In Defense of (Some) International Volunteering

I’ve seen a huge surge of articles recently against the “voluntourism” industry because of its impact on local communities and misguided representations of the developing world (#instagrammingafrica). If you aren’t familiar with the issue, just Google the term “voluntourism” and you will find dozens of well written articles that explain exactly how international service trips often end up perpetuating the problems that exist.  While short-term volunteer trips can often end up simply fulfilling the volunteer’s aspirations rather than solving problems in local communities, there can be merit to international service trips like the one I’m currently on. There are a few key characteristics that set this trip and others like it apart from programs that cater to the wanderlust of wealthy Westerners and disregard the need for sustainable change in distant parts of the world.

 The first factor is that the group of American volunteers I am serving with were invited into this community by local residents. Although the organization I am working through has headquarters in the United States to coordinate fundraising and management, most of the employees are Kenyan citizens. They run the organization here based on Kenyan custom and culture and are aware of the intricacies of working in a delicate community like the Kibera slums. We were invited here because of our various backgrounds in education, gender studies, or development to serve and to learn about the issues that girls in Kibera face. The volunteers that are selected for this program are highly aware that they are not coming to impose their American values on a “broken system.”

 One of the biggest criticisms I see of international service trips is that by providing services for free, they fail to empower local citizens to create their own change. There is a saying that I’ve heard used in many development discussions about giving a man a fish verses teaching a man to fish that seems applicable in this situation. While American and Kenyan youth volunteer at the Kibera School for Girls, the locally hired teachers undergo a month of professional training. Each year the subject is different and this year they are developing their social studies curriculum with the help of experienced teachers from the United States. So while we are here, we are not giving the school employees a fish but enabling them to learn to fish better.

 The most important aspect of this volunteer trip that is applicable to most international service trips is the opportunity to build lasting relationships. The American volunteers at KSG run the Summer Institute alongside a group of similarly aged Kenyan youth. I won’t deny that it’s been a challenge to overcome the cultural barriers surrounding communication and discipline. But connecting with someone at the same point in their lives from a completely different culture and background is a valuable learning experience for both parties involved. In addition, we are sharing knowledge and experience with the girls we are teaching. So far I’ve taught workshops to elementary aged students at KSG on topics ranging from positive body image to conflict resolution to volleyball. I can easily say that I’ve learned just as much from my students in Kibera as they have learned from me, if not more (especially about patience). If I’ve learned anything about sustainable development, it’s that lasting change comes from the grassroots level. If we truly care about creating a world that flourishes in peace and opportunity, building individual relationships across international borders is the first and most important step that we can take.

 I’m not defending the voluntourism industry as a whole because I agree that these short-term experiences can often do more harm than good. I’m saying that we should be cautious of categorizing all international volunteer trips under the “voluntourist” label. Serving abroad can have value and merit if done in a delicate and culturally sensitive way. I’m proud of the work I’m doing in Kibera because I know the program will have lasting effects both on the local community and on the volunteers that come from the United States.