d be interested to hear some of your ideas.

    • I’m the author of Good Intentions are Not Enough, one of the blogs mentioned in this article, and I’d like to correct a few of the facts presented in this post.

      First, if you read my posts – and I’ve written many of them on the topic you’ll see I make a very clear distinction between skilled and unskilled volunteers.

      If all your are bringing to the situation is your enthusiasm and good intentions then you shouldn’t go. If you go in without anything real to contribute then you could all too easily do more harm than good. And we aid critics have seen all too often the very real impact of this on the ground with people left worse off than before the volunteer showed up.

      If however, you have a unique skill that is needed and not readily available locally AND you understand good aid practices then you are in a much better position to have a positive impact on the community you are trying to help.

      I work very hard to explain good aid practices to the average person, I provide useful links in my posts, and include additional links in the sidebar of my blog to industry standards and resources. Unfortunately good aid is not intuitive. Much of what the average person understands is wrong. As I mentioned in my post today I have made many of the classic mistakes myself. I encourage anyone wanting to be involved in aid to familiarize themselves with those resources. They were developed as a result of past aid mistakes – some by volunteers and many by professional aid organizations.

      Second, I would like to address the 1 million shirts criticism. I worked for over a year to try to educate the average person about the problems with in-kind donations. You can see a full list of everything I’ve tried here in my post about why we get snarky All my efforts got very little attention before 1 million shirts. It has really felt like everyone ignores what your saying until you finally get so frustrated you shout and then they all criticize you for yelling.

      Unfortunately, what people do with the best intentions can very often hurt the people they are trying to help. I’ve personally seen donated clothing piled up chest high in an 8 car parking garage molding away a year after it was donated. I’ve seen villagers invest what little money they have into livelihood projects that fail as soon as the volunteer leaves. I’ve seen aid organizations build houses on land without a clear title where people were kicked out and the houses used for tourists. I’ve seen orphanages built without any orphans to house.

      Third, I not only critique voluntourists but in many of my posts I also critique the aid world at large. I’ve also created a rating system so that the average person can evaluate an aid organization, regardless of size, before giving.

      Fourth, if you want to know how I came about doing the work I do, simply read the about section of my blog. I also talk about my previous experiences quite a bit in the pages of my blog. I’m not hiding anything.

      Please understand that “America’s long tradition of mutual aid and citizen-to-citizen assistance” has not always been a positive experience for those we are trying to help. Good intentions are not enough. To really have the impact we’re hoping for it’s critical that all volunteers and aid organizations understand and follow good aid practices.

    • Like Saundra said – good intentions are not enough. Willingness to help is all very good, but that shouldn’t free you from having a good, hard look at whether it makes sense, or could actually be detrimental: The t-shirt campaign was ridiculously inefficient, and actually undermines local traders. Buying a ticket from Europe/the US and building a school room really makes no sense: with the money spent on one person’s ticket, you can pay several people for a much longer period of time. Give them an income for their work for several months rather than a charitable class room. All these arguments are extensively discussed by the bloggers you mention.

      Developing countries should not be a giant playground for people wanting to Do Something, and I think this is, for all the good intentions, the poisonous side effect of the writings of Nick Kristof and others: That they never talk about developing economies in their entirety, about the business environment, the legal and regulatory environment, and so on. That, of course, is complex and takes some time to understand.

      If you’re really interested in learning more about a place, ego-stroking voluntourism and NGO projects and charitable efforts are really not the only way, and I wish we’d broaden that debate. Can the bright MIT students put their mind to not just creating innovations, but also to figuring out how you can found a business with them (and so pay taxes, and employ staff) rather than push for yet another aid-funded/NGO project?

      I’m almost at the point where I’d want to require everyone wanting To Do Something About Africa to invest in a commercially run company in their country of choice, invest in the stock market etc. so that they have to make more of an effort to understand a place rather than see them as an bunch of (however inspiring) poor people only. Most African countries need business, employment, production, exports, dull stuff like that – not yet more well intended aid/charity/NGOs/projects/schemes.

    • Saundra, thanks for your thoughtful post (quick editorial note: I embedded your links to fix formatting problems WordPress side).

