Student Do-Gooders Beware

Student Do-Gooders Beware

The right way: Cottonwood Institute's many student programs.
Summer is coming and throngs of young people are getting ready to screw up the world. That’s the effect of most volunteer tourism. Here’s why, along with a few stellar exceptions.

During the last fifty years of America’s descent into conservative misery, America’s philanthropy has increased substantially. There’s a good reason for this, and a bad reason for this, and they impact tourism as we never expected they would.

The good reason was because community compassion developed as funding for good social programs was withdrawn. What else could we do? Institutions like museums and zoos, which should be a part of the public domain, became privatized for budgetary reasons. Today we even see public funds withdrawn from any type of arts (and often recreation) programs in public schools!

Fiscal concerns in America trump virtually every other concern except to wage war (in the guise of security). After we bought our ten billionth gun, there just wasn’t any money left for public aid.

We are now ailing as result.

Education is a mess.

In virtually every category America has declined. The most talked about one is health but health and everything else in life declines first and foremost because education declines first. America is now 33rd in the world. The education accomplishments of countries like Russia, Mexico and Brasil outperform us.

The need to do something in the face of government suppression of public services became overwhelming. And public response in terms of charity was good. What was bad was that charity was often not charity, just a ruse and self-disguise. And one of the principal tools for accomplishing that self-deception was tourism.

Frankly, I have serious doubts about philanthropy in general and have written about this before. The current controversy with Three Cups of Tea stands as a perfect example.

The bad effects of so-called voluntourism are acute when it involves children. I love guiding kids on safari, because I love watching their minds open to the vast mysterious of places far away and lifestyles never imagined. But I cringe terribly when they try to plan this in advance.

The number of requests I personally get by misguided parents who want to spend “a day or maybe three depending” on charitable activities when they go on safari drives me insane. It’s counterproductive. It’s a blatant indication of how badly their children are being raised.

One of the world’s finest social psychologists says it much better than me:

IN a research paper specifically addressing youth tourism programs for specially young AIDS orphanages in Africa Prof Linda Richter writes, “Programmes which encourage or allow short-term tourists to take on primary care-giving roles … are misguided for a number of reasons.”

1. They end up costing the orphanage more than the benefits received.
2. The volunteers generally perform badly.
3. Low-skilled volunteers squeeze out local and indigenous workers who not only need the work but could create a long-term benefit to the community since they don’t disappear after a few days.

But the zinger is indelible, long-lasting:

“The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children. Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk for psychosocial problems…”

This is no old tour guide’s biased balderdash.

Professor Linda Richter (PhD) is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. She’s an Honorary Professor in Psychology and an elected Fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal; an Honorary Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of the Witwatersrand; a Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford (UK) and has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University USA) and Visiting Researcher at the University of Melbourne. That’s only the beginning of her resume.

Prof Richter concludes:

– “Children out of parental care have a right to protection… In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments … exacerbated by care provided by short term volunteers.
-“Welfare authorities must act against voluntourism companies … that exploit misguided international sympathies to make profits at the extent of children’s well-being.
-“Lastly, well-meaning young people should be made aware of the potential consequences of their own involvement in these care settings, be discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions…”

It is impossible to provide meaningful assistance FOR ANYTHING in a day “or maybe even three”. You can learn. You can become aware that it is unmeaningful, but you can’t MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Yet again and again I have parents calling me about the spring break or summer safari, and they want to make sure their kids volunteer for a “day or maybe three.”

This is an unexpected further decline in America’s descent into greed and lack of real community compassion. It’s a way of “feeling good” without really doing anything meaningful. It’s believing you can do something meaningful when it’s impossible to do so.

You go on vacation for R&R and to expand your world view. You help the world afterwards, with that expanded world view. You help the world by getting deeply involved at home, not abroad. You personally have to suffer or benefit from the accomplishments or mistakes that you, yourself, make. That becomes increasingly difficult the further your charity is placed from home.

There are excellent student groups – (important: all not-for-profit and in never linked to commercial tour companies) – that do great work. Note that it is mostly local, and I believe that’s how it should be.

The Cottonwood Institute and Students Today Leaders Forever especially impress me. I bet there are dozens, but the point is there is no way to approach even a modicum of these organizations’ accomplishments on a commercial vacation.

And for adults Earthwatch rules the planet. It’s so good, in fact, that there really aren’t any viable competitors.

In all three cases, and I’m sure many more, volunteerism is not the point. It may be used, and when used creates real benefits as much for the individual (without jeopardizing the situation because of that individuals’ lack of skills) as for the situation itself.

That ultimately, is the only test. And if that standard can’t be met, then the self-styled “volunteer” does more harm to the situation than any benefits that might accrue. Voluntourism does more harm than good. And significantly to the voluntourist him/herself.

Do-Gooders, don’t get on the plane.