volunteering in africa (aka philanthropic tourism).

i dunno if i am just a bad human, so misanthropic and cynical i can’t see the value, or if my logic is sound. so, resolve:

what is the point of suburban white college kids volunteering to go to africa to “help them?”

my logic:

what POSSIBLE benefit could said kids provide by physically being in the country–especially when the cost-to-benefit ratio factors in the overwhelming aspect that a single plane ticket to africa from NY would cost at least-if-not-much-much-more than an average african’s entire year’s income.

most of the volunteer agencies i have checked into show photos of american kids digging wells or building cinderblock structures.

are we really SO DAMN GOOD at these manual labor jobs that it’s worth paying out an african guy’s WHOLE YEAR’S SALARY to be there…?

taking that a step further–
doesn’t it take away work an african could be paid to complete? in that sense, you are PAYING an african’s GPD just to have the luxury of doing his work for free.

i understand there are some valuable assets americans can provide, such as teaching language. but i can’t help but state all the volunteer pages really show a lot of photos of the manual labor stuff. if that is the case, it seems a local would be far better at it (having to deal with that sort of thing locally), have a better understandings of location and assets (such as equipment), and be far, far better equipped to manage the local climate, terrain, cuisine and culture.

…or some frat guy can pay $3k and go do a lesser job…

i have a friend who is begging everyone she knows to help fund her trip to africa this fall.

she is going to “help out in an orphanage.”

i dont know how to ask her this without coming off like an event-horizon of assholery–but what possible asset can she provide that is so valuable as to offset the cost of actually going there…? i know she doesn’t have a college degree in Orphanages, so she’s not some particularly well-managing social services maven. her tasks will consist of run-of-the-mill games with children, making memories and creating facebook statuses and photos.

is it really that much more valuable than what a local could accomplish…? thousands of dollars more valuable?
wouldn’t “actually helping in a meaningful way” be forgoing the resume padding, “philanthropic tourism” and just say “hey, random african family, here is the money i would have spent coming there. boom–i just doubled or tripled your yearly earnings.”

or is there some particularly useful thing an averagely skilled american can provide that is worth it?

even if you have a degree in social working, does that offset the cost? or is it still just a kind of “i feel like i am helping people” thing, which would be rather self-serving…?

i struggle w the concept of altruism.

i finished my degree in art/art history and strongly considered going to Kuridstan to help teach arts and create local cultural projects (this was right after we invaded iraq and granted the kurds immunity to get back to common cultural activities–the idea being they now could finally get back to the arts and humanities after years of just trying to stay alive).

while i agree that some services are unquantifiable, i still believe a cost/benefit analysis should be employed. (in my case, this was right as iraq really fell to shit, and my general desire to keep being alive kept me stateside. kurdistan’s portion of iraq was more stable, but still had a lot of doom and death).

free/extreme low cost volunteerism is clearly exempt from debate

if it is free to go to africa, knock yourself out.

actually, wait–no, i kinda call bullshit. it’s not free to go to africa. not ever. someone is still paying at some point, unless they have a program to allow stow-aways on shipping barges or something.
even if some company is funded so that they can provide volunteers at no cost to the individual, it still costs money at some point…money that would have to justifiably offset by the skill the volunteer provided.

Are you debating yourself in here?

You’re right of course that the value of manual labor by a college kid in Africa is pretty low compared to someone experienced in it, it probably would be much more effective for them to just donate the plane ticket money and have some local charity hire local trained manual laborers to do the job. But that assumes someone only wants to help Africa, I see these vacations as a sort of hybrid tourism and charity deal. The student wants to take a trip to Africa, not just donate money.

I don’t know. But I do know that when a white person has volunteered, she is likely to keep an interest in that particular charity/village, and donate a lot more. She may volunteer in the US to get a fundraiser going, and that brings in multiple year incomes.

I work in a local government organization, with 700 co-workers, and at least a dozen of them are board members of several orphanages in India/ South America they or their kids visited. As board members, their main duty is fundraising and they also help in other ways, their power helping out with local incompetence and corruption.

The value isn’t to Africans so much, the value is in having Americans who actually know what life in the shittier areas outside their own borders is like.

That and, unlike monetary donations, American youth labour isn’t subject to any corrupt skimming off of the top 90% or such.

