Put the Volunteer in Voluntourism

By Christian Cepeda

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Original photo by author
“Our campus is in South Bend, Indiana; our classroom is the world.” -Notre Dame President Emeritus Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C.

The University of Notre Dame takes pride in the service students do internationally, but after attending a medical mission trip to Lima, Peru, I began to question how much volunteers were actually contributing to the local community. My experience led me to believe our work was not nearly as beneficial to those we were there to serve as I might have hoped. With this in mind, I sought to discover whether voluntourism—defined as “utilizing discretion and income to travel out of the sphere of regular activity to assist others in need.” (McGehee, N.G., and K. Andereck)—should continue at the University of Notre Dame. In this essay, I will share several people’s stances on voluntourism and discuss previous studies on the matter. I also will refer to an interview with Jimena Holguín, who shared a lot of my concerns and told me the role voluntourism has played specifically at Notre Dame. Lastly, I will share my experience of how I concluded that voluntourism clubs either need to be better prepared before departure or need to be removed entirely from the University.

After seeing volunteers degrade the local community at the mobile clinic in Lima, I wanted to see if people viewed voluntourism as negatively as I did. Ian Birrell, an award-winning columnist and foreign reporter, believes short-term volunteer projects cause more harm than good. First, local workers lose much-needed jobs to wealthy tourists who pay to volunteer. Second, it is not ethical to let abused or abandoned children get emotionally attached to tourists, only for them to leave the kids behind and increase their trauma. He points out that if the standards were reversed and foreigners came to care for America’s kids, we would not allow it (Birrell, 2010). Noelle Sullivan, an Assistant Professor at the Institution of Global Health Studies at Northwestern University, agrees with these remarks and adds her position that people who vouch for their own voluntourism experience overestimate how beneficial their contributions were. The problem is that it is hard to find the few good organizations among the bad ones. A solution to the voluntourist dilemma she offers is to stop trying to be a “white savior,” which is when a white person feels that they know what is best for another community without context. Often, the best way to help a community is not by using your working hands but by attempting to “amplify local efforts and voices in the long term” (Sullivan, 2018).

While there are several negatives associated with voluntourism, many of its harshest critics acknowledge it is a nuanced issue. Sullivan mentions that most people that go on these mission trips have good intentions and that, “Criticizing good intentions discourages people from trying to do good in the world” (Sullivan, 2018). Wyatt Foster, a Global Citizen Year participant in Senegal, is on the side of good intentions as she believes the benefits outweigh the costs. She argues this point by using what she terms “real good versus feel good”—“real good” is making a positive impact on a place, while the concept of “feel good” is going on a trip to boost one’s self-esteem. Foster believes these “goods” are not mutually exclusive (Foster, 2017). Living in Senegal, Foster saw that there is an impact in students seeing global issues first hand. With proper education and exposure, volunteer tourism can help individuals aspire to positions in international aid in the future.

Several research studies have shown that voluntourism does not truly benefit the communities it seeks to serve. Nancy McGehee and Kathleen Andereck interviewed locals from volunteering locations like West Virginia and Tijuana, Mexico, to see how this tourism directly impacts the community. One local said, “Volunteers have been coming to this part of the country for thirty years. I have been here for six, and while I am sure that the volunteers reap benefits from the experience, I honestly don’t see a change in the community” (McGehee and Andereck, 2008). A different study calls out volunteers as most of them only want to turn their vacation time into a charitable act. The trips are self-centered as tourists are often motivated almost equally by altruism and self-gratification (Guttentag, 2009).

