Augustine: Service trips are not inherently charitable

Kathryn Augustine, Assistant Opinion Editor

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Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I stumbled on a post with a conglomeration of photographs from a friend’s week-long service trip to Ghana. There’s a photo of her clothed in Lululemon, messily painting the walls of a new community center. In the thread of comments, she’s hailed a saint.

They go something like this: “Look at you, changing lives!” “Great work, I’ll keep the Ghanians in my prayers. We are so lucky.” “Proud to call you my niece.”

Americans, particularly white, upper-class people, often embark on service trips with positive intentions — to provide aid to the underprivileged and address poverty. In concept, traveling abroad to volunteer seems promising. However, at best these service trips have no impact on the population of a foreign community — typically a community of color. At worst, service trips are blatantly harmful to the host community.

The reality of short service trips is that they rarely ignite lasting, positive change.

Volunteers that choose to go on mission trips are rarely competent to complete the job at hand. I have personally experienced this. When I was in eighth grade, my school decided to take us on a service trip. Our task was to build the floow of a new building. Realistically, we were a troop of scrawny eighth-graders with absolutely no prior experience in construction or prolonged physical labor attempting to hammer nails into wood planks. Still, we paid for flights to Ecuador, coach buses for travelling from Quito to the Amazon, housing accommodations and three meals each day.

The fact that we paid to ineffectively help local Ecuadorians is absurd. In place of a service trip comprised of middle schoolers, organizing a fundraiser to allow local Ecuadorians to invest in their community their way would have been more helpful. This would have ensured that the school was built in a timely manner by people with expertise and experience in construction and would have helped increase the level of employment in the community.

Aside from some trained experts and professionals, the average American cannot provide services that people in the country cannot provide for themselves. The only people who benefit from the week-long “work” of the American volunteers is the Americans themselves. They leave with an inflated ego and a distorted view of the community they intended to help.

On top of that, a week is not a significant period of time. Flying into a country, working for approximately five days and subsequently leaving is ultimately not impactful. There’s only so many hours in a week and so much you can realistically contribute in that compact time frame. Additionally, you cannot possibly immerse yourself in the culture and understand the actual challenges that people who live there face.

If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, then volunteer locally. It’s more influential long-term because you can commit to volunteering regularly and develop genuine empathy for those you work with. Volunteering is more meaningful when you remain dedicated to the cause.

Apart from the fact that volunteers on service trips are largely unhelpful, an inherent power dynamic emerges between Americans and the locals of a community. The presence of white saviorism seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Americans unconsciously perceive the individuals they are assisting, often individuals of color, as helpless children.
This is view is skewed — poverty is not synonymous with weakness and dependence.

Additionally, the white savior mindset is often transparent and demeaning to individuals of that nation. The people volunteering are left with a warm, fuzzy feeling that they assisted desperate, inferior beings. The locals, by contrast, are left with a sense of condescension.

So when an advertisement pops up in your Instagram feed for a ‘life-changing’ service trip to rural India, don’t give in. Instead, opt to volunteer in a city nearby or raise funds for organizations that will allocate your money properly and empower members of the country. If you are vying to travel to rural India, then hop on a flight, but don’t travel under the guise of worthwhile volunteer work.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at kathrynaugustine2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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