There is a value to making other countries feeling like we care.
There is a value to learning to care about other people, and to learn what the word “poor” actually means.

However it’s still pretty much what you describe: a kid wants to go to another country on someone else’s nickel.

I have suggested that my circle of acquaintances simply all write a check for a few hundred dollars and pass them simultaneously to the one on the left…

Even though this sort of “volunteering” is lame, I do think it’s a significant cut above asking me for money so you can climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for the blind. How 'bout you just give the whole donation to the blind and skip the expense of actually climbing Kili?

I work in International Development, and “voluntourism” is a frequently discussed topic.

Next to nobody believes that the actual labor of these trips comes anywhere near offsetting the expense. But, on the other hand, when you look at development professionals, probably 80% of them first got interested because of a volunteer vacation, mission trip, alternative spring break, or other similar setup. For the person taking the trip (and often their family) it can be an absolutely pivotal experience, broadening their horizons and inspiring their next steps. Often this is getting further training (at no small expense) to return as a professional with hard, critical skills. Or it may be more direct- I have a friend who started a scholarship fund paying the high school fees for the children of a village she happened to visit on a vacation. Or it may just be that they come home and correct stereotypes about Africans, and realize it’s not appropriate to ask the new Somali kid in town if his family lived in a treehouse.

Even if you are just laying cinderblock bricks on a trip that sounds objectively lame, having that glimpse of the way the rest of the world works can be life-changing.

It does some good on the other side, too. A lot of the press that makes it out about the US is very, very negative. Having a bunch of cute, smiling, helpful youngsters heading out into grassroots projects does a lot to foster international cooperation and correct misunderstandings about America (or wherever the tourist is from.) And, in places that can get pretty boring, it’s at the very least a fun distraction.

In other words, broadened horizons and cultural exchange is almost always a good thing for everyone.

I think for some people it can be a good model, even just as a tourist experience. Africa is a TON OF FUN to travel in, but you can’t travel there like you would Europe. Outside of a few exceptions, you probably aren’t going to be spending the morning in the museums, eating lunch at a sidewalk cafe, and taking a leisurely stroll through the streets. The real value in travel in Africa is meeting people, spending time in homes, and enjoying the local cultural events. For your average tourist, especially young and less experienced travelers, this can be almost impossible to arrange. Many Africa vacations end up with a bit of “dead space” in the day where there honestly isn’t a ton to do. Volunteer activities can add a lot- giving you a chance to spend time with your hosts in non-commerce settings and giving some structure to the trip.

Of course, you may not want to pay for someone else’s self-enrichment. But I don’t think it’s out of line- how many kids ask for money to sponsor sports trips or whatever? It’s not unusual for youngsters to try to raise funds for enrichment activities.

I believe this is the likely outcome of my foster daughter’s experience as an intern during her semester abroad. I wondered a bit myself at the value of this suburban white kid “organizing” and creating a web page for the group she was assigned to. But she has always spoken of wanting to make a career of helping people, and she had to start somewhere, and this experience is the first step to getting to a place where she can provide “real” help. Also, having now been exposed to the actual conditions of a third world country, she can make a commitment to this path with eyes wide open.

Ironically (remember, this is my foster daughter), as an African-American myself, I have little interest in such things. She didn’t get it from me. But it is her passion, and it was valuable to her (and, ideally, to others in the future) as part of a long-term plan.

really great reply. and that is an earnest and honest way to put it.

i guess the thing is, i 've never heard anyone be that frank and honest about who is really benefiting (ie themselves). i have several friends who do things like this, but they always tout how much “africa needs them…”

i think it’s them who needs africa.

At least some professional aid workers agree with you:


They may not realize yet what it is that Africa really needs from them, namely, their continued lifelong interest and involvement with African development projects and political reform.

But if believing that Africa needs them to go dig a few wells or build a few schoolhouses with their own hands is what gets them launched along that path of continued lifelong interest and involvement, then I’m all for it.

I don’t know that I’d give somebody money to go to Africa for that purpose, since I try to put my charitable-donation dollars towards more efficient and low-overhead efforts (e.g., I’ll donate money to a particular cancer research institution but won’t sponsor somebody’s cross-country bike ride for cancer research, etc.).

