When I was in college, I remember seeing photos pop-up in my Facebook newsfeed of my (mainly white) classmates on a volunteer trip to Africa. The pictures were always with children and it was always unclear what exactly the volunteers were doing.
It always made me feel weird, but at the time I couldn’t figure out why.
The video above takes a humorous look at some of the common pitfalls that come with volunteering abroad.
Most of the people I knew who went to Africa were motivated by a desire to do good, but many of them did not have the skills necessary to really make a difference. (Check out 0:19 in the video)
Many popular volunteer programs are expensive (yes, people pay to volunteer) and are incentivized to make participants feel like they have accomplished something rather than focusing on real community issues. This often does more harm than good.
When considering whether to volunteer abroad, it’s important to think about what you can bring to the table. If you don’t have skills that communities abroad are lacking, it’s possible you could just be getting in the way.
It’s also important to consider cultural and racial sensitivities. There is a stereotype that Africa is poor and needs the West’s help. A young, white volunteer who is doing work that Africans are more than capable of doing themselves and who constantly posts selfies (which this video hilariously nails at 0:27) with young black children doesn’t help that perception.
Now I don’t want this to seem like I’m discouraging foreign aid or even volunteering. I’m not. There are many issues, like the current Ebola crisis that desperately need skilled international volunteers.
That’s not for everyone though. We can all be part of the movement to end extreme poverty, there is just a different role for all of us to play.
I would encourage everyone who has an interest in going abroad to help, to do their homework, assess their personal skills, and determine whether they could be of better use at home as an advocate than on the ground as a volunteer.
The world’s poor are leading this fight for themselves; our job is to play a supporting role. There are many ways we can take action without volunteering. We can donate to worthy organizations and raise our voice to pressure world leaders to take decisive action.
To change the systems that will keep people poor it will take action from all of us: let’s just make sure our enthusiasm to help doesn’t end up getting in the way.
Because you really don’t want to be the woman in the video.