With the Right Attitude, Overseas Volunteering Can be Beneficial for Both Sides

Depending on the way they are carried out, overseas trips can either be great or harmful to the volunteers involved. From what I have seen through my own experience as an ODFL officer, the clubs at this school take precautions to make sure their trips are productive. Though One Dollar For Life (ODFL) and Haiti Solidarity may not have perfect systems, I have seen beneficial effects both for people overseas and the volunteers’ perspectives.

Those who argue against voluntourism criticize volunteers who go overseas to build structures that the locals do not need. During these unhelpful excursions, volunteers push their own ideas of what is needed onto the people there and sometimes make things worse. However, I have seen ODFL and Haiti Solidarity take a different approach, working through non-government organizations (NGOs) based in the regions they visit. When I volunteered with ODFL in South Africa, we helped non-government organizations with their usual work, doing things that they deemed necessary. High school volunteers perform jobs that require labor rather than actual skill, such as scraping paint or laying bricks. More hands working means the job gets done faster.

The benefits of a trip are also dependent on the attitudes of the volunteers themselves. Though the goal of the trip is to help people in need, there are many ways this can be approached, even by good-intentioned volunteers. It is easy for volunteers to fall into the trap of acting like Westerners coming to save the foreign people from their “incorrect” ways or to adopt the attitude that they are great people for coming and volunteering on these trips. When I was in South Africa, I tried to keep in mind that I was not doing anything that was worthy of gratitude. I had much more than the people there had, through no virtue of my own, and what I was doing was tipping the balance a little bit.

I had known something about the injustices in the region before I went, but seeing real people facing them made the injustices real and immediate in a way they hadn’t been before. I also learned a lot just by seeing people so cheerful despite having problems so much bigger than my own. It was a humbling lesson in gratitude, and when I came back to ODFL it was no longer just a club I was a part of but a huge priority for me.

Critics of voluntourism say that trips are self-serving if the volunteers benefit from them more than the local people, but the clubs at our school are trying to create globally aware citizens. Maybe at this point high school students cannot make a huge difference, but if the trips can make problems in other countries immediate to people used to a luxurious lifestyle, these trips have the potential to create a generation more invested in the welfare of people around the world.

As high school students and volunteers we are not able to make as big a difference as we might wish. But the clubs at this school help non-government organizations do work that is necessary, and students come back with a new perspective on the world which extends past their own communities. They may not be transforming the communities they visit, but that is not the point of the trips. For students, the opportunity to learn about issues in other countries from the local people is invaluable.