      I wonder how often this accurately describes the voluntary aid situation, “All you are bringing to the situation is your enthusiasm and good intentions”? It would also appear we’ve got a bit of a gordian knot on our hands, as clearly the last 50 years of international assistance has had plenty of enthusiasm, good intentions, AND skills.

      It does seem useful to point out that there are two very different contexts in which aid volunteers might find themselves:
      - Short-term disaster relief and recovery
      - Long-term development assistance (can include recovery efforts)

      The role for non-specialized volunteers seems less evident in the former than in the latter. That said, what are the “standards” for appropriate skill level? Is the fact that someone can read, write, and carry out math good enough in some settings? Should a volunteer have a BA? Perhaps experiential training as an un-degreed machinist?

      The standard seems both opaque, and vaguely misleading.

      One observation I have – and philosophically why I believe long-term aid continues to fall short of aims and potential – is the following: the fate of development “experts” and practitioners is not bound up with the fate of those on whose behalf they work. The outcomes of their education work does not impact the education prospects of their own children (for example). And this gap is where I personally part ways with much of the criticism that comes from the “volunteer stay home” crowd.

      The more this gap can be filled, the better. Better knowledge and information is one place to start. Experience can be a profound source of this learning.

      I believe voluntary assistance efforts are a keyhole – especially for, but not limited to, young people. Even people with modest skills who are making an effort to encounter, learn from, and engage communities in need have the potential to transform, and to be transformed. World views can shift dramatically, and with that shift new views on public policy, individual contribution, and civic responsibility can emerge.

      The flip side is the risk. What is the lasting benefit for the host community? It would be ethically incorrect to conclude that it is acceptable for no benefit to accrue to the host community – whether in terms of infrastructure, widened access to “goods” such as education, medical care, or markets, expanded networks, etc. So honest measures, reporting, and accountability of these programs should be standard operating procedure.

      So my response would be, lets work smarter, not in greater isolation. This requires improvements in university public service programs, international volunteer placement associations, international aid organizations themselves, and much more.

    • I am pretty sure that this is a false division. Nobody wants to see bad aid taking place. I can’t speak for Saundra or Tales from the Hood, but I never at any point said that all volunteering was bad. I started my international career as a volunteer, as did many other people I know.

      But there is a world of difference between an engineering student helping solve a community sanitation problem and a visitor to Cambodia who pays to spend an afternoon in an orphanage. (It is pretty clear, I assume, why parading strangers through an orphanage like that is bad for kids.) You can take issue with the latter and not the former.

      I do think that trying to change other people’s lives is important work, and that we need to take it seriously. That’s what I mean when I talk about professionalism; it’s not about getting paid – it’s about doing good work that you take seriously. I also think that it should not be about transforming the life of the donor. Aid should be about the recipient.

      Steve – if you are interested in the harm that can be done by bad aid projects, volunteer or professional, this post may be of interest.

    • Andrea, thank you for your insights. I think it goes without saying, we agree that good intentions are not enough. In fact, I suspect few would defend the proposition, good intentions are enough.

      How ever, where you say good intentions are not enough, I say they are the beginning. Good intentions drive people to do the most incredible things. In the worst circumstances, they’ll have a miserable experience, learn nothing, and contribute little of value. In the best cases, they might have a life-changing experience, learn an incredible amount, and go on to contribute lasting tangible benefits.

      If someone knew the secret to success – where good intentions meet with lasting community benefit – they’d should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Until then constant experimentation, learning, and improvement will central to success.

      “Chilling” the climate around international volunteer efforts hardly seems the solution.

      So when I hear things like, t-shirts undermine local traders, I think, “What a failure of imagination!” A t-shirt is not a t-shirt.

      When I was in Senegal researching recouperators at the municipal dump at Mbeubeuss, my life was transformed by the innumerable ways the specialized networks of pickers, consolidators/intermediaries, and crafts people were finding to put waste to use, principally in service to the urban poor. Here are a few:
      - T-shirts cut and packaged to sell as rags for car washers. The municipal bus service was counted among their clients.
      - T-shirts cut into strips and woven into bags and other products. Youth self-improvement groups were doing this.
      - T-shirts shredded to use as automobile stuffing by upholsterers. Many informal mechaniciens were clients.

