When young college students are asked why they volunteer, the answer is usually something along the lines of “I just want to help people,” or “I want to make a difference in the world.” While these answers may reflect good intentions, the actual work that they do tells a different story, and the negative results are seen in the aftermath of this work.
It becomes glaringly obvious that an individual’s own interests in personal development and a desire for relevant experience in their respective field are placed above the well-being of the people that they supposedly intend to help. In making the work about their own personal gain instead of as a means of providing aid, volunteering becomes trivialized, nothing more than a resume booster.
The trivialization of volunteer work diminishes it to a kind of voluntourism, in which participants are more akin to tourists that merely observe their surroundings than they are to volunteers who seek to better their surroundings.
In May of 2018, I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with a UH student-led organization called Friends of Haiti. I was especially interested in and impressed by the medical work this organization did on the ground there.
Throughout the trip, it became evident to me that nothing we did would improve the conditions of poverty and minimal infrastructure that existed in Haiti long before we arrived. In the long run, the work we put in was potentially damaging to the health of the communities we volunteered in.
This is why it is imperative to be conscientious when doing humanitarian volunteer work and to recognize that good intentions are simply not enough to make long-lasting and impactful change.
In order for volunteers to make real headway, the toxic savior complex must be dismantled. We must discard the idea that we are going to save anyone without real skills or changing the overarching system that subjects people to dire circumstances.
Misplaced good intentions often lead to negative consequences that can be difficult to fix. For example, AIDS orphan tourism has become a thriving industry that has led to orphans developing attachment disorders and being subjected to poor living conditions in order to draw more patrons toward the industry.
There are also cases of privileged individuals from first world nations flying out to developing nations to do construction jobs, which they have no experience in, putting those who live there and usually do these jobs out of work.
The key is to focus on sustainability and empowering the locals of the communities that individuals choose to work in, not to force these communities to develop a dependence on volunteers from other countries.
Treating the cause, not the symptom
One such example is Papillon, a business started by Shelley Jean, who adopted a Haitian child to provide him with a lifestyle that his biological mother could not. Jean eventually realized the grim reality of life in Haiti — parents are forced to give up their children because they cannot provide for them.
Jean recognized that the real solution is not to adopt children from Haiti, but to empower Haitian women so that they can provide their children with a healthy and nurturing environment.
In a brief memoir, Jean writes about the experience of meeting her adopted son, saying, “I am hismother only because Altagrace did not have the means to raise her son.”
This is why she started Papillon — an organization that works to teach Haitian women artisan skills that allow them to have jobs and support their families. In turn, the women get to keep their children instead of making the sacrifice of separating their families and dealing with the heartache that comes with it.
Of course, an initiative like Jean’s takes long-term planning, expertise, knowledge of international affairs and knowledge of public policy. It takes the re-evaluation of an individual’s intentions and the kind of outcome they want to see before they participate in voluntourist trips. We must value the importance of being conscientious and taking responsibility when doing humanitarian work.