Nov 182010
Authors: Phoenix MourningStar

Earlier this week an article appeared in the British paper The Observer titled
“Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do,” which “warned” travelers to reconsider volunteering in developing countries. Specifically, the article summarized a research report by South African and British academics that were addressing “orphan tourism.”

The article concludes by saying, “The desire to engage with the world is laudable … but we need to tread more carefully … we might do better to travel, trade and spend … salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help –– may only make matters worse.”

I have to disagree with the article’s interpretation. The research is specific, and the article has a one-sided approach toward the results and conclusions toward a certain aspect of “the trade” having the effect of taking the conclusions of a very specific element of the aid industry and seemingly applying them to the wider arena of citizen service. It’s too bad that many readers have fallen victim to this article’s inaccurate false generalizations.

I’ve been closely watching this story because I am bothered by the narrative people are putting forward, which says that heartless college students are doing these “excursions” solely for the resume points to get into that coveted post-grad program, missionaries diving in to get a larger piece of the religious pie, calling volunteerism the new neo-colonialism  –– the list goes on.

We must recognize that in any venture, there will be those who will try to capitalize on a situation. The story has also been told of the false orphans, children sold by their parents, the lowest class beggars who are purposely disfigured only to gain further sympathy from passing foreigners.

But, I’m not sure that pulling one over on the odd rich westerner is something we really need be worried about so much as the human condition that lies just outside our borders in Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala –– let alone in more isolated and forgotten corners of the world like Moldova, Tuvalu or Malawi and even right here in our own country?

As I read about the great worries of conning unsuspecting westerners and the “long-term” mental health impacts of some of these volunteer efforts, I couldn’t help but to think: Well, what is the long term health (mental or otherwise) of not being hugged or having clean water?
If you argue these efforts should instead be directed toward “capacity building,” where does “capacity building” leave the small church in Iowa that decides they want to reach beyond their town borders to help other people?

It just seems to me that if we are going to wave this huge flag of diversity, understanding and promote global citizenry both here at this university and in general as a nation, we need to have a multitude of mechanisms for people to give and be of service.

As Americans are generally regarded as disconnected from the global human condition, it seems the most powerful thing we can do to assist in the capacity building that is so desperately needed, is to get everyday people on the ground in countries to bring the story home –– that is how real change happens.

It’s no secret that importing products and services to a region can greatly shift the local economy. It would seem all the more plausible if the said product is “better” and cannot be made or found in the region of import.

In this case, people willing to pay to volunteer are not only a “premium product” but also providing a service that may or may not be having an impact. We might debate the validity of the study’s timeline definition of the long-term, but by their own estimates, the short-term impacts are positive. And what are the long-term consequences of these issues if people who have the ability, time and money to help choose to stay home and do nothing?

Even if it be for the most selfish reasons of national security, it would seem to me that the more dangerous tools of disinformation by a subversive media telling people to be afraid of the outside world is the same feeble excuse of ignorance that holds the world imprisoned by fear –– much less dangerous is a slightly misguided human helping another human with their time and energy.

Phoenix Mourning-Star is a graduate student in environmental health. His column appears Fridays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

 Posted by at 3:16 pm

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