      It would be really interesting to flip the conversation around and ask, “Holy cow, a million free t-shirts! What kinds of innovative, income-generating goods or services can be created as a result of this under-exploited resource?”

      At the end of the day, aid “dumping” is a well documented pathology of the Western charitable impulse, and goes a lot farther back than used clothing. The export of surplus grain remains a classic “Modernization Theory 101″ case study from the 1960s.

      When you write, “they never talk about developing economies in their entirety, about the business environment, the legal and regulatory environment, and so on” I only half agree. The discussion of international aid and development has changed in two very important ways over the last couple of decades:
      - First, it is actually a lively, legitimate public discussion in a way that didn’t exist when I was coming up.
      - Second, international development is rarely discussed without the concepts of local capacity and empowerment thrown in the mix. It may be token at times, but its gaining traction.

      Finally, I think it is important to say that MIT students I encounter regularly are way past the short-comings of the appropriate technology “movement” in the 1970s and 1980s. You will rarely if ever encounter a student who is serious about their work discuss it without getting pretty excited about the prospects for building an business around it that trains up and employs local workers. Sometimes, conventional aid is needed to get these nascent ideas to a point where they take root. Course like MIT’s outstanding D-Lab series – which involve field encounters – really prepare students to work entrepreneurially and respectfully within resource-scarce environments.

      This is where the discussion of alternative finance mechanisms becomes really central – right now, its pretty hard to find the start-up cash required to create new ventures that reach bottom of the pyramid markets. I see our students – and social entrepreneurs around the globe – resisting the foundation push to incorporate as a non-profit, but without it I think we all know the cash can be a serious hustle to come by.

    • Let’s look at this issue from a different angle. Forget MIT students going to places like China or Kenya, instead let’s bring students from China and Kenya to your home town to help solve your community’s problems.

      Imagine that you live in one of the ghettos of NYC or LA and are struggling to keep your kids in school and off drugs while at the same time working extremely long hours to put food on the table. Or perhaps you live in the rust belt. You are seeing your community die in front of your eyes and haven’t been able to find a job in over a year because there are just aren’t any. Or perhaps you live on the Navajo Reservation where you are struggling between old ways and adapting to the new ways. There are no jobs and nothing can be built because of complex land rights that were put in place a century ago to keep the reservation from being sold out from under your people.

      Do you have a scenario in your head? Can you picture your house and your community clearly?

      Now imagine that you are told that a Kenyan or Chinese college student is coming to your town to help solve your problems. They’d like you to help find housing for the student (preferably in someone’s house so they can experience the local culture), you’ll need to get them a translator, they’ll need to be brought in to meet with local government officials, you’ll need to call together meetings of your neighbors and other stakeholders, and it’ll all need to be done very fast because they only have a couple of months off for their summer vacation (or a semester off depending on the school and program).

      What skills, knowledge, and abilities would you want the volunteer to have to make it worth all of the sacrifices and work you’ll have to do to help facilitate their work? What do you think the chances are they’ll be successful? Given that you and your community are on the edge of survival, is this a risk that you’re really willing to take and if so what do the outcomes have to be to make it so that your benefits are greater than your risks?

      How would you feel if you found out later on that one of the main reasons for all the work you did was so that the volunteer could shift their world views and be more aware of international issues?

      Now that you’ve considered all of these factors, here’s another question. With all of the social problems we have in our own country, why aren’t you working to solve problems locally instead of flying half way around the world to solve someone elses social problems?

      The US ranks 27th in infant mortality – behind that of some developing countries.

      One in six US children live on the brink of hunger in 26 states.

      Approximately 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the US each year.

      If you think that problems in other countries/societies are easier to solve, you’re in for a big surprise and probably a failed project. In fact your chances of a successful project are much greater in a place where you understand the language, culture and politics. Believe me these all have a huge impact the success of a project. If you do a project in your own community you’ll be around long enough to see whether it was successful, sustainable, or had unintended consequences. All of these are hard to see in short term foreign projects.

      Make your mistakes locally. Learn your lessons at home where you can see the impact. Become successful at improving your own community before you try to improve someone elses.

      And yes, this is how I got my start.

