On International Service Trips: America’s Feel-Good Hobby

I don’t doubt other countries participate as well, but as an American I’m going to write about America’s love of voluntourism, the participation in international service trips.

First, let me assure you there is nothing wrong with wanting to help people. Obviously. But we as Americans seem to have a paternalistic view of helping people in different countries, thinking we know best and that if other countries would just do as we do there wouldn’t be a problem.

It’s not a mystery as to why people like these trips. If you participate in these trips you get to travel, you get to feel good about yourself, and you get to help other people. It’s a win-win-win situation.

But here’s the problem: We tend to go on these trips with the attitude that if only these people we are trying to help would be more like Americans they would have better lives. We try to help them in such a way that in the long run does’t help at all, but instead forgets the traditions and beliefs and abilities of the culture we are trying to help. We go, we “help,” we leave and show people our photos of the “unfortunates” we helped.

Here’s the part where I admit I’ve been on one of these trips. In many ways, it was wonderful. I travelled to a place called Santa Rosa, Peru. It is a village right on the Amazon River smack dab in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. It is only accessible by river boat and is about two hours away from the nearest city, which in turn is only accessible by boat or airplane. It’s a fantastic place.

My two weeks in the Peruvian jungle showed me how resilient humans can be. It showed me how wonderful the Peruvian Amazon culture is. It showed me that often the simplest food is the most delicious (Beans, rice, and fried yucca anyone? Best. Food. Ever.). It also showed me how blind well-intentioned Americans can be.

I travelled with an organization called Youthlinc. While I have come to see problems with my specific trip, I think Youthlinc does have great philosophies. In order to go on an international service trip with Youthlinc, participants must do a certain number of local community service hours. These hours of service help to offset the cost of the trip through an agreement with the local Rotary Club. What is exceptional is, even if you can afford to pay for the entire trip without help from the Rotary Club, you are not allowed to go without providing the local service hours. Youthlinc’s goal is to create lifelong humanitarians, not simply to provide opportunities for Facebook photos that make you look like you are a deep and caring and adventurous person. In terms of genuine intent and a desire to help the entire world, Youthlinc is the real deal.

I went on a trip in 2008 so I don’t know how much Youthlinc has changed over the years. But as of 2008, there were problems. First, we took a bunch of toothbrushes and t-shirts and other things to donate. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a problem. But if you think about it you realize there isn’t garbage removal in the middle of the jungle. Worn out toothbrushes can’t simply be thrown into the recycling bin and forgotten–there simply isn’t a place for them to go. Additionally, even if a group of Americans donates a bunch of toothpaste to go with these donated toothbrushes, toothpaste runs out. Then what? The locals can no longer brush their teeth, which the visiting Americans assured them is essential for their health, and where does that get anyone?

Second, we told the locals that the Amazon River, which is their lifeline, is not clean so they shouldn’t use it. Prior to my arrival, filtered water towers had been installed in the village by the Rotary Club. I hope I don’t need to point out that telling a culture they should no long use the thing they rely on for almost everything is a bad idea.

Third, we built sidewalks through the village. The main problem with this is, the locals can’t maintain them without donations of money and/or supplies from outside sources thus the sidewalks are likely to fall into disrepair and become safety hazards.

The overall problem with the things we did on my service trip was we provided what we considered great services and improvements without consideration of resources Santa Rosa already had for maintenance and development. Neither did we consider self-reliance or the overall culture. Our services were short-term solutions instead of long-term self-reliance.

If a village in the jungle needs help with oral health, it is much better to work with that village to determine what resources they already have to take care of their teeth instead of bringing a bunch of toothbrushes, leaving them, and saying hasta luego.

There are a couple of experiences that led me down this path of rethinking how Americans do international service. First, while on my trip with Youthlinc, there was a participant from Colorado who joined us as part of research for her schooling. As best as my recollection serves, she was studying water and usage or some such thing. She mentioned one day that if you take a bucket of Amazon River water and store it covered, it will have the same amount of microbes as would a bucket of water from the water towers stored uncovered. This got me thinking about the usefulness of the donated water towers and how strange it was to tell a bunch of Amazonians their primary water source is bad. (Interestingly, I recently ran into this girl and she didn’t remember telling me any of this, despite how much of an impact it had on me. Isn’t that often how it goes?)

