Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On Voluntourism and STMs

I have participated in several short-term international trips for volunteering or m-work.  They have been literally life-changing in at least two instances:

1)  My first month-long trip to Belize reinforced the idea that I would like to work or serve abroad for a few years.
2)  My week-long trip to China first started me on the path that eventually led to me teaching full-time in China.

Short-term trips do have the potential for accomplishing good things.  However, lately I've read several articles that yell, "CAUTION!  CAUTION!  CAUTION!" 

Projecting Poverty Where it Doesn't Exist by Nate Saint.  Key quote: "Often charity to the poor attracts more people into poverty."  

Using Your Poor Kid to Teach my Rich Kid a Lesson by Jamie the Very Worst M.  Key quote:  "When we descend upon the impoverished to improve our family's perspective, we may as well be saying to the mothers of these children, 'Pardon me, I'm just gonna use your poor kid to teach my rich kid a lesson for a minute. I'll be out of the way in no time – Oh, and I'll leave you some shoes.... and a toothbrush.'"

Why You Shouldn't Participate in Voluntourism by Richard Stupart.  Key quote: "Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills that are currently available."

These articles directly apply to me.  Have I participated in building projects abroad?  Yes.  (Belize 2004, 2006).  Have I participated in in-and-out orphanage volunteering?  Yes.  (Calcutta 2011).  Have I encouraged and supported peers in short-term M trips?  Yes. 

These articles raise important questions, especially for Christians.  Should we scrap short-term trips?  If not, how can we improve our approach?


  1. I really like the approach of Global Volunteers, the organization I volunteered with for a short-term trip in Tanzania. Their whole philosophy of service is about only going where they're invited, working under the direction of locals, and requiring that at least as many locals be working on a project as outside volunteers.

  2. Good points.

    I like organizations that establish long-term relationships even when most of their work is short-term. It seems to help prevent some of the problems of hit-and-run service projects and also gives the organization time to evaluate how to help (and not harm).