But if I knew somebody who was working to save up $3K on her own for such a “voluntourism” trip, and was excited about both the personal experience and the prospect of offering help to some poor villagers, I can’t imagine why I would want to respond to her with anything but a “You go, girl!!”

in an odd turn of events, i caught my friend on messenger so i just thought i’d ask.

i asked and explained why i was asking, pointing out the yearly income vs cost of physically going and asked why she felt it was worth it.

she got really upset, as i expected–but not for why i expected.

she admitted she “is just being selfish.” (those were her words).
she said she wants the adventure, wanted a long term vacation anyway and looked into other things when this came up. she has a chance to use her degree in social work and get her vacation at the same time. and why not help some people maybe a little while you’re off gallivanting?
nothing wrong with that, i concede.

except my point made her feel like a bad person and that she probably SHOULD just give them money she raises for expenses…now she’s all upset and feels like a bad person.

so i have spent the last half hour trying to convince her she’s a good person and doing the right thing and the polar opposite of the sentiment of my OP.

remind me to never have opinions about things ever again. gosh.

It seems like you’re getting on the case of a couple people who haven’t even departed for Africa yet. Why don’t you cut them a little slack and realize that what they get out of the experience may not be the same as what they expected?

We’ve all heard stories of people joining the military because they want to be Rambo and blow shit up, but then the experience teaches them leadership and responsibility – but that’s not what what they wanted when they joined. So your friend is going to Africa to scratch a selfish itch. She may come back to the US with much more valuable insight on big life issues than you would ever get by arguing there’s something wrong with youthful exuberance.

actually, i didn’t get on anyone’s case–i asked one person a question.

a single person.

all other instances either pertain to other people i know who went and are back (and, for the record, do not have ongoing interest in african charity) or pertain to individuals and associations regarding to organizations i have checked into.

if you are advocating it’s cool for kids to beg money from any-and-everyone to go on some hippy adventure for the off chance it will be the experience that finally allows them to stop being a shitty, myopic person–then i guess give those kids traveling money.

just under A BILLION people are starving to death in the world…people who on average can survive on a DOLLAR A DAY. you’re right–it’s much better to pay *thousands *for a spoiled american kid to GO WATCH THEM STARVE IN PERSON rather than just help them not to be starving anymore. because God forbid they learn human empathy or or how to value human life from a book, documentary or just being a sentient person who pays attention to things in the world.

nope. they should go watch them starve in person at an expense great enough to change the entire life of the person they claim to care about helping.

this all makes sense.

in the case of my friend who is about to embark, she actually has a viable skillset to offer. she has a chance to utilize her degree to help an administrative overhaul for an orphanage run by zero people with college educations. even tho she thinks she’s being selfish, i’d say she’s well ahead of the curve of most other well-intending voluntourists.

but even if she didn’t have this justification, there’s nothing per se wrong with raising money however you need to do whatever you want–be it to backpack across europe, buy a car, fund some lame-brained kickstarter idea–
or go to africa to learn some life lesson.

but to act like it’s “because you genuinely want to help as much as possible” is misguided. the argument “it doesn’t help the africans all that much–it helps the american be a better person” certainly isn’t the expressed intent of the organizations nor the volunteers.

that’s the whole genesis of this thread; if these people were saying “i’m going for me. and maybe i’ll help someone a tiny bit along the way,” then i wouldn’t have posted this to start. but hardly any of them are willing to admit it. this friend was, but no one else has.

at any rate, it’s not really about how people procure or spend their money. i have rugs that cost as much as a trip to africa, it’s not like i am beyond reproach.
but the spirit of this thread was in reference to these people’s stated intentions–which is “to provide optimal help to africans.”

sure, there’s value in it…but there’s a silver lining to all things if you look hard enough. burning down someone’s house to help them appreciate the intangibles in life doesn’t exactly offset the expense of losing everything you own.

some silver-lining/byproduct is not the point. the point is their stated intent, to help people who need help FOR the people who need help and not themselves.
and so far not a single person i’ve talked to other than rachael has been honest about how it’s for THEM and not the people they claim to be helping. and i’m sorry–it’s just not beyond criticism or analysis, even if their expensive voyeurism of suffering ends up making them a less crappy american in the long run.

