The problematic paradox of voluntourism: Is service abroad really selfless?

Sharon Pan/Staff

A curious change occurs in UC Berkeley students as summer approaches; they turn from undergraduates studying philosophy and biology into carpenters, doctors, nurses and painters. Through voluntourism, they become the social justice warriors on which UC Berkeley prides itself — or do they?

This is the question that I struggled with as I traveled to Vietnam this past summer as part of a service trip with Volunteers for Medical Outreach, a UC Berkeley student organization. We had spent countless hours throughout the school year fundraising for medical supplies, and we were traveling to Vietnam to work with local doctors in mobile clinics to provide medical care to rural Vietnamese communities.

As I stood at the baggage claim of the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in my Cal sweatshirt, I felt a sense of anxious excitement for the adventures to come. My thoughts turned to the praise I had received from friends and family, and I felt proud that I was immersing myself into a new culture and trying to make a difference.

Yet, my reverie was interrupted by a fellow traveler.

“You look a little young to be traveling by yourself.”

I looked at the Vietnamese American man beside me and we began a cordial conversation about the Bay Area. Yet his friendly demeanor changed when he discovered why I was traveling to his home country.

“Oh, so you’re coming to help the poor natives, are you?” he said with a disparaging tone.

I was immediately taken aback. At home, I had been showered with praise. I had been called a force of change, a model UC Berkeley student. Yet I now saw myself through this man’s eyes — a naive, privileged white girl looking to impose her Western ways on an unfamiliar culture.

I tried to shake off this man’s words. After all, we were making some sort of a difference … weren’t we?

Or were we just a few of the 1.6 million individuals — blinded by the allure of an exotic culture and a congratulatory pat on the back — who volunteer abroad every year?  The voluntourism industry is ever-expanding; a study conducted in 2008 found that the industry garners $2 billion annually, predominantly from college-aged students who trade in their Macbook computers for hammers or blood pressure cuffs with the promise of a fulfilling week in a foreign land.

As a university known for its dedication to public service, UC Berkeley is home to a number of voluntourism-focused student organizations. Through the university’s partnerships with established volunteer abroad organizations — from chapters of Engineers without Borders to Global Medical Brigades — UC Berkeley readily fuels this industry with wide-eyed 20-year-olds on a quest to change the world.

Surely the money spent on the “tourism” part of “voluntourism” could be better used to hire more doctors or purchase more medicine. Instead of funding our overseas escapades, this money could contribute to medical research critical to impoverished communities enduring a health crisis.

But, after landing in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but question whether the altruistic intentions of the organization I volunteered with had been misguided. Surely the money spent on the “tourism” part of “voluntourism” could be better used to hire more doctors or purchase more medicine. Instead of funding our overseas escapades, this money could contribute to medical research critical to impoverished communities enduring a health crisis. Not only did it seem like our money had been misplaced, but it seemed like our lack of medical expertise and experience was at times detrimental.

On our very first day in the clinic, one other trip member and I were assigned to fill prescriptions with two pharmacists from the local hospital. As we were handed our first prescription to fill, our eyes moved from the chicken scratch written on the paper below us to the array of unfamiliar medicines on the countertop. We suddenly realized that we had no idea what we were doing.

We tried to explain our confusion to the two pharmacists, yet without a common language, this seemingly simple task of putting medicine into a plastic bag turned into a game of charades. Soon, the prescriptions began to pile up. We were falling behind, and the two pharmacists, noticeably vexed by our ignorance, were becoming less willing to answer our questions.

We were not pharmacy technicians or nurses. We were posers, handing out medicine not based on the actual prescription but on our interpretation of the chicken scratch before us. We were playing pretend in a game that could have very serious consequences.

In fact in many cases, the lack of necessary skill and expertise among volunteers who participate in service trips can make their efforts largely counterproductive. In one instance, houses constructed by voluntourists in Tanzania — students who had likely never laid a brick in their lives — were so clumsily built that their work was deconstructed and re-done for them.

The voluntourism industry can be harmful in other ways. For example, one form of voluntourism known as “orphan tourism” has sparked popularity in South Africa. Orphan tourism, which allows visiting volunteers to act as caregivers to recently orphaned children, has become so popular than many orphanages essentially function as businesses looking to provide experiences to Westerners, rather than nonprofit organizations devoted to caring for abandoned children. In fact, many of these so-called orphans are not orphans at all, but rather children of low-income families, who are exploited to increase the orphanages’ revenue.

Throughout my trip, I couldn’t help but think back to that man’s words. Was our work actually benefiting anyone, or had we journeyed across the world just to boost our own self-esteem or to build our résumés as aspiring doctors? Had our good intentions led us astray, straight into the trap of another billion dollar industry?

Coming from a competitive university like UC Berkeley, for many students a week of labor in a rural community feels like a small sacrifice to make for a chance to bolster their resume. Suddenly the emphasis of their service is not on providing resources for impoverished communities, but on giving themselves an edge up among their peers.

However, the following day in the clinic was an entirely different experience. I was now assigned to take the patients’ blood pressure as they waited to see the doctors. As the first patient sat down at the blood pressure table, this small elderly woman with a hunched back and silver hair looked at me with a wide, toothless grin. I motioned for her to roll up her sleeve so I could wrap the cuff around her frail arm. She nodded, never losing her smile or breaking eye contact with me.

Not only did it seem like our money had been misplaced, but it seemed like our lack of medical expertise and experience was at times detrimental.

As the number on the gauge rose into an unhealthy zone, the woman’s smile never wavered. When I removed the blood pressure cuff and motioned for her to enter into the doctor’s office, she lowered her head and thanked me in Vietnamese. Her gratefulness persisted, even though we both knew that she would leave the clinic with only a small amount of medicine that would ease her pain but not fix her ailments.

Like the friendly elderly woman I saw on the second day, every person who came through the clinic was incredibly grateful for our help, yet to me, our work felt very minimal. It felt like we were simply placing a bandage over the gaping wound that is the structure of health care in Vietnam.

We could provide these people with medicine to soothe their pain, but in a few weeks, when the medicine ran out, we would not be there to provide them with more. Instead, we would be sitting comfortably in our American homes with stocked medicine cabinets and a personal doctor just an email away.

We should not write these service trips off entirely, however, but rather change the way we view them. We should see their value in educating  and influencing passionate students — students who will likely not return to their homes as “social justice warriors” after their week or two of service. They may not have even made a dent in true reform. But they did not leave empty-handed. They broadened their sense of global awareness, returning as students who can take their experiences abroad and use them effect real change upon becoming actual doctors, teachers or politicians.

As I spent more time in the mobile clinics, I became less conflicted. The airport man’s words were still ringing in my ears, but I also began to see the greater purpose of these service trips: It is through these trips that we develop an appreciation for other cultures and an understanding of the common human experience — even though I do not speak Vietnamese, I was able to empathize with the patients in the clinic. I would not have come to this realization, however, had I not left my bubble in the United States. And although I did not change the world, this experience certainly did change me.


Contact Arianna Moss at [email protected]