As the semester begins and hundreds of students return from alternative winter breaks from every corner of the world, it is evident that “service learning” trips by college students have become the latest example of the thriving industry of volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism.” While programs like USC’s Alternative Breaks send students abroad for one to three weeks for charity work, the efficacy and legitimacy of service learning programs is dubious at best. More often than not service trips do little to mitigate poverty; instead, they work to glorify the volunteers themselves while bolstering the Western savior narrative.
But the social impact of such volunteer trips arguably last as long as the two weeks spent instituting them, rendering them futile. The cost of these programs, starting at about $650, covers living and travel expenses of volunteers, not the population they serve. Instead, donating that money to a local grassroots organization that would empower members of the community to institute relief efforts would not only pool more resources but also allows locals to have a stake in their own community. Rather than to commodify already exploited and impoverished people, students should consider the importance of sustainable change because promoting a cycle of dependency can be regressive to these communities, as seen in volunteer-based orphanage work.
UNICEF and Friends International launched a campaign in October 2011 to stop orphanage tourism in Cambodia. Volunteership inadvertently has created a capricious industry where families sell their children to orphanages to mitigate the strains of desperate poverty. The campaign contends that orphanage tourism exploits and endangers children because it lacks necessary safety measures dedicated to the physical and mental well-being of children. The demand from Westerners to volunteer in Cambodian orphanages actually exacerbates the situation, creating a fertile breeding ground for child trafficking.
While voluntourism certainly tarnishes the merit of humanitarian work, it is important to note the impact of effective, long-term and personal aid programs that can be facilitated by both skilled and unskilled volunteers. In case of the Syrian refugee crisis, skilled volunteers who are learned in a craft, language or sport play a critical role in restoring quality of life to children in abeyance. Perhaps the greatest harm of the crisis is the “lost generation” of Syrian children whose development, education and security were interrupted by civil war. Skilled volunteers providing personal aid aim to either return children to their homes in Syria or resettle them elsewhere until they have the skillsets necessary to pursue higher education or to enter the workplace. Personal aid is instrumental to counter the detrimental effects of psychological trauma as well. Unskilled volunteers have a place in the humanitarian world as well; if students truly care about service work, then their selfless and uncompromising dedication to these populations should work in the form of social media campaigning, fundraising and facilitating personal aid programs.
Short and ineffective service learning trips degrade the potential of communities in developing nations and they perpetuate a sense of helplessness and a system of reliance. Students should reconsider the validity of short-term volunteer programs, as they effectively render tragedy into tourism.