Maybe That Poor Community Doesn’t Need Your Help

With spring break being only a few weeks away, it is time to start asking the important questions: What am I going to do? More importantly, who am I going to do? And will it make for a good Instagram post? Many will choose to venture south in pursuit of rock climbing in warmer weather while others will stick around Bozeman to regain much needed Netflix and wine time. On the other hand, some students will board a plane to a distant developing country in hopes of bettering the world during their week off from academics.

On first thought, traveling to an exotic country to help those who are in need sounds like the perfect break. A week long service trip full of new friends, charitable volunteer work and the chance to take literally the best selfie ever with the adorable children to whom you just taught English. Many groups will travel abroad to build a well, spread the word of their religion or maybe to help out at a local orphanage. After a week of toughing it out in harsh living conditions deprived of hot showers, travelers reboard a plane home, never to return again, with stories and pictures of their selflessness and sacrifice.

Before performing or even fundraising for service work, it is essential to consider the context of the situation as a whole. Consider if young children don’t mind being an object in your picture so long as it gets 30 likes; if the local community is fine with Americans coming into their communities to install a project that will probably cost less than the plane tickets it took to get there; if affluent westerners imposing solutions on foreign cultures, both historically and presently, turns out to be a good idea. What party is actually benefitting from you traveling to another country to perform manual labor? Too often volunteer groups do not consider what negative impacts, direct or not, they have on impoverished communities.

Short term spring break service trips, though well-intentioned, can have damaging effects. The dynamics associated with an outsider entering a foreign community, usually for less than a week, to perform service work are delicate and multifaceted. Socially, power dynamics construe the context of charity and routinely lead to mentalities of the Euro-American as a savior. Culturally,  imposing a solution onto poor communities, frequently in the form of religion or infrastructure, implies that we know what is best for a community; and taking into account the human rights and race issues we currently have of our own, this is far from the truth.

When examining the finances of short-term service trips it is unclear as to which party is actually benefiting from volunteer work. Short term mission trips can last around eight days and cost participants upwards of $1,000. The cost of an alternative spring break trip is often more than what the average person in a developing country makes in a year. Moreover, the general labor performed by volunteer workers can displace and undermine local workers who are likely capable, if not more qualified, to perform said labor, such as digging a well or building a church.

The narrative around failed aid work is extensive. Innumerable studies and books are dedicated to exploring failed international aid work. For example, on a macro scale, according to the American Economic Review, since 1965 $568 billion dollars, in real terms, has been funnelled into Africa in the form of aid and development work. Yet the per capita growth of the median African nation has been close to zero. Furthermore, on a micro level, a week of international voluntourism routinely places participants in roles they are largely unqualified to perform. As college students, many of our skillsets do not lay in bricklaying or construction. If volunteers do not possess the abilities to be successful in their work, it is time to rethink their trip.

Choosing to donate time and money in hopes of helping others is an undeniably well-intentioned pursuit. Going on a mission trip can provide transformative experiences that can reshape a person’s outlook on the world and foster cultural exchange. However, it is vital to contemplate if short term service trips are the right choice, ethically and economically.

Instead of searching for problems to solve elsewhere, recognize there exists a need in our own community. When volunteering in your own country, specifically in Montana, we have a better and invaluable understanding of what is culturally acceptable and beneficial to those in need. In Bozeman there are myriad organizations that depend on community support and volunteer hours. Planning a service trip can quickly get caught up in the glamour of helping a foreign country. It is easy to forget that there are plenty of problems at home that need to be faced, such as the fact that in Bozeman, 102 public school students are homeless.Traveling thousands of miles to an at risk village is not a prerequisite to doing good. We have immense local opportunities to volunteer and help solve the needs of our own community — opportunities that do not necessitate unnecessary negative consequences.

For more information on volunteering locally, visit: