College is a time to seek meaning and boost one’s resume, and some students see short-term volunteer mission trips as an opportunity to find both. Most of the 1.6 million volunteer tourists going abroad every year are people between the ages of 20-25, not older experts who have master’s degrees in international development. I’ve seen Instagram posts that ask for funds to 1 go to “Africa” to volunteer, as if Africa were a city rather than an entire continent with 54 distinct countries.
What is most worrisome about young people with a lack of expertise going on these mission trips is that, no matter the good intentions, aid work without significant training can cause systemic damage to communities.
One volunteer tourist organization, known for targeting college students, advertised a two-week visit to an orphanage with the description, “Do you have a heart for orphaned, vulnerable, and impoverished children and youth?” Of course, I have a heart for children in need, but showing a child attention for two weeks and never contacting them again creates a cycle of abandonment.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter 2 series, leads the charity Lumos, which aims to reduce volunteer tourism and reveal the harmful nature of the orphanages in which 8 million children worldwide reside. Although people volunteering in these locations believe they are helping, 90% of these children have living families. However, the popular desire to visit impoverished areas generates income, 3 leaving people with few choices other than to send away their kids. The intended charity work has the opposite effect and deprives children of sustained love from their families.
The efficacy of volunteer work outside of orphanages, such as doing manual labor, is questionable as well. Robert Lupton, a Christian community developer, noted in his book, “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It),” that after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras, U.S. missions groups spent on average $30,000 per home to rebuild properties damaged, even though local workers could have spent $3,000 on each. Not 4 only does this demonstrate a waste of resources, but it also brings attention to another problem.
Local construction builders could have been employed in these efforts, saving on airfare and housing costs for foreign volunteers. Instead, individuals whose livelihoods had been negatively impacted by the disaster were stripped of the opportunity to do work and rebuild their own economies. Economists have found that directly giving money with no strings attached to those in areas generally infiltrated with humanitarian activity can do wonders for sustainable development and can directly raise the standard of living. 5
Developmental work is a complex issue, with nuances that could not possibly fit into one opinion column, but it is also a complex issue that cannot be addressed by one week of good intentions of American students alone.
I’m not opposed to all humanitarian aid, but who can better assess the needs of a rural community in the global South: those who live there, or students who could not name the capital of the country they’re visiting? Before you sign up for a mission trip, think critically about who it will benefit most and who it might hurt.
Katie Dames is a junior international studies major from St. Louis, Missouri.