Updated: Mar 21, 2019
By: Tedi Beemer
Michael Matheson Miller’s 2014 documentary Poverty, Inc. chronicles how local businesses in Haiti were crippled by NGO involvement after the earthquake in 2010. When public amenities were damaged by the natural disaster, international not-for-profit organizations were eager to donate solar panels and street lights free of cost. Local producers were unable to compete with NGOs offering free exported products. Subsequently, Haitian manufacturers suffered massive financial losses in the wake of the earthquake. The donations offered by these not-for-profits were provided with good intentions, but ultimately encouraged a cycle of foreign dependence and external aid.
In the same way, volunteer labor can be commodified in a way that deprives local individuals of business, enterprise, and income. I would know, because I’ve been a voluntourist.
In 2010, I embarked on my first volunteer trip to the Dominican Republic. Our expedition was a week-long venture into the suburbs of Santo Domingo, with house building and manual labor projects occupying our mornings, and with community building and outreach missions in the afternoon. While there were certainly many laudable elements of the organization I volunteered with, including employing local project leaders, aspects of the trip are retrospectively unnerving.
The thousands of dollars that I paid in travel expenses and lodging could have, and should have, been used to employ local individuals. Instead, this money was massively misallocated to transport, housing, and food for a 12-year-old girl with no technical, architectural, or engineering expertise. The money I spent to parade around Santo Domingo, providing my worthless, unskilled labor for free could have employed local workers, paid them a fair wage, and helped stimulate the local economy. Instead, I robbed native Dominican Republic citizens of jobs and income while making a spectacle out of poverty. But since the negative consequences of voluntourism were hidden beneath a guise of good intentions, I refused to see how my altruistic actions could possibly have harmful results.
Volunteering abroad can be done properly, and can have beneficial effects, but it’s important that the volunteering experience is well-researched and thought-out. It is critical that volunteers abroad provide skilled expertise, as to not deprive local individuals of employment. Skilled labor should either consist of advanced technical knowledge of a subject or knowledge that is difficult to obtain locally. Offering engineering advice, providing medical services, or teaching English are examples of skilled labor that can permissibly be provided to an accepting community.
Since this knowledge is rare or difficult to obtain, it provides the community with information instead of material. Information and education are tools that will alleviate poverty by imbuing local individuals with job prospects, marketable skills and opportunities. Alternatively, provisions like unskilled labor and donations provide a cheap, imported alternative to products promoted by local businesses.
Subsequently the communities that we strive to help are hurt by the homes we build and the solar panels we donate. If we truly strive to volunteer for another’s benefit, then we must forgo the narcissism of believing our unskilled labor matters, the allure of exotic travel under the guise of beneficence and the illusion that charitable intentions inevitably produce positive results. We must volunteer consciously, knowledgeably, and diligently.
Editor's Note: Tedi Beemer is an undergraduate at LaFayette College. She contributed this blog after being interviewed for Voluntour No More. Click here to view her video interview. This post has been edited minimally for length and clarity.