Why Your Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bullsh*t On “Service Trips”

I’d like to add that this is not a new idea. The problems associated with voluntourism are well known among the professionals who work in international development. I have added many links at the end of this post to inspire further reading on the subject.


There have been many different articles written about the ineffectiveness of short-term voluntourism trips to developing nations, including here and here by our friends at in-Training. You know the kind of trips I’m talking about: a spring break spent painting an orphanage in Haiti as opposed to drinking all day in Panama City Beach; a 10-day excursion in exotic Peru, with the pics of Machu Picchu to prove it; or, for the overachieving do-gooders, a couple weeks spent parading around Nairobi, Kenya.


However, these types of trips often exploit the people and communities they pretend to help. Worse, these short-term service self-fulfillment trips can end up doing more harm than good.


I’m guilty of this myself. I spent a couple of weeks in a remote Ukrainian village in 2006, where I basically just hung out with a few orphans and occupied space. The following summer, immediately after graduating high school, I spent a few months in Uganda where I did slightly more work until I realized the true uselessness of my unskilled presence there. But the only people less helpful than me were the groups of voluntourists I’d see trickle in and out, wrongfully believing they made a lifelong difference in a child’s life.


Medical students are often reminded of the importance of using evidence-based medicine. Similarly, it is imperative to focus on evidence-based best practices within the field of international service rather than relying on anecdotal experiences. Many people have the best intentions, but lack the necessary tools to be effective. Here’s why trips like that are a problem.


1. They are entirely too focused on how the volunteers benefit. 

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/65.jpg

Elle Stayton

Me on the right with two kids who look incredibly uncomfortable.


Do you want to feel fulfilled? Do you want to “Be the change you wish to see in the world?” How about adding some international healthcare experience to your residency applications? The common theme in those sentences is “you”. But it shouldn’t be about you, it should be about the people you’re there to help.


My least favorite but most common response when asking someone about their micro-trip abroad goes something like this: “I was heartbroken to see how life is there. It really makes me realize just how good we have it. My life will never be the same.” (*Rolls eyes*)


If you truly want this experience — to change your world perspective, etc. — then at least call it like it is and admit you’re going on a self-fulfillment trip. Don’t call it humanitarian work when the only human benefiting from this experience is you.


As Al Jazeera America points out, “As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”


Ask yourself this: Do you want to go help, or do you want the people to be helped? If you honestly care more about the latter, then understand that the best way to help a community may not involve you personally traveling to it. Unskilled, short-term voluntourists often do very little to actually help a community develop in a sustainable manner.


First, don’t go on these type of exploitative trips. But if you must travel, make sure the organization you’re going with is well-respected on the ground and is truly invested in the people or community that it is there to help, not just in the volunteers’ experience. Many organizations have a mission statement, check to see if its focus is on the community or the voluntourists. Not all of the short-term efforts are a lost cause if the organization’s focus is on the right things. Then continue to invest in the cause when you return and use that newfound understanding of world to help improve it. Good things can come from these trips if people use them as a catalyst for good in the future, as long as it isn’t at the expense of the local population. Don’t forget about it once your Facebook pictures get old.


2. The lasting impact of short-term voluntourism trips is often negligible.

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/42.jpg


He needed medical care for his ankle. The colorful bracelets distributed by the voluntourists who had just left couldn’t fix this.


People on such short trips usually don’t stick around long enough to realize how ineffective they are being.  In Uganda, I became used to seeing groups of young people come for week-long visits at the orphanage where I taught English. They would play with the kids, give them a bracelet or something, and then leave all-smiles, thinking they just saved Africa. I was surprised when the day after the first group left, exactly zero of the kids were wearing the bracelet they received the day prior. The voluntourists  left thinking they gave the kids something they didn’t have before (and with bragging rights for life). But the kids didn’t care, because what they really wanted was school uniforms, their school fees to be paid, guaranteed meals, access to healthcare, etc. — the basics.


I recognize there are some short-term trips that do produce value, but if you went on a voluntourist trip and had to question if you really “made a difference” or not, the answer is probably not. Good intentions are not good enough. To use a medical analogy, an aortic dissection cannot be fixed by giving the patient an aspirin, wishing them well, and then walking away whilst patting yourself on the back for helping. Similarly, temporary measures do not solve the chronic and multifaceted societal problems many developing nations face.


