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Opinion: Do volunteers make things worse?

Volunteer programs often offer little social value โ€” instead they're a form of poverty voyeurism.

Brazil favela
Tourists walk in a favela tour in Santa Marta, one of Rio's oldest slums, Dec. 7, 2009. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

BROOKLYN, New York — It’s become a popular mode of travel for the well-to-do: volunteering in the world’s slums in hopes of giving something back.

Young travelers in particular flock to such programs as a way to experience a different culture.

The website of the popular international volunteer program I-to-I reads, “You can make a real difference at a grassroots level, equipping children and adults with the language skills necessary to build better and brighter futures. The projects play an important role in helping them to find alternatives to a life of violence and crime.”

Yet despite the good intentions, the social value of these programs is questionable. It’s easy to wonder whether they’re not just a sophisticated form of poverty voyeurism.

I recently volunteered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where international volunteer programs constitute a growing percentage of the tourism industry.

There I had the opportunity to work alongside a number of international travelers donating their time. Each of us had been seduced, to some degree, by the program's savvy marketing, which led us to believe we were stepping into a well-organized and meaningful program. But volunteering involved a great deal more than just our time; each of us was paying a hefty amount to work in the favela. And the bill wasn’t cheap.

For many young people, steep volunteer placement fees (though not the program I traveled with, I scoped out I-to-I’s website and found that their placements begin at $1,649 for two weeks) come with a promise of support. But after just a few days in Rio, it became clear that many of these promises often go unfulfilled.

During my five weeks in Rio, the only assistance I was offered was an hour-long orientation and the name and address of my volunteer site. Other volunteers expressed a similar sense of abandonment. In one instance, a group of women with whom I worked were targeted in a violent mugging. When they attempted to contact the program’s staff — all of whom had assured us they would be available at all hours — no one was to be found. Administrators did not acknowledge the incident until late the next day, after a police report had been filed.

An acquaintance of mine, a post-doctoral fellow doing fieldwork in Rio who asked that his name be withheld, criticized the fact that wealthy Rio residents control the fees and volunteer placements rather than the communities themselves. The coordinators, he noted, “are never there themselves, but still make money from the fact that they have poor neighbors.”

Others felt as though their presence was superfluous, as the best programs were those that were run by community members for one another. One volunteer from Queens, who also asked to remain anonymous, reflected, “It wasn't clear what role we foreigners were to take on. I felt as if we were adult toys. Yes, I could get on the ground and play with children, but what was the point?”