Before I came to Bhopal, India, I knew it mainly for the industrial gas leak that killed thousands in 1984. Now I will remember it for Nirmaldas and Aturi Atri, and the lunch of lentils, vegetables, and rice I enjoyed at their home while discussing their adorable grandchildren, the upcoming Holi holiday, and—this is India, after all—food.
For several years, the 66-year-old Aturi has needed hernia surgery, which the family can’t afford, but that week, she was receiving a free operation by surgeons from Medical Missions Foundation (MMF), a Kansas City-based nonprofit. To show his appreciation, Nirmaldas had welcomed a few volunteers from the organization, including myself, for lunch.
The gathering was ordinary, yet also extraordinary: People from different continents and cultures, talking and sharing stories. As a volunteer both at home and abroad, I’ve seen these interactions occur again and again. When it happens, we see each other in new ways. While volunteering near Bethlehem, I spent an evening with a local Palestinian family in their cramped apartment, discussing politics, history, and life. While teaching English in a rural Costa Rican school, I learned that many Costa Ricans believe Americans are lazy. Their views are based on shows like Friends, where the gang spends hours drinking coffee. But when people are talking—when they’re working, sweating, and sharing beliefs—those perceptions can change.
So if global volunteering has such wonderful kumbaya qualities, why is it frequently scorned? The answer is: people like me. In some ways, I’m a global volunteering cliché. My home: a wealthy, industrialized nation. My skin color: white. Although I used my writing talents as a blogger for MMF in India, I have no relevant, useful skills. Masonry? Medicine? Engineering? Nope, nope, and nope. The idea of unskilled volunteers naively traipsing through Africa sparks the type of bad press usually reserved for Kardashians and philandering politicians. From stinging social media posts to dismissive op-eds, naysayers deride volunteers as selfie-seeking, neocolonial narcissists who steal jobs from locals, create dependency, and do more harm than good. Volunteers may see themselves as knights in shining cargo pants, but living in a rich country doesn’t mean you’re needed in poor communities. (Read more on voluntourism myths debunked.)
Some of the charges are justified. Daniela Papi-Thornton, co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, used to give away bikes when she volunteered in developing countries. Later, she realized she was simply hurting local businesses. In a piece that went viral in 2014, writer Pippa Biddle slammed her six years of voluntourism experiences, including building a library at an orphanage. Each day, she and her boarding-school colleagues would erect walls, and every evening, local workers would discreetly rebuild their structurally unsound work.
Shoddy work by unqualified volunteers is indefensible, but criticism that declares all volunteering bad ignores a more nuanced truth. Some organizations are top-notch, others are not. Some volunteers go for the wrong reasons, but most work hard. And despite the accusations that volunteers are Instagram-obsessed Mother Teresa wannabes, the work can be helpful. Organizations such as Earthwatch and the Audubon Society offer opportunities for citizen scientists, such as an Earthwatch expedition to the Andorran Pyrenees to help gather data relating to climate change. Warren Stortroen, 86, has volunteered 108 times with Earthwatch since he retired from the insurance biz. His many accomplishments include discovering the bones of a 3.6-million-year-old glyptodon in Mexico.
Lori Wedeking has worked more than 30 times at a school in Poland teaching English via Global Volunteers. When she’s back home in Minnesota, students in Warsaw contact her by email or Facebook for help with homework. Wedeking believes the goal is not simply teaching English, but establishing relationships with the Polish people. Volunteers can be like ambassadors, which is important given that “favorable views of the U.S. remain at historic lows in many countries,” as the Pew Research Center reported in October 2018.
In Bhopal, MMF’s American and Indian volunteers not only worked together, but they collaborated with local medical students to help hone their skills. The U.S. doctors and nurses also learned from each other—an often-overlooked benefit of volunteering. In Costa Rica, I watched a young, small-town volunteer suffer severe culture shock, mainly from meeting a colleague from Queens. (Discover why tourism could make or break Costa Rica's biodiverse haven.)
These intangible benefits are meaningful. In the West Bank, people seemed to appreciate most our presence there—that we were absorbing the daily challenges of their lives. On a science project in Ecuador, we trekked through remote portions of the Andean cloud forest, tracking birds and cataloging trees. Sharing that fragile beauty with friends back home, a British scientist told me, was one of the biggest benefits of the project. If you don’t know about it, how can you care about it?
The word “volunteer” is part of the reason for voluntourism’s battered reputation. It implies that someone is doing you a favor by showing up. And yet I always saw myself more as an intern: Someone who did whatever grunt work was needed—cleaning windows, collecting data, hauling trash—and was exposed to exceptional people. I met women like Jane Karigo, a Kenyan who has saved children from a life on the streets. And Zhang Tao, who founded a special needs school in Xi’an with no government funding, armed only with grit, intelligence, fortitude, and love.
I began volunteering because I wanted to do just a tiny bit of good in the world. There is power in small gestures, which, taken together, can become large gestures. But I came to see that perhaps the biggest benefit was not the work we were doing, but that people were learning together.
So how can you be a good volunteer? Research the various organizations. Speak with previous volunteers. Ask questions. Do local people run the organization? Is it creating dependency? How does the community benefit? Does the work match your skills? If you’re not a carpenter, maybe you shouldn’t build homes.
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of a new digital series on travel and giving back, 650000hours.com.