Worse, they can even be harmful to children who struggle with abandonment issues.  This should not be understated; have you ever considered the negative impact it routinely has on kids after they bond with someone for a week, and then that person disappears from their life? If your justification for going on these trips is “seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces”, then you’re part of the problem.


If you must go on one of these short-term trips, then leave behind more than you take away. Don’t just give out bracelets, help provide for their real needs. Do something that actually matters that wouldn’t otherwise be done if you weren’t there, just make sure it isn’t taking jobs away from the local community. This may not be fun; it will be work. Many well-respected organizations publish impact reports. I suggest reading through those and assessing the effect the organization is having on a community/cause before giving it your time and money.  Also, consider your options helping from your own country. Research how much foreign aid is going to that area or for that cause and write your representatives about it, inform your peers about the situation, hold a fundraiser and donate the money to a (legit) organization that knows the situation well and is there for the long haul, etc.


3. “Voluntourism” is offensive and can even contribute to further problems.

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/orphanage.jpg

A UNICEF-sponsored ChildSafe campaign, in collaboration with Friends International.

A UNICEF-sponsored ChildSafe campaign, in collaboration with Friends International.


The term “orphan tourism” comes to mind here, which is exploitative. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) agrees, orphanages and slums aren’t a tourist attraction, so they should not be treated like one. They are not a destination to be checked off one’s do-good/feel-good bucket list. They house real people with often devastating backgrounds who are in need of care longer than you can provide, more food and medical treatment than you’re equipped to give, and a more sustainable community that is less susceptible to things like war and disease. They do not need your pity, temporary attention, or to be featured in your Facebook profile photo for a month, as The Onion mockingly points out.


The growth of voluntourism has even made things worse in certain places, where “orphanages” are run by traffickers who take in non-orphans for profit, as The Guardian shares:

“[I]n Cambodia, as in other parts of the globe, orphanages are a booming business trading on guilt. Some are even said to be kept deliberately squalid. Westerners take pity on the children and end up creating a grotesque market that capitalizes on their concerns. This is the dark side of our desire to help the developing world.”

Here’s a video about the negative impact orphanage tourism has had in some areas, and why it can be harmful to children.


Invest long-term into helping a population or region. This can include volunteering with or financially supporting legitimate organizations who are committed to a situation. Also, considering studying international development and then working in that sector professionally. You could become a human rights attorney, work at the United Nations, work for a non-profit or NGO, etc. Although fair warning, trying to solve complicated, chronic problems is not as fun as #InstagrammingAfrica makes it appear. It takes dedicated work, little by little, and I highly respect and admire those who devote their careers to this type of work.


4. They’re an egregious waste of money.

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/32.jpg


The tens of thousands of dollars a group spends on a short-term trip to an orphanage could instead pay that orphanage’s food budget for a long time.


Two weeks on a medical trip to Tanzania can cost you $3,040, not including airfare, which is roughly $2,000. If six people go on this two week trip, that’s more than enough money to pay for a local doctor’s annual salary. Let that sink in.


Voluntourism is a multi-billion dollar industry. If people truly cared about helping a community or a cause, then they could re-purpose the money that would have been spent on a tour of the area and instead invest it directly into the community itself.


It’s problematic when the only time someone is willing to spend big money on an impoverished region is when they get to go have a cool experience there. There are many legitimate organizations worldwide who — through skill and dedication — produce tangible results and have a great impact on a community/cause. Most of these organizations do not need to entertain western tourists for a week, but do need financial support to continue to do great work. Sadly, sometimes they cannot get one without the other.


Take the money that would have been spent on a self-fulfillment trip and donate it to legit organizations. This could include Doctors Without Borders, Watsi, Possible, UNICEF, and many more that are already on the ground full-time, doing effective work. Of course, throwing money at a problem in no way means it will be solved (see the disaster that is Haiti post 2010 earthquake). That’s why it’s crucial to do your homework on non-profits/NGOs before donating money into a black hole. This is a messy, complicated field of work with lots of room for improvement, but many well-respected organizations are at least transparent about their finances, where donation dollars are going, and the impact it is having. I suggest reading through an organization’s financial publications if you’re worried about where your money will go.

5. They promote a cycle of dependence.

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/80-300×225.jpg


Just what Americans need, more jewelry to buy.


