International Volunteerism and Cultural Superiority: Why Service Trips are Harmful - Amanda Clizbe '17

Across the United States and in Europe, the concept of “globalizing” education has become increasingly popular and is now being applied in most universities and high schools- including Millbrook. The primary goal of a global education is to develop more complete, worldly and successful individuals, and to promote the extension of study abroad and international service opportunities, which aim to push students beyond their economic and cultural comfort zones. This sentiment is explicitly addressed in Millbrook’s service-learning statement, which also lists the countries to which Millbrook students and faculty have embarked on service-learning trips, like Ghana, India, Guatemala, Tanzania, and Cambodia. The stated purpose of global education and international service is that they increase a student’s sense of the necessity to understand and be accountable for global issues, as well as to help the needy citizens of underdeveloped societies. The unintended consequences, however, reveal a latent underlying form within the concept of international humanitarianism itself, as well as a large-scale global issue of which Millbrook is a representative. The type of service trips promoted by global education is often between three weeks to three months, and involves a small group of untrained students volunteering at schools, orphanages or other aid facilities, mainly teaching and providing manual labor. Because these trips are so short-term, the lasting impacts of this volunteer work are often negligible, and the inexperience of the volunteers is ultimately frustrating and unhelpful to the people they are intending to serve. Service trips have also been shown to reinforce negative stereotypes about poverty, which often lead students to downplay and ignore the shared responsibility for global poverty and marginalization. The problem with current international service trips is that they are an outcome of Euro-American sentimentalism, a phenomenon that creates emotion-based claims to moral superiority as justification for one’s actions. Sentimentalism seeks to cultivate certain moral sentiments among Westerners, and tends to bolster these audiences’ sense of their own ethnic and cultural superiority, especially in regard to populations in developing countries. Because this concept is so deeply rooted in both large and small-scale humanitarianism, international service trips are ineffective and ultimately harmful to those they mean to serve. 

Western volunteerism and service trips have been shown to promote the exploitation of children through a corrupt industry is known as “orphan tourism”, thus creating a dangerous and exploitive environment for the very people the trips are aimed at helping. According to a recent UNICEF report, orphanages are one of the most popular destinations for individual international volunteers. At its most basic, orphanage tourism can mean visiting an orphanage for a few hours as part of a scheduled tour that also involves more conventional activities such as sightseeing. Many service-learning trips choose to spend longer periods volunteering in orphanages, paying for the opportunity to play and read with the children, or teaching them English. Since almost all residential care centers are funded by international donors, many of them turn to tourism to attract more donors. This concept becomes the basis of a business, in which children are routinely asked to perform for, or befriend donors, and in some cases to actively solicit funds for the orphanage itself. These orphanages rely on volunteers as a means of making money, thus turning orphans into a lucrative business that can endanger the proper care of children. 

In the past decade, the number of orphans has declined worldwide, whereas the number of orphanages in many developing countries has risen in response to the demand from tourists wishing to volunteer. Since 2005, Cambodia alone has seen a 75 percent increase in the number of residential care facilities, with 269 residential care facilities housing 1,945 children in 2010. However, most of the children who are classified as “orphans” and are living in these orphanages actually have two living parents. In fact, of the nearly 12,000 children living in Cambodian orphanages, only 28% have lost both parents. In some countries, it is even less – in Bali 10%, in Sri Lanka 8%. These numbers show that children are being separated from their parents for reasons that do not include death. Some parents give their children up to orphanages in hopes of giving them access to education, shelter and basic necessities. Sometimes the children are taken to orphanages against the family’s will. This problem was most recently brought to light by UNICEF, who did an extensive study on the attitudes towards residential care in Cambodia in 2011.

However, this is not only a problem in Cambodia. In a 2014 study, the Child Safe Movement concluded that most developing nations are victims of orphan tourism, and cited field studies in countries such as Nepal, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, India, and Thailand. By repeatedly visiting these orphanages and contributing to the orphan tourism industry, service-learning and volunteer trips are actually producing a demand, and thus creating more orphanages. 

