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Volunteerism or Voluntourism?

Students begin their 21-day trip by traveling to a ranch in the Guanacaste province. As volunteers, they will work with students from local schools and teach them about modern environmental issues. The teens also learn about Costa Rica’s development issues and speak with natives about recent environmental changes within the region. Trip participants will also experience popular tourist attractions like whitewater rafting, horseback riding, and ziplining. A student can do all this for $5,099, excluding international airfare, and they complete a total of 40 community service hours over the duration of the trip.

This is one of Global Leadership Adventures’ programs, “Costa Rica: The Initiative for Children”, which brings teens from around the U.S. to the small Central American nation to focus on development issues. Many students today are looking to change the world and their lives by “making a difference”. Teen service programs like GLA promise to make this possible.

According to statistics featured on the GLA website, 97 percent of past participants believe their experience was life-changing.

Teen volunteers claim to have had impactful, memorable experiences during their time abroad. A fitting description of these trips is “voluntourism,” a combination of travel and volunteer work. Students can learn valuable lessons from their experiences with voluntourism, though there is still a large argument about the extent to which teen trips actually help communities.

Cynthia Goldman ’20 discovered her passion for service after completing a teen trip through Westcoast Connection. “This whole experience with voluntourism made me realize I wanted something a little more serious, so I joined an organization, which is a non-profit called Amigos de Las Americas.”

Despite “all the Facebook photos and lack of tangible impact on the communities you’re trying to help,” Nicholas Religa ’19 told The Politic, “I think these sort of trips give perspective to a lot of very wealthy children who have no idea how the rest of the world lives. I think that can offer temperance of thought to these kids.” Religa insisted he has “no regrets, whatsoever” about his experience abroad.

Goldman formed a close relationship with her host family, which she says contributed positively to her experience. “That’s something really special to me that I think has nothing to do with service learning or community service,” said Goldman. “So that’s why I don’t look on either experience poorly because I think the cultural exchange is the most important part about it.”

Service trips can provide positive experiences for students for more reasons other than the change they effect. Cultural exchange and the development of interpersonal relationships are equally impactful.

Jessica Miller, the Executive Director of Global Leadership Adventures, spoke with The Politic about the impact of the organization’s service endeavors.

“We’ve been creating bottle schools and bottle clinics,” she said. “So this is really awesome because it’s utilizing litter.” This project, which gives new life to plastic waste, is sustainable and beneficial, and GLA makes an effort to teach its students exemplary volunteering practices.

“We strive to make sure that [service is] always positive and that we’re doing no harm—first and foremost—but that we’re doing something that does contribute in an appreciated way.”

Despite the positive experiences had by teen volunteers and the intentional goals put forward by organizations, it is unclear how much their service is helping rural communities.

In an interview with The Politic, Religa acknowledged the savior complex often associated with voluntourism. “I know a lot of kids who are like, ‘Oh I went to Nicaragua and it was so rewarding and I took my Facebook photo with twenty children and now I’ve done my job and I’m coming home.’”

Religa participated in a program called the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. His group assignment was to offer advice on how to improve a public swimming pool in Soweto. He described it as a “consulting project.”

“I can pretty safely say we had zero impact,” Religa said. “I’d say there’s an extraordinary amount of ‘make yourself feel good by doing this and achieve no tangible impact’ in these kinds of things. To give you some perspective, they taught us all the good words, they taught us how to present well, make a good presentation – and all of those skills are every valuable and will be used in later life, but in terms of making a real change, as they peddled it to us going into these communities, what can five 17 year olds really do?”

While Religa may have gained valuable skills and insight from his trip abroad, he realizes the service he completed affected little change.

Goldman agrees that service trips advertise lofty goals, but the service conducted rarely leaves a lasting impact. “Going for the day to clean a Wildlife Reserve means nothing in the long run. Fixing a fence means nothing in the long run when the fence is going to fall down again,” she said. “You’re not making an impact, and the fact that you’re paying to do it is just kind of not ideal.”

Miller told The Politic that many organizations are conducting poor volunteer work, though she insists GLA is different.

I’ve seen organizations—I’ve heard about them, of course—who go in and maybe paint a school, and you hear that the school has been painted every single year and nobody cares what color the walls are,” she said. “It’s really irrelevant to any of the objectives that the community might need to benefit from.”

In a Huffington Post article, Pippa Biddle, a writer and advocate for sustainable service, reflects on her experience with voluntourism, working in a Tanzanian orphanage. “Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure,” she wrote.

Privileged students from America are not always the best equipped to provide sustainable, impactful service to communities in need.

“Collectively [the volunteers] had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves,”  wrote one New York Times article.

Sometimes, volunteering even causes real harm,” according to the article. The volunteer effort in orphanages “has become so popular that some orphanages operate more like opportunistic businesses than charities, intentionally subjecting children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money.”

Volunteer organizations often waste resources that could be more efficiently allocated to people and organizations within the community, and they can even contribute new problems to an already struggling region.

Despite the negative effects of voluntourism, these trips allow students to experience service in a hands-on way and they can be life-changing. Goldman noted that her service trip to Ecuador was an extremely “impactful experience”. “It’s something that I literally think about everyday,” she said.

The notion of volunteering is not inherently bad and its valuable aspects should be retained. An ideal solution is not to criticize students interested in service abroad. It is to instead examine and reconstruct the industry of service travel. One Muse article suggests that “We need to examine the entire system of ‘doing good,’ not just condemn individuals. By having a broader discussion about the systems behind the critiques, we can help create more effective and impactful volunteer and travel opportunities in the long run.”

Students with volunteer experience also believe there is a way to effectively carry out service in an underprivileged community.

In an interview with The Politic, Emily Almendarez ‘20 said: “To do service is not just a trip to a location and logging in 27 hours for that week. It’s an ongoing thing and it’s not working for any community, it’s working alongside of,” she said. “Working for is to state that that community has no agency; work alongside of is just indicative of the progress that was already being made that you’re helping assist.”

Almendarez believes effective service should be done with the community in mind, and that volunteers should not engage in service for selfish reasons. “Just because you’re on this trip, doesn’t mean that you’re an amazing person. That’s not what you should strive to do ever.”

Almendarez reflected on her volunteer work in Puerto Rico, which she considered to be effective and conscientious.  “We didn’t go in thinking that we were going to project any of our own ideas or have our voice be louder than the voices of those people already doing the work,” she said. “We just lended a helping hand and that was most of the trip.” Meaningful service must be approached with the right mindset.

If students want to reap the benefits of service trips while still truly helping a community, they can instead focus on non-profit organizations or dedicate their time and money to causes most relevant to struggling regions. Teen service trips are not all bad, but helping boost students’ self esteem and increasing their cultural awareness must be weighed against the benefit to rural communities.