International development is too often impeded by international dependence.


There are times when a community is forced to be fully dependent, like during the aftermath of a natural disaster or when violence forces people out of their homes and into resettlement camps. Another example of this is the current refugee crisis, where people need all the help they can get right now. Barring exceptions such as those, when a community learns to rely on donations it is less inclined to become self-sustainable, which stifles growth.


Preventative medicine and long-term care are both more effective treatments than applying a bandaid. Do several bandaids worn in succession fix a gaping wound? No. The wound will become infected or heal improperly because it was never treated correctly. Similarly, to truly be effective, one should focus on working to prevent future problems from occurring (through development), and on long-term solutions (through dedicated work by legit organizations).


Even one-for-one programs contribute to the cycle of dependence, or at the very least, don’t solve long term problems. For more on this, I recommend Vox’s article on why “Buying TOMS Shoes is a Terrible Way to Help Poor People.”


It’s the whole teach a man to fish principle. Sustainable development is key. This takes research, dedicated investment, patience, collaboration across multiple parties, and a ton of work (think years, decades). Many organizations are committed to this type of real work. (Shout out to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, an organization I used to work for that helps strengthen democracies in developing nations.) Also, if an organization employs few to no locals, find a different organization, otherwise there is no real sustainability.

6. There’s a difference between skilled and unskilled help

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2.jpg


(Mostly) legit


Here’s an example of skilled help: A surgeon joining Doctors Without Borders.

Here’s an example of unskilled help: A group of American teenagers–who have never built anything bigger than a derby car–attempting to construct a wall at a school, working under equally unskilled leadership. There are (at least) two problems with this.

A) They are shoddy construction workers. Good intentions don’t build sound walls.
B) They are taking jobs away from local construction workers who need the work.


Medical service trips are much more respectable than fruitless voluntourist trips, though are still not immune to the issues of this article. Vaccinating a few hundred people in Haiti for Cholera is a wonderful thing. It has a lasting positive effect on society. Training local medical staff and bringing medical supplies to a clinic is also valuable. Providing relief to an overburdened, under-resourced clinic is great. Those are examples of skilled help producing real value.


However, there are different organizations, like the one in this advertisement, who completely miss the mark. Notice how the rhetoric in almost every single sentence is focused on the volunteer’s experience rather than the patient population’s benefit, other than when being exploitative. Here are some highlights, “You can rely on us to deliver the experience of a lifetime.” How good for you. Also, “Once your plane has landed in your country of choice, our ground team will meet you and take you straight back to our private, fully catered and security-guarded accommodation.” So you can have the most bubble’d and unrealistic experience possible.


At the time of this writing, nowhere on the site did I find impact reports about the influence they have in each community. But the site is littered with westerners’ blurbs recounting what an awesome experience they had seeing such gnarly things!


For a scholarly read on medical missions, I suggest this article in the American Journal of Public Health highlighting the need for more evidence within medical service trips. There are also these  different  journal  articles about the importance of good ethics when practicing medicine abroad. They touch on issues such as this: Should under-qualified individuals really practice medicine on people in developing nations when they wouldn’t be allowed to in the West? The answer may not be black and white (limited access can make for extenuating circumstances), and there are definitely many useful roles fit for medical students, but it’s a topic worth exploring.


Medical missions (when done right) is definitely more valuable than building a wall in an orphanage that will just be torn down when the group leaves, only to be rebuilt by the next group. But don’t just go exploit a community for your own cool experience. Do some research on the organization before joining and find out how they’re helping the community. Have they been effective? How is the patient population or local medical staff benefiting from this organization? Are travelers being put in ethically questionable positions by practicing medicine far beyond their level? (If so, find an organization that delegates responsibilities according to appropriate skill level.) Is the organization more focused on providing medical tourists with a good experience, or is their primary focus helping the patient population? If it seems like the former, then find another organization, because there are many like the latter who could definitely use assistance or resources, even if they don’t have a colorful brochure or sweet Instagram feed.

Possible, an organization focused on improving healthcare in Nepal, publishes impact and financial reports describing what they’ve accomplished each quarter. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Boarders) also publishes annual reports detailing the work they’ve accomplished. This data is used as evidence that the work they do is worthwhile and impactful on the population, not just the volunteers. This is the type of skilled assistance that is beneficial.


