Talk point: Do short volunteer trips to the developing world help against extreme poverty?

Amber’s volunteer work at a Tanzania AIDS clinic changed her life – but can this be said for all those who sign up for short volunteer programs in poor countries?  

This question in The Atlantic’s advice column with Jeffrey Goldberg really stuck with me since I read it: “Will my daughter be hurt in the college-admissions process if she doesn’t go to Africa?” the reader asks.

Goldberg responds, “What you’re describing sounds like a condescending exercise in ego-tourism. If I were the leader of a struggling African village, I would rather have your $2,500 in cash than 10 days of access to your daughter’s limited set of skills.”

Part of me wants to give him a high five  - but another part of me thinks that he’s missing the value of these organized volunteer trips, like those provided by VSO International, World Teach and Volunteer Africa (which we’ve actually covered on ONE.org before). For many people, this is once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness extreme poverty and bring their experience back home to their communities.

I decided to do a little investigating. I asked a few ONE staffers this question:  Are short volunteer trips to the developing world helpful or hurtful to the fight against extreme poverty? Read what they had to say, then share your thoughts in a comment below.

HELPFUL – But it could be better: Meagan Bond, creative manager, ONE
Voluntourism isn’t going away anytime soon, so we should try and refocus it to maximize the effectiveness. Seeing extreme poverty firsthand can give you an understanding and connection to the issue that you wouldn’t otherwise have – that can make you a stronger, more compelling advocate and a real ambassador for these issues to people who will never experience what you did. So perhaps the organizations that plan these trips could end each trip with an information about how to be an advocate/fundraiser/etc for the issues when they get home. I’m sure there are better ideas out there, and I think we should spend our energy figuring out what they are instead of criticizing people who have good intentions.

HELPFUL, Sam Sanden, ONE volunteer leader, US
When outsiders come and impose their desires and ideas without local support, it can easily become a burden and waste of resources. However, working with local established partners, serving their needs and their vision, I have found short term volunteer trips incredibly helpful and rewarding for both the attendees and the recipients. When we work overseas, we have found our presence to be a force multiplier, opening doors previously closed for the local NGOs and it has benefitted their ongoing long-term work significantly. It also has raised the level of awareness and support for the local NGOs stateside which in turn has enabled more effective work overseas throughout the year. Not only did we see lives changed in Africa, but we also came back changed, with a renewed passion to stay in the fight! While money is always needed, nothing compares to working shoulder to shoulder with people.

BOTH: Saira O’Mallie, campaign manager, ONE UK
I’m mixed – it really depends on who you are and what you do. It can be an amazing experience but it has to be part of a journey. You can’t fix a problem like extreme poverty in two weeks, but you can get the insight and experience that leads to a longer commitment to the cause.

BOTH: Annabel Hervieu, press secretary, ONE France 
I think short volunteer trips are more helpful for the volunteers than for the poor people. It helps the volunteers discover how life is in other countries and cultures. It must be a great personal experience, but we know this is not what will help fight extreme poverty and help the communities where they are settling. Meanwhile, at least it can raise awareness among these individual volunteers who can become super factivists and testify on how important it is to campaign against extreme poverty and mobilize decision makers.

NOT HELPFUL: Joe Mason, ONE faith leader and globe-trotting videographer for NGOs
“There are well-intentioned organizations that offer trips to Africa that include mountain-climbing, wildlife safaris, even trips to see volcanoes, paired with a few days spent passing out rice packets to those in need. Though all of this sounds exciting, our presence may not be what a struggling village really needs. What if the money spent on airfare, hotels, and food could be turned into a new training center for agricultural development in Northern Kenya, where rural farmers learned more effective methods of growing food for themselves, and for selling their crop for a profit?”

What do you think? Tell us your thoughts in a comment below.