Lending the Right Hand


Concerns of unethical voluntourism highlight importance of cross-cultural understanding

Alex Darus / Blogs Editor

Ruby Williams almost missed out on a life-changing experience because she was so skeptical about voluntourism.

“I put my payment down and I almost didn’t go after reading about … voluntourism,” Williams, a junior studying integrated social studies education, said. “It was really surprising to see how (GIVE) won me over. I saw they were doing a lot of good.”

Williams spent three months over the summer in Laos teaching and interning with GIVE, short for Growth International Volunteer Excursions. She knew the name of every kid that she worked with. It’s why when she sees photos of people working for orphanages with questionable volunteering companies, she is skeptical about the genuineness of it.


“(Voluntourism) just makes me sick to my stomach,” Williams said, adding that it “devalues local cultures” and “continues inequality in the world.”


Volunteering abroad can sound like the best of both worlds: doing good and seeing the world. However, proper research and cultural competency is necessary to make sure that both the hosts and the visitors get the most out of a volunteering experience.

Provided via Ohio University GIVE

Provided via Ohio University GIVE

Provided via Ohio University GIVE

Provided via Ohio University GIVE

Provided via Ohio University GIVE

• • •

Voluntourism, although it can produce some useful outcomes for communities overseas, has a negative connotation. Some programs put more focus on the vacation aspect rather than offering help. It’s what Williams said set her experience a part because she wasn’t vacationing and picking volunteer activities she wanted to do. Rather, she listened to the needs of the people living in her village and connected with them on a personal level.


The Ohio University student chapter of GIVE is a for-profit organization that sends anyone interested to four different destinations — Laos, Thailand, Nicaragua and Tanzania — to volunteer year-round. Kirsten Dabelko, senior global program coordinator at the Office of Global Opportunities, said the organization is an example of a good volunteer group, because it is educated and connected with the places it works with.


Williams, now the vice president of GIVE, said the founders had negative experiences with other volunteering organizations in the past that imposed Westernized culture on other countries in need.


“We are the hands. They are the minds,” Williams said.


OU also does not offer any university-sponsored volunteer abroad programs, but works with other companies to connect students to programs, Dabelko said. The Office of Global Opportunities has a handout on its website containing more than 17 different volunteering abroad programs. There is also a disclaimer about volunteering which states, “It is worth remembering that while many websites list volunteer opportunities abroad, a listing on a website does not guarantee quality or legitimacy.”


Dabelko said a non-legitimate trend in volunteering is orphanage tourism. Many people from Western cultures want to volunteer at orphanages, but a lot of the children are not actually orphans. The children are being exploited because many tourists want to hug and take pictures with orphans while on vacation.


It’s important that volunteer organizations not only to not take jobs away from locals, but also spend their money in the towns they stay in to help the local economies thrive.


GIVE tries to gauge the amount of volunteers needed for a project at a given time so they don’t waste resources at the location. Also, GIVE plans a trip down to figuring out where volunteers will throw out their trash as to not affect the ecosystem.

Jessica Clutchey, the president of GIVE, said the most important aspect of keeping up the morals of the organization is recruiting the right people to go on their trips.

Before you go:

Ask a company the following questions to help determine legitimacy:
What are their sustainability initiatives?
What projects are they currently working on?
How do they go about picking destinations?
Will you be collaborating with locals on projects?
What is the training involved? Are there any prior skills needed?
What are the living and eating accommodations?
Where is your money for the trip going for?

• • •

Sometimes people go on volunteer trips with the mindset that the resources of a place don’t uphold Westernized standards of sustainable living, and volunteers are going to fix their problems, Deborah Meyer said. Most students, however, realize while on the trips that other people have their own ways to work around a lack of resources.


“If it’s done right you learn to go in to ask questions, listen and observe,” Meyer, assistant professor of nursing and former assistant professor of global health, said. “You’re going to learn more from them than they’re ever going to learn from you.”


Having an ethnocentric attitude when volunteering abroad is counterintuitive, Meyer said, because American volunteers are often wrong about what they think cultures need.


“There’s no way you know what communities need unless you ask them,” Meyer said. “When you go in with that attitude, you miss their strengths.”


Clutchey, a junior studying political science and marketing, emphasized that locals in a community ask for help and want to figure out sustainable ways to solve problems. Those problems are some that people who don’t live there would probably never think of.


When Clutchey went to Nicaragua with GIVE, she helped build a playground so the children would be entertained while the parents tried to learn English to get better jobs. It’s a problem many volunteers wouldn’t have thought of without consulting the locals, she said.


GIVE is transparent about voluntourism and discuss problems associated with it at their meetings.


Posting on a social media feed can affect the image of voluntourism just as easily. Students who take pictures with people from other cultures can appear offensive, further marginalizing a group as different. Posting pictures isn’t inherently bad, but it is problematic when people take photos with strangers as a prop instead of developing relationship with them first.


One big problem with voluntourism is posting pictures on social media of people from other cultures which further marginalizes groups as if they are completely different,


Meyer said it’s completely wrong for volunteers going abroad to do so just to take photos of strangers from other cultures and post them online.


“Why would someone in another country like that? It’s rude, it’s inconsiderate and it’s just not acceptable,” Meyer said. “It goes back to the fact of ‘Why are you there?’ ”

• • •

Dabelko said it is common for students to “plop” into volunteer trips, but they should take time to research the company, culture and work they will do before picking a program.


Students should also look at their skill sets before picking a volunteer trip and research whether or not the organization will help them learn the skills they will need on the trip, such as using power tools or writing lesson plans.


“You have to be ready for being out there,” Dabelko said. “But I don’t think you should hold back if you’ve done your research and found a good place to go.”


Volunteering abroad often requires both physical and social skills that are unfamiliar to students who have never been outside the U.S. Despite that, many organizations, such as GIVE or OU’s study abroad program, do not require cultural competency courses or physical training before going abroad.


GIVE does do on-site training for volunteers lead by guides and WILD, Wilderness International Leadership Development, certified volunteers.


There is a one-credit class called “Cross-Cultural Preparation for Study Abroad” students can take to learn about other cultures but it is not required for any abroad programs.


For the OU Global Health Initiative, there are some elements of training before and on site depending on the trip. Also, some take specifically medical students and faculty to work and train locals. It might be a red flag if volunteer organizations allow volunteers to provide people or animals with medical care without any prior training.


Gillian Ice, director of Global Health Initiative and a professor in social medicine, said it’s important to recognize the short-term help they are able to provide. Also, when volunteering, people should recognize they are doing good, but sometimes are taxing the resources of the town being visited.


“We try to work with partners that are on the ground so they have a continuous presence and we might be doing something to help build their capacity,” Ice said.


Despite negative aspects with organizations that might not have good intentions, Dabelko still encourages everyone to go abroad at one point in time. It helps students to think of themselves as global citizens who are representing American culture.


“We’re sort of operating in a time with a lot of xenophobia, nationalism, populism and a bit of fear from the other,” Dabelko said. “Students studying abroad, they are kind of our cultural ambassadors. Not only are they learning about the culture that they’re entering into, but they’re also representing us.”

Development by: Taylor Johnston / For The Post

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