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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.

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.