Traveling abroad for short periods to help the less fortunate, otherwise known as volunteer tourism (voluntourism), is a potentially transformative and heart-warming way to spend your vacations. It also provides life experiences to write about in personal statements and helps students stand out in college, medical school and residency admissions processes. Voluntourism is becoming increasingly popular, with a 2008 study estimating that 1.6 million people spend around $2 billion annually volunteering on vacation. However, there are potential issues associated with voluntourism that you should consider before you decide to travel abroad to help the less fortunate.
Voluntourism Can Harm People and The Planet
There are many voluntourism companies that offer opportunities for high school, college, and medical students to perform medical procedures, even though they lack formal qualifications. While such experiences might seem enticing to empathetic and zealous students who want to serve the less fortunate and get into top programs, they can cause more harm than good. Due to an entirely different medicolegal atmosphere, unqualified students often perform procedures that may unnecessarily place patients in risky situations. The ethical issues associated with such situations would be somewhat mitigated if procedures were performed under the supervision of a resident or attending physician.
Other popular service-learning activities such as teaching English, building houses and playing with children may seem harmless and well-intentioned, but may again cause damaging effects. For instance, a study in South Africa examining “orphan tourism” (where volunteers care for orphans for a short period) found that orphanages purposely placed orphans in poor living conditions to squeeze more donations out of empathetic volunteers. It also proposed a correlation between the cyclical departures of these short-term volunteers and the development of attachment disorders in the orphans. Even well-intentioned volunteering can create unforeseen suffering for the aid recipients.
Voluntourism also effects the environment. A recent study in Nature Climate Change found that global tourism (which is one of the fastest growing economic sectors) accounted for approximately 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and that most of this carbon footprint is exerted by high-income countries. It is important to realize that the cost of traveling abroad to volunteer is not isolated to your (or your parent’s) checking account.
There Are Underserved People at Your Doorstep
One does not have to go abroad to find the less fortunate; there are those in need next door, right here in the USA. Approximately 40 million Americans live in poverty and 18.5 million Americans live in extreme poverty (12.2% and 5.7% of the US population, respectively). One in 6 people in the United States are hungry. In Washington D.C., rates of HIV were at one point higher than in West Africa. Arguably, it is more efficient and conscientious to help people within walking or driving distance, rather than spending money to fly to exotic locations and Instagramming yourself helping the local populace.
Go Abroad Once You Have Specialized Skills
If you are passionate about helping the underserved in other countries, first focus on becoming a full-fledged physician with a specialized skillset. You will then have the potential to make a more significant impact in a short amount of time, which fits the time frame for many volunteer trips. For instance, ophthalmologists can go on short-term assignments in underserved communities around the world, where they perform eye exams and treat cataracts or other ocular conditions for hundreds of people before returning to their respective countries.
Conversely, most high school and college students have not only limited time but also few skills to offer when they embark on international medical volunteer trips. Besides leading to some of the ethical issues described above, it is also important to acknowledge that the trip benefits the privileged more than the poor. Arguably, you might have more of an impact if you donate the money you would have spent on the trip to an organization staffed by professionals dedicated to improving the lives of the less fortunate.
This post is not meant to be a condemnation of international volunteering at a junior level. Such endeavors, when done properly, can certainly benefit all parties. However, it is important for anyone privileged enough to participate in international volunteer trips to understand the pitfalls associated with voluntourism, critically examine whether traveling abroad will benefit others more than oneself and make an educated decision on whether such service-learning trips are worthwhile. Just because you can do something does not mean you should.