Volunteering Abroad: Helpful or Harmful?

This post was contributed by Steven Knollmeyer. 


Mark Twain allegedly once said, “write what you know” – sorry, Mark, but I’m about to do the opposite. Glancing at the title of this article I should know what I’m talking about considering I’ve volunteered abroad numerous times – I’ve done projects in schools, restoration, community building, and animal conservation in South Africa, Brazil, and Costa Rica. How could volunteering my time to help others possibly be a bad thing? That’s what I’ve always thought, and maybe I still do, but I’ve recently heard criticism that international volunteerism could be damaging to communities and it would be irresponsible of me to not try to inform myself more about it.

A true journalist would spend time fully fleshing out research on the topic they’re writing about and carefully choose the words they put to paper – I’m not a journalist, so you’re about to get the uncensored field notes of me asking questions to people I think may have valuable insight, me most likely saying a lot of wrong things, and also me not giving you a clear answer to whether or not volunteering abroad is helpful or not. I’m learning, and I invite you to learn with me.

Volunteering abroad has been my favorite way to see the world since I started traveling the globe six years ago. I’ve met some of my best friends through it, I feel like I may have made at least a little positive impact on communities, and, honestly, it can be a more affordable way to travel. While the concept of flying to a “less fortunate” country and volunteering your time for various humanitarian efforts seems good in intention, many argue that sometimes the work may actually be damaging in practice to locals.

I figured the best starting point to learn would be to ask a diverse group of my friends that have also volunteered abroad their views on the subject. From the day I started volunteering abroad to today, the people I’ve befriended in these volunteer houses are without a doubt the most compassionate, free-spirited, and loving humans I have ever met. As I began scrolling through my contacts in my phone and Facebook friend list to start reaching out to my volunteer friends, it did become increasingly obvious though that most of us shared a similar trait: we’re white AF. Why was this? Why wasn’t I conscious of this previously?

There’s a phrase coined “white savior complex” to describe white people who provide help to non-white people in a self-serving manner – I certainly wouldn’t like to think that I nor my friends I’m interviewing in this article possess this, but given that the majority of people you’re about to hear from are white like myself I think it would be thoughtless if I excluded the topic from the narrative.

We’re white AF. Why was this? Why wasn’t I conscious of this previously?

To keep it simple, I asked my fellow international volunteer friends the same 3 questions:
  1. What do you think was most helpful about the volunteer work you did to the local community?

  2. What negative effects do you think international volunteers may bring to local communities?

  3. Were the majority of the volunteers in your program/volunteer house white? If so, why do you think that was?

Here’s what my volunteer friends had to say:

Kirstie, United Kingdom, @k123page

Volunteer project type: Orphanage

Helpful?

I feel the volunteers were more of a help to the local women that worked in the orphanage. The women were 45-70 years old, worked long hours, cooked, cleaned, and cared for up to 15 children. A lot of us volunteers were in our 20s and it was great for the children to have younger adults to be able to run around with, we had fresh new ideas of educational and fun activities to do – we tried to make sure every day was as fun as possible for them.

Harmful?

The majority of children in the orphanage were there because they were harmed, abused, their parents were addicted to drugs, or had sadly passed away. I volunteered there for over three months and I witnessed some children get collected from their parents to go home, and you would think it would be a happy time, but unfortunately, the children were so upset. There were attachment issues between the children and the volunteers – unlike me, most volunteers would only come for a week or two, the children would get attached to them, and then the volunteer would leave back home.

White?

Yes, the majority of the volunteers whilst I was at the volunteer house were white. I am unsure why this is.

Monica, United States, @monbonkuno

Volunteer project type: Economic Empowerment

Helpful?

The most helpful thing was just the physical help I was able to give to my coordinator. She had a small business, and to actually create products that she needed and help free up her time was extremely beneficial because she had more time to make even more progress with her business. One example was just planning a community fashion show, because she had me and two others working and making earrings, necklaces, and decorations for this event she was able to streamline details and take more time organizing and making this vision of hers a reality instead of being stuck with grunt work!