    • Alanna, thank you. I think the challenge in part lies in figuring out, and communicating well, where that boundary lies: what is “good” volunteering and what is “bad” volunteering? How do we encourage more of the “good” without creating a meta-narrative to the contrary? At the end of the day, these are broad generalizations that don’t translate very well into principled guidelines. Lessons, yes – and there are many examples of lessons drawn from personal experience. But they make a clumsy yardstick against which to measure the potential for individual and collective achievement.

    • I am in complete agreement with the above comments by Saundra and Alanna, but would add the following points:

      The need to endlessly affirm the “some good” that aid non-professionals might accomplish seems to me very much part of the American “you can be anything you want to be” complex. It’s like the mom standing on the sideline hollering, “Good job!” or, “You can do it!” to her son who obviously sucks at baseball.

      I confess that I am by now quite bored with the whole “yes, but maybe volunteers/voluntourists do accomplish SOME good” line of reasoning. I cannot think offhand of any other professional vocation in the kind of mucking about by unqualified, untrained, non-professionals would be tolerated. And in many cases such as medicine, law, education, such unqualified mucking about is even illegal.

      If university or graduate students are going to go out and do humanitarian practicum, fine. But call it learning and subject those students/programs to the same kinds of human subjects research standards and protocols that are required in other academic and professional fields.

    • Alanna makes a statement about how self-evident it should as to why an afternoon visit to an orphanage would be a potentially harmful kind of “voluntourism”. Given how many people still enjoy doing this, and see themselves as “helping” the children, I’ll give one scenario as an example.

      [Full disclosure: I spent time assisting at an orphanage in rural Kenya last summer, where I worked with the local public health office to coordinate health presentations at a local school. At the time, I was a graduate student, and while the impact may have been small, there was a great deal of positive feedback from the teachers and the headmaster at the school.]

      I still keep in touch with the girls at the home, do fundraising work for the organization, and, when appropriate, assist with organizing stays at the home for those with value added. For example, an investment banker is spending a month living at the home and assisting our accounting and finance person. A 50-something adolescent therapist is living there for a year as a house mother and assisting with trauma counseling. Both arranged their trips to take theirs skills and experience where they would be needed.

      On the flip side, we do not encourage short-term stays motivated by personal interest alone. Putting it kindly, our development director says, “Think about having a visitor in your home. I love having visitors, but they are a lot of work, time-consuming, and can be expensive. And it’s always a bit of a relief when they leave, unless they’ve been incredibly helpful in some regard.” More directly, it costs a lot in time and money to pick visitors up from the airport, shuttle them around the area, feed them, and otherwise care for their needs, ensuring a positive impression.

      And most importantly, unless the visitor makes a pointed effort to stay in touch with the girls, it can be heartbreaking for them to have people constantly stopping by, snapping photos, and never returning again. These children have come from situations of neglect, abuse, abandonment, and loss already; some quickly bond to anyone who comes by, while others hesitate to get close even to the house mothers who are raising them. Either way, there is no positive effect on the psyche of these young girls to meet someone, bond with them, and never hear from/see them again, and there is much harm that can be done. I’m not an expert in child psychology, and I imagine someone in that field could provide a much better explanation.

    • A great discussion going on here and some wonderful contributors. I think you are missing a key ingredient when you tell volunteers to stay home. As Alanna mentions, she started her career as a volunteer. And I would hazard a guess that many of the aid “experts” gained valuable skills and knowledge in the field as volunteers that complimented the theoretical knowledge they gained at university.

      I am not afraid to tell you that I organize “international community education” experiences for young Canadians. It is a learning experience- where young people learn what good community development is, what it means to be a global citizen, how they can contribute to meaningful change, and how to really listen to local community members. It is not a pet the orphan experience. It is respectful of the communities and people we work with. And if you are wondering whether a small group of young people can have true impact in a community, I am happy to give you some great examples.

      I recently wrote a post on short volunteer experiences for youth. Feel free to check it out and let me know your thoughts.

    • Saundra, I personally would be skeptical of any student, from anywhere, coming to “help solve [my] community’s problems.” I personally would welcome, and suspect my community in rural Vermont would also welcome, any student, from anywhere, who came to learn about our problems and work with us to identify, design, and test solutions.

