Of all of the morally questionable spring break activities that students partake in, why discourage international humanitarian work?
While the recent Exponent article (“Maybe That Poor Community Doesn’t Need Your Help”) makes several valid points, the author severely underestimates the mental and moral capacity of his peers if he presumes that their primary motivation for volunteering abroad is “the chance to take literally the best selfie ever.”
Although I agree that students should never traipse arrogantly and naïvely into a foreign country for self-satisfaction, “selfie” potential and bragging rights, having only a week or two to spare shouldn’t deter students from volunteering abroad.
First and foremost, international volunteerism is a partnership: respect for the culture, wants, needs and values of the community receiving aid must be top priority. Additionally, the locals must be open to foreign assistance. Prospective short-term volunteers should choose a program whose trips build towards long-term, sustainable goals; their work should aim to fulfill the needs of the community and reflect their personal skillset.
Most of the time, students aren’t just walking into a community they know nothing about and errantly “digging a well or building a church;” many reputable organizations organize short-term service trips with specific projects that student volunteers and locals complete together.
While I concede that short trips don’t foster cultural immersion and may not make a measurable economic impact, even a week can promote cultural unity and awareness. Time abroad may inspire students to undertake longer international service projects in the future, as well as to volunteer close to home.
Despite my objections, I appreciate the author’s mention of local volunteer opportunities, and agree that students shouldn’t forgo volunteering locally for the lure of foreign lands.
However, as long as students on short-term service trips recognize their limitations, learn about the local culture, respect the community and keep an open mind, the experience can be positive for everyone involved.