As I scroll through my email, I come across a message from Volunteers Around the World, an international volunteer organization that provides opportunities to Yale students to travel on medical missions across the globe. The message resembled that of a clickbait spam email — an all caps title, spaces between characters and excessive use of exclamation marks. I expected the content to have at least some degree of sensitivity, but upon opening the email, I immediately cringe.
The first few lines read as follows:
Wanted to learn more about the S P A N I S H language or the Dominican Republic C U L T U R E?
Desired to V O L U N T E E R and S E R V E an underprivileged nation?
Interested in learning about M E D I C I N E and H E A L T H C A R E?
Wanted to understand what E M P A T H Y, C O M P A S S I O N and S E R V I C E means?
Normally, after reading an email that was nothing more than an advertisement, I would simply delete it and move on with my day. But I realized that the rather disturbing insensitivity towards the people they are “volunteering” for is in fact a common element of volunteering in general — one that should be addressed.
Especially at Yale, where the majority of students come from privileged backgrounds, it makes sense that students should feel a desire or obligation to help those who are less privileged. While an altruistic desire has great potential for good, what becomes problematic is when that impulse is coupled with an egocentric mentality that lacks respect.
The almost farcical way of advertising used above is a classic reflection of this patronizing mindset. The use of language such as “serve the underprivileged” and flashy letters to tout a foreign culture insinuate a power dynamic between the volunteers and the people they want to help. It implies that the volunteer already knows how to intervene, and that the “needy” people must be happy and grateful for the external assistance.
Moreover, the club is blatantly pandering to students looking to feel good about themselves through a “foreign medical adventure.” Already, the personal interest of the volunteer is put above the actual welfare of the patients.
Unfortunately, even helpful intentions too often do not get translated into helpful outcomes. Today, “voluntourism” has been commercialized into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Ironically, if these volunteer organizations truly cared about alleviating the world’s problems, they would look for ways to systematically reduce diseases so that less foreign volunteers are needed in the first place.
Sending a virtually untrained college student into a sick population to perform medical tasks is morally questionable at best, outright harmful at worst. Personally, I shudder at the prospect of having an 18-year-old, who just barely graduated high school, analyze my vitals or manage my medication as a learning experience. Yet when that same 18-year-old travels across borders to do the same thing they are branded as “heroic” and “compassionate” simply because they are acting in a less wealthy country. Even if the country is under-resourced and lacks crucial medical services, that does not justify allowing an unqualified student to essentially use real human beings as practice grounds for building medical skills. To set the standards of care so low would only act to reify health inequities, not address them.
Not only does volunteering abroad have its ethical concerns, but it also presents a slew of practical ones, too. Imagine if a wealthy, upper-class student from Japan barely fluent in English traveled to inner-city neighborhoods in New York City out of a strong desire to “save” American children from obesity. Unfamiliar with the American culture and diet and ignorant of the socioeconomic contributors to obesity, the student walks into a school classroom and teaches a nutrition class based on Japanese norms. Afterwards, the student walks out believing they have changed the world in some way, ready to move on to rural Mississippi to give the same lesson for supposedly the same American obesity epidemic.
Sending American volunteers to unfamiliar communities is no different. Given the rigid, short-term nature of this aid, there is a lack of long-term follow-up and thereby a lack of accountability and feedback for improvement. The Japanese student also took away potential jobs from locals who could have tailored the curriculum to cultural needs. Foreign interveners take on the responsibility of health education rather than local organizations, forcing local students to be dependent on insufficient care.
Finally, these short-term trips do little to address the much deeper ingrained structural problems that are the real drivers of health epidemics, such as racialized oppression and corrupt marketing practices. Students who travel to areas in Central America and the Caribbean might not be aware that the “innocent” and “needy” people they want to help were the same people they deemed to be “guilty” and “law-breaking” immigrants — the ones that their countries ruthlessly deported.
It is presumptuous to assume that volunteering with good intentions will result in good outcomes, or that some care is better than no care. However, students should not throw their hands up in despair and give up on working with under-resourced communities. Yale students have a lot of ambition to promote social change, and it is crucial that these ambitions are channeled in a non-harmful, impactful way. This applies not just to the context of foreign aid, but also to the local New Haven community and anywhere else students wish to volunteer.
As such, volunteerism needs to be reframed into the idea of working with community members, not for them. This means doing away with the idea of serving others to learn compassion. Instead, look to communicate directly with those impacted to hear what needs they may have, not decide their needs for them. Try to build equal, collaborative partnerships with local organizations that would foster long-term development. Approach everything with a dose of humility and acknowledge that mistakes will inevitably be made. Act not just with empathy, but also with outrage for the systemic roots of injustices, and with the hope that these injustices can gradually be rectified. Most importantly, act with the goal that one day, the volunteer who fills your shoes is the person who once did not have the privilege to volunteer for their own community.
Sherrie Wang is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com .