      Here at the MIT Public Service Center we help students to better understand their potential to serve the needs in communities anywhere. Where they choose to take their skills is a matter of choice. To their credit, many students here at MIT undertake the kinds of challenges you raise here in the U.S. Others return to their homeland – whether Kenya or China, perhaps elsewhere – to develop and field test their ideas. Still others elect to test their ideas in places where the need may be most acute.

    • Jane, thank you. Just in case folks are wondering where to find your post, I’ve taken the liberty of linking here. Hope its the correct one. Your insights are great!

    • I’ve rarely seen a more short sighted conversation about international volunteering. This is the situation that the international development/AID community faces today – a growing need for funds, for awareness of projects & challenges, and the support of publics and governments from a diverse range of regions. While it may be “trendy” for development experts to insist that only they should be dealing with or encountering the problems faced by people in developing nations first hand, it is a solution to the problem of development that has gotten and will get us nowhere good. It gets us nowhere good for the same reason that a community effort in your or my community (take a small non-profit in any American city or town) would have no success if it did not increase the number of stakeholders through fundraising, encouraging volunteers, spreading awareness among normal people.

      International voluntourism does this, without question. It is indeed a fundamental unerpinnig of the entire “field”, such as it is at a still relatively early stage of its development. Just as volunteering in our own communities often times makes us advocates for and supporters of local issues, in the era in which we live today it is vital to carry out those same processes on a global level.

      Importantly, this is an actionable and visible result of voluntourism. If AID organizations would recognize and utilize this resource of global citizens, of more willing advocates for AID dollars, resources, etc. they could be a powerful tool for shaping public perceptions of international AID and for advocacy in communities world wide. Instead, the development community and its entrenched interests increasingly choose to spend resources deriding these people…

      It baffles the mind, primarily because so many other fields embrace volunteers and the advantages they provide. Volunteers ARE “mucking about” our hospitals and other public institutions, and hospitals rightly view these people as a resource for advocacy and for education. Of course these volunteers are not operating on patients, or tending to IV’s, but their mere presence gives them a stake in the healthcare process. Voluntourism serves the same niche and international volunteers have the potential to bring the same advantages to the development community.

      The interesting thing about this whole discussion; the irony that always overcomes me, is international development “experts” bemoaning the “results” of short term voluntourism when for the most part development models have failed miserably for decades, with few concrete results to speak of despite the millions earned for various inputs of “expertise”. I say this only to point out that no field is beyond raproach or incapable of improving. Yet logically, if the benefits of voluntourism to the volunteers themselves and to the advocacy capabilities of the AID community generally are clear (which they ARE), then it then becomes incumbent on all to not only support international voluntourism, but to become part of the process of improving its effectiveness. To do anything else is short-term thinking that lacks any understanding of the value of communities and networks to affect change. Yet this is NOT something that AID organizations can say that they have done.

      From a practical standpoint, “experts” should be working with volunteering organizations and the non-profits in local communities with which they often times work with more purpose. They should be examining the industry to find best practices. They should be contacting volunteering organizations and in exchange for this help request access to databases of literally millions of former and future volunteers who are going to be more likely than the normal citizen to write their congressman, or to donate to international causes.

      None of this is happening, instead increasingly we get these shortsighted and utterly useless conversations. In a global age, endeavoring to stop international volunteering is just as futile as any effort I might make to stop the oceans’ tides with my feet. Put another way, in an international age international volunteering is as inevitable as volunteering on a national scale. If we take the longview, we who really care about the prospects for international development, about the future of our species as a whole, need to work to take advantage of these willing advocates and helpers. No other field would even debate for a moment turning away people chomping at the bit to help. The emphasis instead would be on finding a way to integrate these new stakeholders into their efforts. The benefits are tremendous.

      I would make one more note on the capacity or capability of a group of unskilled volunteers to “do good”. Technology – from cellphones that allow locals to price shop among contractors to building methods/techniques, etc. – has increased the efficiency of international development efforts. What once took massive organizations or governmental institutions months to accomplish can now be accomplished by local community members and by volunteers in shorter time spans. Many communities full of “non-skilled laborers” have been forced by circumstsance – the inefectiveness of large NGO’s & their own governments – to build their own powerlines, schools, hospitals, etc. These communities are often times grateful to spread awareness of the issues they face by allowing volunteers to take part in their community and in their projects. All of these are points conveniently ignored or marginalized in the course of this debate.