Although media stories like to accentuate the positive results, many research studies portray more mixed results. Guttentag’s research wants to increase the attention of the adverse side effects instead of solely the positives. Benefits the media likes to depict are the work that volunteers achieve, the money generated from volunteers for these host communities, personal growth for the volunteers, and fostering a better understanding between diverse cultures. Several cons the study thoroughly addresses are neglect of local’s desires, disruption of local economies, and completion of unsatisfactory work (Guttentag, 2009). Kerrigan’s work, which used several interviews with locals, suggested that International Volunteering and Service (IVS) programs need to stop sending adolescent Americans to developing countries because it is creating adverse outcomes for the host community. These can be seen in the belief of negative stereotypes and in the creation of dependency culture—when people are encouraged to become dependant on the benefits given to them by others than to work for the benefits themselves. The same study, however, would advocate for voluntourism contingent on several adjustments being made. It strongly suggests that trips can be more beneficial if there were an increase in the pre-departure information given to volunteers and if volunteers give locals the same respect that they themselves would want (Kerrigan, 2012).

Most studies that address the pros and cons of voluntourism conclude that its benefit (or lack thereof) is specific to the situation. Judith Lasker’s book, called Hoping to Help: the Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering, focused on medical brigades and mentioned that the host community welcomes some volunteers but not all of them—this all depends on the volunteer. Do the volunteers want to learn about the culture and help as much as they can, for as long as they can, or do they simply want to use the opportunity to explore? Bad volunteers waste time and are more of a burden in “trying to help” than not helping at all (Lasker, 2016). Another book, Stephen Wearing’s Volunteer Tourism: Experiences That Make a Difference, mentions that the amount of “participation” a volunteer intends to put out affects how much the community benefits (Wearing, 2001). While the work of voluntourists is often well-intentioned, it is often deleterious since many voluntourists are unaware of the power and privilege they hold in these positions. Another study also describes medical brigades as “black-market health care providers.” It claims this because the treatment is rushed, there are no proper records for patients, and medical professionals often feel obligated to prescribe medicine since their patients may never see a genuine doctor (Mclennan, 2014).

To see if previous studies are applicable to our community and to learn more about voluntourism at Notre Dame, I interviewed Jimena Holguín, the Assistant Director of the International Summer Service Learning Programs here at the Center for Social Concerns. I shared my experience in Peru with her, and I asked her to share some of her opinions on my discoveries in researching the topic. She believes that short-term mission trips, like the one I went on, tend not to be very beneficial; in general, she suggests that the longer one volunteers, the better as longer trips allowed volunteers to build meaningful relationships with community members. I went on to give examples of the medical voluntourism clubs here at Notre Dame, such as the Global Medical Brigades, which went to Panama for Spring Break. She explained that while larger groups make mission trips more fun, they often defeat the purpose of volunteering by making it seem like more of a vacation and less like an opportunity to work with and learn from the host community.

I intended to learn what Jimena Holguín thought were the problems with voluntourism. She said that the most significant issue involved ethics. She explained how, oftentimes, students will go on mission trips to perform medical procedures or teach classes that they would not otherwise be able to do in the United States without proper certification. She concurs with Birrell’s position on refusing to lower our standards for people outside of the United States because every person deserves the same dignity. Other issues include the negative psychological effects that groups of volunteers may have on the children that they leave behind after their trip is over. She told me about a time when she was in El Salvador, where she saw several little kids crying as they were saying goodbye to a group of missionaries that had spent a week in the community. As this group of voluntourists were leaving, and the children exclaimed, “It’s always the same! They come and leave.”

The most intriguing part of our discussion encompassed Foster’s idea of the “real good versus feel good.” Holguín said, “Mission trips are definitely a feel good experience. More often than not, a mission trip is going to be more beneficial for the volunteer than the local community.” I suggested that her answer meant mission trips are selfish, to which she agreed. Holguín mentioned that some students might go on this trip with the intention of improving their resumes or curriculum vitae (CVs). If this sort of service is self-serving, I asked, why is putting mission trips on a resume or CV beneficial? She replied: “Because service is valued… That doesn’t stop ever… Whatever you apply to, these [mission trips] are going to be valued.”