7. They promote the western savior complex.

image: http://cdn.almost.thedoctorschannel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Untitled-copy.jpg

Untitled copy

Me definitely not helping this woman in any substantial way, but definitely adding this photo to my MySpace page when I returned (these were the days before iPhones and Facebook took over).


Much ink has been spilled about the white-savior industrial complex. It boils down to narcissistic westerners asserting their perceived superiority by “rescuing” a developing nation, and it is highly criticized by many.


Further, when people visit only the worst of a country, they don’t get to experience anything beyond its helpless stereotype. Can you imagine the take-away of a group of foreigners who came the the U.S. visiting only Skid Row? It would be incredibly inaccurate to assume the rest of America was like that. Yet, far too often, people associate the worst region of a developing nation with that nation as a whole.


For a hilarious take on this, I highly recommend the following video, “Radi-aid,” which is about Kenyans donating radiators to the poor Norwegians who freeze during winter. It was done in response to 2014’s cringeworthy and offensive (yet star-studded) music video, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” by Band Aid 30 following the Ebola epidemic.



Gain some cultural understanding before embarking on a new land, and realize the many good parts of the place you’ll be traveling. Try to learn something from them; many cultures are less greedy, more forgiving, etc. than those in the west, so go in with a sense of humility and appreciation of the local population.



Finally, for those who are still unconvinced, this post on WhyDev debunks some common myths for voluntourism, such as “it can’t be that bad” and “something is better than nothing.” Here’s a preview:

“For people who don’t spend their studies or professional lives thinking about humanitarianism, the notion that spending two weeks cuddling Cambodian orphans could result in anything other than smiles and happiness might seem far-fetched. Even when possible negative outcomes are explained (child safety concerns, attachment issues, separation of children from family, etc.), it’s hard for individuals to see their own relatively insignificant involvement as leading to these horrific outcomes.

However, volunteers should recognize that they’re one drop in a far bigger, far more damaging ocean, and that their short placement should not be held in isolation. Volunteers may not be around to see the negative effects of their activity, or may be so ethnocentrically blinkered they cannot recognize what’s happening right in front them. But this doesn’t mean these effects aren’t absolutely real and long-lasting. International volunteering – when done badly – can and does result in serious harm.”


And if you’re still not convinced about the problems associated with short-term voluntourism trips — if you still think the smiles on the kids’ faces makes everything worth it — then please read the following articles (written with more eloquence and less snark than mine, for the easily-offended). Also, for those who suggest I am missing the point about “sharing Jesus” or “doing God’s will,” note that this was intentional, as my article is not at all a religious one.

  CNN – Does ‘voluntourism’ do more harm than good?
  Newsweek – The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad
  The Guardian – Before You Volunteer Abroad, Think of All the Harm You Might Do
 Reuters – Boom in ‘Voluntourism’ Sparks Concerns Over Whether the Industry is Doing Good
 Forbes – Cambodia’s Booming New Industry: Orphanage Tourism
 Al Jazeera America – The White Tourist’s Burden
 Telegraph – Orphanage Volunteering ‘Part of the Problem’
 NPR – As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?
 The Guardian – Beware of the “Voluntourists” Doing Good
 in-Training – Medical Tourism and the Definition of Helping
 in-Training – Do You Really Have Global Health Experience? The Problems with Assigning Social and Professional Capital to Part-Time Global Health Practitioners
 WhyDev – Debunking Four Common Arguments in Favor of Voluntourism
• Global SL – Why UNICEF and Save the Children are Against Your Short-Term Service in Orphanages
Matador Network – Why You Shouldn’t Participate in Voluntourism – I found this one long after I wrote this article but we share overlapping ideas

 Lastly, here’s a lengthy, scholarly paper describing the need for ethical reforms in volunteering. I’m including this because while few people will read it, it goes to show that this is an entire field of work filled with professionals who have relevant degrees in the subject matter and decades of experience in the non-profit/NGO/international development sector who have known for years the problems associated with short-term voluntourism. This is not a new idea, and it’s widely accepted among professionals that ethical reforms are needed — even at the expense of your own personal offense.
Read more at http://almost.thedoctorschannel.com/14323-2/#1luRgWILo6uGFJAS.99

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