The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems
Courtney Martin

Great article! I understand the temptation to want to volunteer abroad. I attended a school that mandated community service, and myself and plenty students would use trips abroad to try and make a difference. Two birds, one stone.

Looking back, my most productive volunteer work was always work I did within my own community (e.g., helping with a recycling program, packing and delivering food boxes). Even when I went abroad to just offer hard labour at a reforestation organization, I still didn’t offer much. The training required to get me doing the work probably made their investment in me larger than what I could return in the few weeks. Later, after getting a master’s degree, I figured going abroad with an actual skill-set would solve this issue, but again the problems were too complex and large. I would have had to have worked at it a decade to have achieved anything substantial.

That said, there is an educational value to going abroad and working within a community. I did see the complexity of issues, and learn to embrace this fact of life.

One trip that went well was when I went with a group to visit a local organization doing really good healthcare work. Instead of trying to help, we simply listened to all the great work they did, learned their story, then went back to our own community and re-told the story, advocating and fund-raising for them (and also producing some media content). This turned out to be really valuable for everyone involved. So I think volunteering can be done well, but it takes some forethought.

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