    • I’m Jayne Cravens, the author of the Coyote Communications web page that’s quoted. Saundra, Andrea Bohnstedt, Alanna, J., and Amanda have said almost everything I’ve wanted to say in reply to lhtorres’ blog. Thanks to you all.

      The author of this blog has characterized myself and the other posters as being against international volunteers. We are not. It’s obvious, if you will actually read our position, that we’re not anti-volunteer; we’re pro-local-people-getting-quality-assistance.

      lhtorres asks about the “standards” for “appropriate skill level” among volunteers.

      What’s more important, IMO, than this question, is this: how is this volunteering activity of benefit to the local community, first and foremost? How will it NOT take away local jobs? How will it help contribute to the improved economic status, stability, education or health of local people, or help to balance their economic needs with a healthier, protected natural environment?

      The local community benefit should ALWAYS be the primary goal of working internationally, paid or as a volunteer, period. Volunteers without skills and without support DO get in the way and sometimes have to be rescued (surely you saw the stories out of Haiti, or even during Katrina, regarding this? How much money was wasted on helping these do-gooders instead of helping desperate local people?)

      I have talked to local people who resent international volunteers *hugely* when they feel these volunteers are doing something that local people could have done themselves and been paid for, or when the project was defined and driven by outsiders and isn’t something the locals consider a priority. And I have talked to local people who adore international volunteers who make local needs their priority and are focused on building the capacities of local people themselves.

      VSO, one of the most respected voices in international development, let alone international volunteerism, has come out strongly against Voluntourism, which you can read about here:

      It’s one of the reasons I developed a page specifically for those who want to volunteer internationally and actually make a difference. As I say on the page, “there will always be a need for international volunteers, not just paid consultants, either to fill gaps in knowledge and service in a local situation, because a more neutral observer/contributor is required, or because a priority in a particular situation is inter-cultural understanding.”

      So, please stop categorizing myself and others as anti-volunteer. We’re not.

    • Hi Jayne, thanks for bringing in your perspective! I’m not sure I have categorized you or your fellow writers as anti-volunteer. At least that wasn’t my intent. At best, in attributing to your collective writings an anti-american-volunteer-abroad slant, I’ve made an effort to point out two themes I see in what I’m reading:

      - First is that there is a double standard, even an irony, between the effectiveness of experts and calls for that of volunteers – as Brandolon has passionately put it;

      - Second, that there is an undeniable theme of “amateur stay home” running through many of the posts I read.

      To be fair, the meta message we all seem to be working toward is that aid effectiveness is central, voluntary or non-voluntary, and that the benefits shared.

      That theme is of course couched in rather inconclusive statements like, “fill gaps in local skills and experience” (fill gaps in experience?!) and far more anecdotal than evidence-based reasoning, which adds to the confusion IMHO. Further, there is outrage at the dollars a voluntourist spends on their ticket; it is reasoned that those dollars would be better spent employing people locally. Meanwhile billions of aid dollars are poorly spent by aid professionals.

      Of course, much of this is subject to one’s predispositions and interpretation, so I am more than willing to absorb the flack. I like volunteering, and generally predisposed to volunteers. And you should know that I very much value the time each of you has spent voluntarily to help clarify – in some cases passionately! – the parameters of this debate.

      Quips aside, to me the opportunity lies less in harping on where volunteers go and what they do – in particular the well-intentioned and modestly prepared – and more in how the match-making organizations put them to work. What effort has been made to understand community need? How has that need been translated into a viable volunteer experience?

      No doubt, these are pretty complex processes that require diligence and stewardship – at both ends of the transaction. That onus is on the international organization, not the well-intentioned volunteer.

      All that said with an abiding, unabashed affection for the social entrepreneur who may even be going at it alone, without the support of an organization, large or small.

    • Brandolon, thank you! Your point about a potential boomerang effect is interesting. Is this something international voluntary organizations collect data around? It would be very interesting indeed if a causal line to the effect of, “before I took a voluntourism trip to [country], I didn’t pay attention to international development. Now that I’ve worked in that context, I have a whole new appreciation for my country’s aid budget. Its now an important criteria in the news I read, how I vote, and how and where I give to charity.”