Harmful?

Negative impacts could include just whitewashing on an area or plain disrespect. I think sometimes with these volunteer trips, people come more to enjoy and have fun but don’t take the time to get educated on things regarding the actual culture of the area – such as language or customs.

White?

Yes, most were – I think just because of privilege. Some of it I think had to do with culture, because there was a lot of Europeans in the house, and I think they really focus more on getting youth out and traveling. But most of it really does boil down to white privilege. I myself had a scholarship from my college, but that itself is extremely privileged. To be able to go to college, and have a chance to be funded on this adventure. Others just had flexibility–with a job that allows them to take off weeks for a trip and even fund such an expensive endeavor!

Yes, most were – I think just because of privilege.


Jackie, Australia, @jacqueline_otto

Volunteer project type: Orphanage

Helpful?

Hopefully, by being there it showed the community that there are good people in the world.

Harmful?

The places we’re there to help in don’t see half of the money we pay the organizations to be there. One of the reasons I went to South Africa in person was because I didn’t want to give my money to an organization in Australia – let’s be honest foreigners start organizations to get richer while only a percentage of the money gets sent to where it is needed the most. The places I was asked to volunteer in South Africa are very poor, and after conversations with the local people, they seem to know how much we pay and how much of that money does NOT go into the community (poor stay poor and the rich get richer.)

White?

Yes, the majority of the volunteers in our program/volunteer house were white. I would hope this was because we all wanted to help in any way possible and make a difference. I can only speak for myself but I wasn’t there because there were Black kids needing a white lady’s money or an Instagram photo – I was there because if I could put a smile on a child’s face by helping them brush their teeth, sing songs, play games, helping them get dress, and say goodnight because unfortunately, their parents weren’t in the picture, I would feel like I’ve helped in some way. Every child no matter their race should know love.

Aubrey, United States, @sunriseandwildlife

Volunteer project type: Animal Conservation

Helpful?

[The non-profit organization I volunteered at] relies heavily on volunteers to help rehabilitate African Penguins and other local seabirds. Volunteering my time contributed to the successful rehabilitation of local wildlife.

Harmful?

International volunteer opportunities are often found in touristy areas or bring more tourists areas. While there are positives of tourists (such as bringing in money to the community and it’s businesses), it can also increase the cost of living for those living and working there. Affordable housing for those who live in the community full time may be difficult to obtain.

White?

Yes. Short answer: privilege. Living in the US I absolutely benefit from white privilege. While I may work hard to afford to travel abroad, I have the privilege of only having to support myself.

Short answer: privilege.


So what do we make of this? Answering for myself, I’m not entirely sure yet, and that’s okay. At this moment, I feel confident saying that before volunteering abroad you need to:

  • Research, research, research the programs you sign up for, and ensure that there has been data proven positive results from the work (that aren’t just posted on the company’s website.)

  • Try to reach out to locals in the areas of the place you’re going to so you can better understand the actual issues they’re facing. The Shut Up and Go Facebook group is a great place to start to find locals around the globe!

  • Look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: Am I doing this more for me or for them? And understand that it is OKAY if you’re traveling more for yourself, but you just need to better evaluate what kind of volunteer work you sign up for in that case so that you’re not causing potential harm to the local communities.

  • Understand that you traveling to this foreign place to volunteer is a benefit of your privilege and is not a heroic act of selflessness on your end.

This is the preliminary research for me and I’m going to continue to actively scour the internet for more data and opinions. If you happen to have resources you would like to share, my DMs are always open [and thank you in advance.] Thank you to my friends that were willing to share their experiences and opinions with me and the interwebs. We’re never going to have the perfect answer to anything, but the wrong answer to everything is to stop having conversations and to stop asking questions.


Meet Steven: Another twenty-something New Yorker that can be found anywhere tacos and bottomless mimosas are served. Keep up with him on IG. 

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