By: Beatrice Kupolati
It can be argued that volunteering in an underdeveloped region is perpetuating oppression and the notion of helplessness and inferiority of its inhabitants. But the fact that people have capacity to do things on their own does not mean they do not require assistance. Helplessness does not always connote inferiority. Neither does stepping in to render practical help depict superiority.
This is similar to saying that you will not assist a country in dealing with a terrorist threat just because they have soldiers. What if the magnitude of the work is more than the citizens can handle? Man is not an island and no country or community can really exist without the help and creative support of another.
Those who embark on volunteer projects for a week or two like the MacServe programs obviously cannot understand the needs of the people in that area better than the locals. But volunteering is not about pretending to be like the locals, it is about working with the community in whatever way possible to make change and progress. It is easy to send money and materials to these areas, as is often the case with foreign aid. But sending money is not always the solution to every human or social justice issue. It does not guarantee progress.
What if the money does not get to where it should or to those who really need it? As important as material contributions can be, it is not always the most worthwhile contribution in every instance. Sending financial help is uncertain especially in developing countries where there can often be a lack of accountability.
There is so much gratitude in the community when a group of people come from far away to contribute to restoring the community. That way, as individuals we know that we have made an impact in the small way we can, even if it means digging dirt or building a deck. Contributing through manpower, however, leads to two things: progress and showing that people do care. If we have a group of students go down to a particular community for a week or two, and many other groups also do that, bit by bit there is going to be progress.
Volunteering abroad or locally raises awareness about the social justice issues that are happening in a particular community. Once people understand these issues, they feel a sense of individual responsibility. We all have a choice in what we plan to do with experiences from a volunteer trip, be it positive or negative.
It could be a means of social awareness, which in turn creates and inspires long-term social movement and activism.
And of course the relevance of volunteer work is further evidenced by the importance many employers place on such efforts, hence why it is considered a coveted point on a resume. Employers have come to realize that volunteering is a cardinal principle of emotional intelligence, which currently rules as the true test of intellectual capabilities in the corporate world.
Voluntourism, of course, holds potential harm; if handled improperly it can cause social problems, especially when you partner with the wrong organization. However, this should not erode its overwhelming merit.
Rather than folding our arms and engaging ourselves in philosophical debates, or counting every dollar that goes into organizing fruitful voluntary work, let’s focus on the reality of impacting our world in more practical ways.