Say what you want about my generation, but millennials are some of the most generous people around. We want to help—we were born into a globalized world, and when we see our fellow woman and man overseas living in poverty or indignity, we’re overcome with the need to do something about it.
It’s that same global curiosity that tickles our itchy feet and flings us off into every corner of the world to study, work, and play way more than our parents did. When you mix our wanderlust with a generational desire to fix the world, you get voluntourism, a global trend whose name sounds like our two favorite things wrapped up in one neat package. But in this case, the whole can be less than the sum of its parts. If not carried out thoughtfully, voluntourism can do much more harm than good. Here are some things you should know about voluntourism and ethical volunteering.
Work to Empower, Not to Save
Sustainability is more than a tree-hugging buzzword: It should be the goal of absolutely every volunteer effort, because its absence usually leaves a community worse off than it was. The number one goal of any good volunteer project is capacity building: empowering communities to address their own needs by sharing expertise and effecting systemic changes.
Flying into Burkina Faso to help distribute purified drinking water definitely keeps a few people healthy for a day; but if you’re not there tomorrow, they’re going right back to the polluted well they were using before. Volunteer projects like this don’t address real systemic problems like water insecurity.
When projects like these are carried out by two-week tourists instead of vetted international organizations working with local governments, they run the risk of disrupting the local purified water industry. This can lead to industries collapsing from lack of demand, putting more people out of work and leaving them totally dependent on foreign aid organizations for clean drinking water.
But a volunteer project working with local universities and government organizations to produce affordable water purifiers, improve the city water treatment system, or provide financing and support for water technology startups has the total opposite effect. These kinds of projects empower local people to take control of their own drinking water and determine for themselves what kinds of initiatives will serve their communities best.
Even if you don’t know the first thing about water sanitation, you can still help out with great projects like these. Volunteering to help with social media awareness-spreading or fundraising for an organization like PureMadi, which works with the University of Venda in South Africa to produce sustainable water purifying technology, may not seem as sexy as personally handing out drinking water to the thirsty, but it gives you a chance to help permanently quench a community’s thirst.
Are You Really Qualified to be Doing That?
There are broadly two kinds of volunteer roles we can serve in: skilled jobs and unskilled ones. Both carry important ethical concerns that you should consider before ever booking your trip.
Providing tuberculosis vaccinations in Uganda or teaching computer skills in a rural Nicaraguan school are fantastic ways of facilitating social change, but only if you’re actually qualified to do them. Skilled labor like this requires a particular kind of education and experience. If the extent of your medical experience is your two semesters of college bio classes, the fact that your passport comes from a country with fantastic hospitals doesn’t qualify you to be a doctor or a nurse in a developing country.
On the other hand, unskilled labor is something most people can do with little training or technical knowledge. Be skeptical of simple construction, clean-up, or other manual labor projects: If anyone can do it, why do they need you? Are you a more talented trash-picker-upper than your neighbors in Haiti? In participating in these kinds of projects, you’ll usually be squashing employment opportunities for locals who could support their families with jobs like these.
If you’re still building your professional skills, look to programs that offer training tailored to the communities in which they work. WorldTeach, for example, offers year-long teaching placements that include initial and ongoing pedagogical training and support tailored to the needs and requests of the communities they work with.
If you’re not ready to invest in a professional skill just yet, try offering some sustainable unskilled help. Voluntourism organizations like All Hands Volunteers let local governments and NGOs take the lead, and carefully screen incoming volunteers for sustainable long-term reconstruction projects after natural disasters.
Don’t Be a “Poverty Pornographer”
Not objectifying people is about more than just not hurting someone’s feelings: Images of poverty and people in suffering have the power to either humanize and spread awareness and empathy or to dehumanize and promote debilitating stereotypes.
It’s incredibly important to remember and be actively cognizant of the fact that the people you are helping are human beings first, and poor or disadvantaged second. Most people around the world daydream, laugh at good jokes, love their mothers, get frustrated with their homework, feel lonely at times, and aspire to be able to care for themselves, just like their neighbors in developed countries.
Poverty porn is the use of images of poor people and poverty to encourage us to make a donation or otherwise use our superior position to “save” them. The problems with this approach are many: Not only is it literally using people to generate income for a foreign aid organization, but it also perpetuates the dangerous myth of the helpless poor person whose only hope lies in the charity of an empowered white Westerner.
Look for organizations whose imagery depict humans in dignified, human situations and in poses and settings that you wouldn’t mind being photographed in if you were in their place. It’s no coincidence that high-impact organizations like Cordaid also have excellent track records of using imagery that presents the people they work with as dignified human equals.
In 2016, if you’ve got a desire and an internet connection, you can help. There’s absolutely zero wrong with combining some volunteer work with your summer backpacking trip, or with picking a volunteer project that will boost your own professional or personal growth, as long as you do your research and ask yourself the right questions about your plans regarding voluntourism.
Whatever you do, don’t let bad voluntourist projects turn you off from volunteering altogether. Voluntourism exists because there’s a lot of good to be done in the world and, refreshingly, a lot of people out there who want to do it. If you’re one of those people, go out and see the world; and while you’re out there, make a thoughtful choice about how you can change it for the better.