As someone from Nigeria, I usually have mixed feelings when my friends announce they are planning to go volunteer in a country with a high poverty rate.
The whole process is a little, well, uncomfortable. I am from Nigeria, and I have family that live there. To me, the idea of someone flying to some African country and offering them help is truly bizarre — probably as strange as it would be for an American to see someone from Nigeria travel here for two weeks to do the same. It also seems more than a little unproductive. I have never understood brief one-time volunteer trips. If you care about a community of people, shouldn’t helping them be a lifelong goal, and not a glorified vacation?
I acknowledge that some people go on these volunteer trips with the intention of genuinely trying to invest in sustainable change, but the vast majority of the time, that is far from the case. For many people, trips to volunteer in less wealthy countries produce little more than a few eye-catching Instagram posts at best. At worst, they produce actual harm for the communities they seek to help.
One can consider the example of Tara Winkler, the managing director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, who has dedicated her life to helping kids in the Southeast Asian country. She is undoubtedly a brilliant activist, but at times in her life, her work has caused more harm than good. For a large portion of her activist career, she was unknowingly volunteering at an orphanage that essentially stole children from their parents in order to collect tourist donations, a common problem in many countries.
Winkler and my friends who travel to volunteer are both part of a far-reaching phenomenon: the spread of voluntourism. Voluntourism describes a form of tourism built on the idea that wealthy vacationers can turn their trip to a foreign country into a chance to help build a school, teach English or something along those lines. However, as this New York Times article outlines, this type of quick and easy activism frequently has negative repercussions. A family going on a voluntourism trip to help build Haitian schools might end up taking jobs from local bricklayers. Or consider those who travel to work with orphans. It may seem rewarding for both parties in the moment, but the eventual abandonment can hurt the kids in the long-term.