Not quite the same thing, but this will illustrate the point.

I did an Internship at a very prestigious Hospital/Medical School/Nursing College in Pakistan when I was an undergraduate student. The internship was mandatory and the location was assigned by my school, based on my skills and the needs of the employer. I was supposed to build them a budgeting model using something newfangled called Lotus 1-2-3. All very pleasant it seemed.

My first day they tell me that I am required, as all new employees are, to spend two weeks at various community health facilities in the slums in and around Karachi. Having grown up in an affluent family, I had never seen how the poor really live in Pakistan. It was truly a life-changing experience. And all I was doing was putting asset tags on equipment and furniture.

I figure those two weeks in 1986 have cost me $100k in donations I have made in the last 25 years.

It might have made less difference if I had self-selected for the experience, but at the time my liberalism had been all about freedom of religion and speech. Since then, every time I think I have something to complain about, I remind myself that someone born 500m from where I was, if he is lucky enough to be alive is hoping to find enough brutal manual work to buy two pieces of bread and a bowl of lentil stew at the end of the day.

“Begging” money? “Giving kids traveling money?” Do you have a problem with slackers or voluntourists?

First of all, knock it off with the hyperbole. A billion people aren’t starving to death every day; roughly a billion people are undernourished. I’m not exactly clear if you don’t understand the difference, or if you’re just trying to be dramatic in order to distort the discussion.

I’m inclined to believe that folks who do these tours do them because their choice is between going to Paris and enjoying cafe au lait and the Louvre like a jillion other tourists, OR going to Africa and working on some project of perhaps questionable utility. IMHO, the choice isn’t between going to Africa or donating the money to a reputable charity, as you seem to imply.

Would you rather that these “hippies” spend their vacation days going to Amsterdam rather than Kigali?

Amsterdam all the way, the drugs are mostly legal and reasonably regulated there and the legal prostutes are at less risk for exploitation and get regularly checked for AIDS (plus some of them are supporting poor families).

who said a billion people starve to death every day? you can’t make up a thing i didn’t say then accuse me of being hyperbolic–you just made that up.

but the fact you you’re diminishing the number of people who really do starve to death daily is really weird. i guess so long as it’s not a billion, tho…

you missed the entire point of the OP (did you read it?). i said

and she’s not the first of my friends asking for donations for something similar, either. so i’m not sure what distinction you make between slackers or hippies, but in the dang OP pointed out the issue was i get spammed (along with everyone i know, and “oh do you all know of any restaurants that might give me a portion of their sales to fund my trip and hey anyone else? money? please?!”) so pretty much they are exactly the same thing.

i just said i have no issue with anyone spending their money any way they want.
that wasn’t ever the issue, tho.
this was about someone i know asking for money because she can’t afford it. yeah, she said she was going to take an extended vacation (from school and work) but she doesn’t have money to jet-set and decided to parlay it into some voluntourism trip instead. she’s asking for it. from everyone. all the time. so did my friend who went to Chad in 03, so did my friend who went to Africa in '10.

sorry, your “IMHO” is wrong in the case (and point) i bring up, and you skipped right over all this explicitly stated in the first post. YES, the choice is EXACTLY between giving some hippy kid money to go to africa “TO HELP AFRICANS” vs donating the same money directly to a charity.

the debate is whether or not is economically viable to pay for a white college kid to go to africa FOR THE REASON OF HELPING AFRICANS when really, they don’t have a lot to offer. if helping is the goal, aren’t there way better ideas? (yes, way better).

you jumped that shark and said it’s worth going to watch people starve at the cost of thousands of dollars because it might make them less myopic, and unless they go watch in person, they won’t learn. that’s a really depressing idea–and depressing that is what it takes–but a few others agree it makes an impact. i’m absolutely positive it would change anyone. but the debate was never “is there *any *value whatsoever in white college kids going to africa.” it was COST vs actual help ratio debate. it was economic viability, when people can exist on a buck a day, when you can make a colossal difference with not much money, WHEN YOUR PLANE TICKET ALONE IS MORE THAN A YEAR’S WAGES FOR THEM, how do you make make that cost/help ratio decision? especially when you’re asking ME to give you money for the sake of helping africans?
how can i not ask the question: is this the best way to help these people…? are you really their answer…?