Why you should think twice before volunteering abroad

By Alex Laidlaw (ArtSci ’12)
Former General Director, Queen’s Project on International Development

After reading this post about why everyone should consider volunteering abroad, I wanted to provide a counterpoint. There are many reasons why someone shouldn't undertake short-term international development work.

Volunteer placements often do more harm than good. There are numerous reasons why this may be the case —check out this article and this documentary on orphanage work in Cambodia. These examples demonstrate fundamental flaws in the volunteer-abroad system. Volunteers often lack necessary skills or experience. They can displace locals who could be paid to do the same jobs. A market has been created which capitalizes on human suffering. As tragically shown in the case of Cambodian ‘orphans’, those who volunteers try to ‘help’ are exploited.

Even in a best-case scenario, placements are a less-than-altruistic use of resources. Most of the costs, such as travel, never reach the host community. This is especially true if you arrange your trip through for-profit volunteer-abroad organizations, which charge exorbitant program fees. Donating funds used for airfares would most likely serve the community better than volunteering.

Many argue the true value in volunteering abroad is experiential, as the perceptions and perspectives of participants are changed. Acknowledging volunteering may not be the best way to aid a community, it’s rationalized as a learning endeavor. However, the experience may not force people to engage with their own privilege on more than a superficial level.

For example, many volunteers remark on how lucky they are to have certain privileges at home. The term ‘lucky’ reduces one’s positionality to a matter of chance. Understanding your own privilege involves seeing it as something you choose to exercise everyday – including the decision to engage in this type of volunteer experience in the first place.

Perhaps the most frustrating is when people are uncritical in interpreting their own experience. Failing to consider the ways you may do more harm than good distorts how you evaluate your participation. To be frank, what you did was far from selfless. I won’t call you “my hero” in a comment on your new Facebook profile picture where you are surrounded by racialized children. Volunteering abroad isn't something you do for others, but for yourself. Although this realization doesn't warrant adequate critical engagement with your experience, it’s a crucial starting point.

I say all of this as someone deeply involved with and indebted to the experience of volunteering abroad. I have participated in a short-term placement, spending three months working for an NGO in Lima, Peru. I also volunteered with Queen’s Project on International Development, and I helped facilitate internships for several students. Despite the many flaws outlined above, I have done this because I see a ton of value in these experiences.

Short-term development work isn't something anyone should take lightly. It involves dealing with ethical questions surrounding race, class, gender, and colonialism. No one should jump into volunteering abroad without considering the broader implications and critically assessing what their experience is meant to achieve.

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