Western volunteers perpetuate the orphanage problem in developing countries, often based on stereotyped and generalized assumptions about the culture of the population, and further promote a sense of cultural superiority and privilege. As mentioned before, the majority of orphans in countries like Cambodia and Haiti have living parents. In the case of Cambodian orphan tourism, findings indicate that despite knowing of this problem, a number of western donors and orphanage staff mistrust the families of the children, and feel that money given to child support in families would be squandered. This is not true. Most of the extremely poor families who are being given monthly food support send their children to school, and when families are offered community-based care options, most prefer to keep their children at home as opposed to putting them into residential care. These assumptions suggest that these Western donors and volunteers consider themselves to be morally superior to the Cambodian families, and that Western outsiders have an elevated sense of what is good for Cambodian children. The irony in service trips wanting to save and protect young children in poverty and in turn creating more of the poverty they intended to repair is a perfect example of sentimental humanitarianism. Because these recipients of humanitarian charity are entitled to sympathy or pity, they are to be treated with humanity, but still can be considered ethnoculturally or civilizationally inferior. 

Living in an orphanage has been shown to negatively impact the physical and emotional development of children. In the case of developing countries, this problem is exacerbated by short-term relationships created with volunteers, making the presence of volunteers detrimental to the health of the children living in residential institutions. One illustration is a study on Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is a clinical disorder found to be common amongst children living in orphanages, and particularly children who have been institutionalized in developing countries, like those in which orphan tourism is widespread. A researcher in an Indian orphanage in 2001 described her experience as often being greeted at an orphanage by children who ran up expecting hugs or to sit on her lap, asking questions in English. As shown in the study, this behavior is consistent with indiscriminate affection, a manifestation of Reactive Attachment Disorder. The same study found that many residential centers accept volunteers for as little as one hour, and few service trips work at an orphanage for longer than three months. This shows that while orphans, in general, are more prone to attachment disorders, this is made worse by volunteers who create emotional connections with the children and then leave after a short period of time. International service trips and volunteerism create orphanages through demand, but also aggravate the problem by contributing to the mental instability of those who live in them.

Not only is short-term international volunteer work harmful to the emotional health of children, but its lasting benefits are often negligible. Since many volunteer trips are brief, there is rarely enough time for volunteers to become adjusted to the system of the country, town or community they are in, let alone cause a significant change. For example, in 2008, a team of physicians from the United States made 140 trips to 27 institutions in 19 countries in order to sponsor pediatric cardio-surgical missions. The group of physicians found that many of the institutions did not undergo any change during their time there, and later documented a number of reasons for the failure of their missions. Such reasons included the economic situation of the country, national politics, personality conflicts, continued lack of resources, interpersonal disputes within the institution, and a difference in language between the team and the host country. Ultimately, they found that every single one of these problems stemmed from the nature of short-term intervention. Without stable, collaborative partnerships with local physicians and community workers, it was difficult for the medical missionaries to sustain practices and ensure institutional memory. Put in perspective, if an organized team of trained medical professionals found it difficult to create impactful change in a short period of time, it is highly unlikely that a group of inexperienced students with vague parameters with which to work could create meaningful advancements. Two weeks or two months is nowhere close to enough time to begin to understand and serve a community, which is why short term service learning volunteer groups often find few positive lasting impacts on the community they intend to serve. Furthermore, placing young Americans and Europeans in impoverished countries for short periods of time and convincing them that what they are doing is making a positive difference reinforces ethnocentrism and cultural superiority in that they are led to believe that their presence, even for a short amount of time, is both beneficial and necessary to the survival of marginalized populations. 

In many cases, particularly in high school and college service trips, volunteers are told that they need no training, prior experience or specific qualifications in order to go on the trip. In an ethnography done on tourism in Africa, teachers in Ghana described having to deal with untrained volunteers running their classes. The teachers interviewed for the study said that when they agreed to host Western volunteer teachers in their schools, they had assumed that the volunteers could actually teach and had received some prior teaching training. The teachers later realized that the service program had placed completely untrained volunteers in schools and that the children were no longer learning the correct syllabus. Not only is this approach ineffective in doing a service to the school, but it continues to promote the underlying concept of cultural superiority. The study quotes a Ghanaian teacher who notes the imbalance in white volunteer work. “We say we are independent but we are still favoring useless whites over trained blacks to teach our children.

