Opinion: Do volunteers make things worse?

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?”

Many programs continue to profit, in part, because they provide short-term classes instead of investing in improving community services. This perpetuates the need for the program, rather than phasing out the outside volunteers. That same volunteer from Queens, a regular visitor to Brazil, noted, “People were thrilled to be ‘teaching’ colors, numbers, etc., in English when what they were doing was eliciting or reinforcing knowledge the children already had.”

Such redundancy, as well as a lack of teaching experience on the part of many volunteers who come straight from high school, suggests that profit is a greater priority than promoting lasting social change.

From the perspective of the host country, it is clear that such programs — which promote volunteerism from outsiders — are controversial. A recent film made by a native Brazilian, "Quanto Vale Ou E Por Quilo?”, even went so far as to accuse such programs of perpetuating the race, class and power dynamics of slavery.

There is a great deal of disdain for tours and programs that generate profit for outsiders by giving access to slums and poor rural areas rather than seeking to funnel those dollars into education and supplies.

Pete Garratt, the disaster relief manager for the British Red Cross, was in Haiti after the horrific earthquake that devastated the capital and left thousands dead and many more homeless, wounded and hungry. In his travels, he encountered a man who said he wanted to go to Haiti, “just to see what it's like.”

Both in times of acute disaster and in the day-to-day tragedy of dire poverty, there is a place for both fiscal and skill-based assistance. Yet many popular volunteer exchange programs seem ill-equipped to facilitate, and perhaps even unconcerned with, lasting change.

Though international travel is inarguably a valuable tool for breaking down stereotypes and insularity, it is naive to assume that the presence of foreigners is inherently beneficial to struggling communities.

It might do us well to think more carefully about how we seek to help one another in this ever-more global community, and watch carefully for those who use good intentions to line their pockets.