Then, I studied Anthropology in college. I learned about ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. I heard anecdotes and studies about how well-meaning groups would enter a culture and improve overall health (seems like a great idea, obviously), but would leave, not taking into consideration that improved health means a bigger population, which can mean having less food availability so instead of people dying from disease they are dying from starvation.

I learned about roads in Haiti that had been paved by service organizations, but left to fall into disrepair because the local infrastructure couldn’t maintain them. This meant that the paved roads became so hazardous cars had to travel on the side of the road instead.

In short, I learned that the American Way isn’t the Only Way and that being well-meaning in your service isn’t good enough, and can in fact do more harm than good.

I don’t think the solution to all this is to stop doing service. People worldwide need help, and helping your fellow man is good. I do think the solutions are fairly simple.

First, work locally. Youthlinc is unique in its approach because of the local service requirement. Plenty of organizations will take you on an international service trip without consideration for local service. But ask yourself, “Why am I so amped to go on an international service trip if I don’t even think about what is needed locally?” If you don’t serve in your own backyard, traveling abroad to do so is plain illogical, and I would hazard to submit doesn’t come from a place of true love and service. Pardon my bluntness, but if you want to do international service but don’t care about local opportunities, what the Hell are you doing? It’s a common bumper sticker and full of truth: Think Globally, Act Locally. If you can’t act locally, revisit your intentions.

Second, service organizations need to work with the cultures they are visiting to figure out what can be done to both provide service where needed, but also to ensure self-reliance. It isn’t helpful at all to donate a bunch of American t-shirts if the culture you visit doesn’t have a way to clothe themselves on their own (and while I’m on the subject, let’s make sure we understand that dressing in Western clothing is not the only or best option; there are innumerable facets to every culture and clothing is just one of them). It does no good to pave a road if the local infrastructure can’t maintain it. It does no good to assume you know more about the local river than the locals themselves.

Third, we need to do better at learning about and understanding the culture we visit. If the only thing you know about a place where you are about to provide service is where it is on a map, you don’t know enough to fully understand how to help. Having a well-rounded understanding of the culture’s beliefs, values, traditions, daily activities, etc. will only help volunteers understand how temporary service can become long-term help.

I’m not claiming to know everything–I really know nothing. But, going with the example of the supposed contaminated river, in the future instead of saying, “This river i contaminated. Don’t use it anymore,” I would approach it thusly, “What do you use this water for? Do you see a need for something else? Am I being an overbearing ethnocentric jerk? Teach me things, and show me how I can help.”

I recall on my last day in Santa Rosa, the Youthlinc team leaders met with the local leaders to discuss what could be done for the next year’s trip. I wasn’t in on that meeting so I don’t know all that was said or how detailed of a discussion it was or how culturally relative it was. Regardless, it says to me that with Youthilinc at least there is some level of working directly with Santa Rosa to see what is needed. However, based on what I saw and did, there was still a certain level of paternalism and ethnocentrism. Perhaps by now it has changed. (I currently have a desire to interview Youthlinc just to find out. We shall see.) But even if Youthlinc has improved, America’s overall attitude towards international service is paternalistic, ethnocentric, and often rooted in appearances and a temporary warm, fuzzy feeling instead of doing actual, long-lasting good.

To recap, wanting to provide international service is not inherently bad. Humans helping humans is good. But the way it is gone about can often have bad effects. Working locally and letting go of your own cultural biases is a great way to make international service a genuinely positive experience.

*Note: If anyone from Youthlinc is reading this, please know I love you all as well as my experience in Peru, and don’t at all think of Youthlinc in a negative light. I merely have anecdotal criticism of things in which I participated. Hopefully we can all improve. Also, if you think anything I’ve said is inaccurate let me know. I would love to do that interview I mentioned in this post.

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