      There is a polling process called “deliberative polling” that looks at pre- and post- public discussion experiences of citizens to measure changes in attitudes. This paper is a little wonky, but gets at the idea.

      Furthermore, organizations like have done a great job collecting stories about the benefits of volunteering – for their volunteers. It would be very useful in the context of this (and no doubt other) discussion to have similar documentation of the stories of community members in which these volunteers worked. Do you know of any such resource?

    • Interesting thoughts. I would think – in order to reconcile both parties – we should be pushing for bilateral volunteer opportunities (despite the current VISA difficulties). One cannot overstate the importance of international travel and discovery for both sides of the equation – Ugandan, Canadian, Kenyan, American, etc. Perhaps we should be having that argument with our respective governments, rather than one over the inherent values of learning about other people and cultures (which are pretty obvious).

    • Very lively discussion here with both sides making some interesting points. Without beating the same drum though, I would mostly have to agree with the arguments Brandolon brought up. While the desire to help might not always be enough, the solution to the problem of ‘voluntourism’ should not be to turn these people away, but to find ways to focus this desire into actionable good. I feel this is the primary problem most volunteer programs and organizations face today.

      The root of the problem lies with the volunteers themselves, who at no fault of their own, often start with unrealistic expectations. I am sure all of us have heard volunteers lament the $4000+ they spent on a volunteer trip to Africa and felt very little good came from it (or less than they expected). Volunteer organizations need to take the lead and provide more basic training prior to departure, namely in the form of literature. I don’t argue that this is a magic-bullet, but just part of a wider solution.

      Before the point is made, I do understand that this would probably increase the program operating costs. This burden would have to fall on the volunteers, but I feel that most would be willing to pay if they also felt they were receiving valuable skill-sets and work experience. This brings up my last point; that volunteer opportunities exist not only to help local communities, but are also a valuable opportunity to train and provide valuable life changing experiences to the volunteers themselves.

    • Siena: And this is basically what AIESEC offers. Students from developing countries have the opportunity to go volunteer or work all around the globe and bring their experience back to their community while also offering volunteer opportunities for europeans and north americans in those same countries.

    • Thank you all for this very interesting thread. While I haven’t much to add that would not be a reiteration of what has already been said, I did want to provide a link to the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St Louis; scholars here have spearheaded some of the most comprehensive, thought provoking research on international service, including explorations of impact:

    • This blog is a bit old but I’d like to add my two cents. I used to work for one of these voluntourism organizers in the financial section helping out the accountant. The organizations was and continues to be small and very very disorganized.

      I cannot attest to the current effectiveness of the projects but when I worked there, just over 2 years ago, there was often little or no result. The places and projects were not as much based on need as much as where the founder suspected volunteers/customers wanted to go. The projects were quickly forgotten, and every new group that came in came off as if it was the first. This despite already 4 or so years of organization being in country.

      The people who ran the organization were misguided themselves, and more often than not felt assuaged by this “aide” they provided. All the while the volunteer dollars went mostly to the business side of things. Like buying pretty furniture and paying for housecleaners for the board.

      My quibble is mostly with the organizations themselves. They bill themselves as nonprofits and give their customers the notion that a lot will be done with the thousands of dollars they pay per week for the vacation. But the way a nonprofits tax report is done, so much can be hidden away as “program expenses”. It isn’t illegal. It’s misleading and I think unethical. For instance, while “volunteers” paid anywhere from $1000 to $2000 per week depending on the location of the program, less than 20% of that money went in any way shape or form to the particular community.

      I suggest you pull up some of these organizations tax returns as several are nonprofits and must make their returns available. Look at their various schedules. You’ll find an odd disparity for “direct assistance” and “administrative services”. Look up their assets. Their new assets. I suspect it’s not the one bad apple in the bunch.

    • Rather than sitting and waiting for someone to give you a chance, embrace ambiguity and connect with others around you to create new opportunities. That is being entrepreneurial and working with an entrepreneurial mindset. Echoing an idea, individuals do not create competitive advantage by coming up with a great idea, but by being the ones in motion toward achieving it.

    • I agree with you Emily; I have met personally the same situation

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