When will we ever learn? All this talk of cross-cultural learning; every time an untrained volunteer comes to teach, our children are still seeing that white is best”. Such comments return to the issue of ‘whiteness’ and the argument that Africans have been forced to realize that with white skin comes power and status. The replacement of trained Africans with untrained white volunteers does not serve anyone; it simply acts to reassure both parties that it is the role of Western culture to save the developing world, and that they are capable of doing so with little to no qualifications. 

Another issue with international service trips and volunteerism are their capability to reinforce negative stereotypes about poverty and inequality. In a case study done on a school service trip to Guatemala, it was found that the students forwarded the rationalization that happiness is relative because the people they encountered were ‘poor but happy’. This phrase, while also being cliché, emphasizes the sense of difference between the volunteers and the locals, and ultimately downplays commonalities and ignores shared responsibility for the poverty and marginalization of Guatemalans. Although the purpose of global education is to help students comprehend their own accountability in respect to global issues, international service trips often do the opposite of this by providing a relatively narrow view of poverty and global inequality.

Furthermore, often when untrained volunteers offer to do a task for free, they are hypothetically taking away jobs for local people. For example, in the UK alone, 85 organizations place 50,000 volunteers overseas every year. The majority of these organizations are for-profit travel agencies charging high fees to their customers, who are white, affluent and in their twenties. One organization, Projects Abroad, charges a minimum of $2,215 to cover the costs of two weeks’ teaching in Cambodia, which is estimated to be enough to pay a local teacher for more than a year. The same goes for manual labor. Many untrained service groups spend their time digging trenches, building wells, and completing other construction tasks. Although this form of service is more tangible than the kind of service you might find in an orphanage, like “providing love,” what ultimately ends up happening is a group of people pay a large amount of money to do a job for free that could have been done in the form of a paid job by a trained local person. 

Service-learning trips further impose a sense of cultural superiority by routinely imposing Western religion and culture onto the groups they are theoretically helping. In UNICEF’s report on Cambodian charity and volunteerism, findings indicated that a large proportion of donors also tended to promote Western culture through orphanages, schools and other residential care centers. In some cases, this took the form of religious influence. In other cases, residential care centers were built with the intention of creating an environment more in line with western society, displayed through architecture, inner furnishings and landscaping. In many orphanages cited in the study, English was the dominant language and the children spoke only rudimentary forms of the local language, Khmer. Some centers changed the names of the children to traditional American names. It was also found that the culture within these orphanages as well as activities done with outside service groups often incorporated multiple non-Cambodian features into the education curriculum, recreational time, and taught foreign or western sports to the children in the orphanage. By promoting and imposing Western culture, volunteers and service-learning programs are actually perpetuating inequality and bolstering the sense of Western superiority in both the volunteers and the people who they are serving. 

Western sentimentalism invites consumers of global education to believe in the simple connection between consciousness and social change and promotes the idea that Western influence is a necessary solution to global poverty. This assumption is a much bigger problem that has also underpinned much of humanitarianism today- school service trips are just a microcosm of a much larger global issue having to do with cultural superiority and inequality. Global education and service-learning target young, enthusiastic students- the same group of people that will control the next generation of government, international aid and human rights. Instead of being taught that the success of the developing world is dependent on their presence in those countries, consumers of global education should be reminded that international service-learning is a noncontentious form of activism. It sponsors a narrative in which underprivileged populations remain objects to be manipulated by outsiders, instead of a dynamic context with knowledgeable actors, compelling ideas, and potential resources. To combat this, schools like Millbrook need to rethink how they produce global citizens and challenge the assumptions of American sentimentalism that are deeply embedded within it. In order to achieve change, the concept of service-learning needs to abandon its superficial innovations in favor of a deep engagement with the substantive, material, political and philosophical meanings of citizenship on a global scale. Such a process would deny its students of the self-satisfying big emotional experience of an exotic adventure in helping others and instead promote engagement with the realities of global inequality, the politics of that inequality, and our varying individual and collective responsibilities within them.