When I asked what the biggest problem with voluntourism is, Holguín pointed to ethics. However, she argues that when volunteers are prepared and have a genuine mindset of wanting to do good, then they can have a real impact on the community. Holguín says, “Mission trips are usually people’s first and only exposure to life outside of the United States.” Holguín, like Wyatt, believes that first-hand experience can help people improve their decision-making skills in the future and encourage them to take into consideration the needs of others and similar global issues. She said that many people who go on one-week mission trips are inspired to go on an International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), an eight to ten-week service learning opportunity offered by the University of Notre Dame. There are other programs similar to ISSLPs at colleges around the United States, but what makes ISSLPs unique is that Notre Dame requires a lot of pre-departure preparation and education, which many short-term trips lack. She also believes that volunteer tourism can allow people to discover something about themselves that they had not known before. A student may go on a medical brigade and realize that he no longer wants to be a doctor. I shared my own story about how the person I went to Peru with discovered that she no longer wanted to become a pediatrician after working with children all day.

The interview ended with a discussion on a better alternative to voluntourism. Holguín believes the best way to help communities and avoid self-motivated action is to listen to communities, find out what they need, and act upon it. The optimal result occurs from providing the community with the funding or labor that they need to be able to eventually flourish on their own without the need for volunteers. I then asked why there seemed to be plenty of clubs at ND that focus on volunteering abroad but not any that focus on fundraising for international efforts. She said that the number of volunteering clubs does not matter when anyone that meets the requirements is able to start a club and directed my attention to a club that focused on fundraising named “Hesburgh Heroes.”

The club “Hesburgh Heroes” has an amazing backstory that would not have been possible without volunteering abroad. A man named David Gaus got an accounting degree from the University of Notre Dame but felt unfulfilled, so he spoke with Father Hesburgh regarding his aspirations and decided to volunteer abroad in Ecuador. His experience seeing people lacking basic health care inspired him to become a physician with the goal of serving the people of Ecuador. When he came back, he explained his ambition to Father Hesburgh, who then helped fund his education so that David could go back to Ecuador once he got his medical degree. Now, Dr. Gaus has two hospitals and several clinics throughout the country. The club “Hesburgh Heros” was created to directly help fund these hospitals and was named in honor of Father Hesburgh (Gaus). Had it not been for Dr. David Gaus volunteering abroad, many of the people of Ecuador may have never gotten the health care they needed!

Although this story suggests that voluntourism has its benefits at Notre Dame, it is disputable because, according to Holguín, my experience in Lima was quite common. Though I had heard a lot of negatives associated with mission trips, I had initial optimism for my trip to Lima. On the first day there, the volunteers were sent on a “reality tour” to see the more impoverished areas of Lima near the mountainside. As soon as we got to the designated location, volunteer after volunteer started pulling out their phones to record the poverty that surrounded them. The locals had built a plenitude of small homes on what appeared to be a barren desert. The streets were so steep that people occasionally fell, and the volunteers took pictures and videos of everything their eyes saw, including the locals. I found it disgusting and dehumanizing; these volunteers looked at the locals like zoo animals. The week, however, progressively got worse. We got warned not to take pictures because it was rude, but we were also specifically instructed not to take photos of the children without their parents' consent. This did not stop numerous people from taking pictures of children they found cute and thinking of captions for their Instagrams. I thought I was in a nightmare, and I was trying in every way to make up for the actions of the other volunteers. Unfortunately, their mistakes were too numerous to overcome.

After seeing the improper treatment of locals from volunteers in Lima, I had my doubts as to whether we were beneficial for the community. I was dismayed by volunteers’ disrespect for the locals and the total lack of effort to communicate with them. Now, I have realized the benefits of voluntourism depend solely on the mindset and preparedness of the volunteers. My opinion, influenced by previous studies and by my experience in Lima, is that these voluntourism trips overwhelmingly benefit the volunteer over the community in which the volunteers were supposed to support. Holguín suggests although longer trips are more beneficial, the best way to work with a community in need is by listening to them and trying to help provide them with the resources they need to become self-sustaining. For this reason, if the voluntourism clubs at the University of Notre Dame are not cut, they should be required to follow the model similar to ISSLP and more adequately prepare volunteers before departure. To conclude, I suggest that the University of Notre Dame listen to the demands of the communities and research the best solutions instead of assuming what these communities need and assuming that the best way to help these communities is to be there in person through voluntourism.