Volunteerism is now a global institution, fuelled by an ever increasing desire by travellers to take more meaningful trips and make the world a better place. Hundreds of companies offer travelers with bleeding hearts the opportunity to do everything from teaching to caring for rescued elephants. But after seeing places where development is needed with my own eyes, I have begun to question the merits of this industry. While I hesitate to claim that volunteerism does more harm than good, I am beginning to believe that at the very least the practice is benign. While volunteerism is a good thing at its core, the idea of ‘saving’ someone is misguided, even ignorant.

I’m sure we all know of those who have engaged in volunteer programs, trotting off to some village or slum for a few weeks then returning home, bright eyed, with hundreds of pictures of themselves surrounded by smiling foreign children. However there a few fundamental flaws with this – firstly, volunteerism usually employs a group of privileged and idealistic travelers with starkly different socio-economic statuses to those they have come to help. These volunteers more often than not enter into those communities with little to no comprehension of the local language, culture, history, and general way of life. All that is understood is the poverty and the preconceived idea of inherent neediness and that seems to be enough background knowledge for these would-be missionaries. This leads to superficial and condescending relationships that paint the (usually western) volunteer as a compassionate giver and the community members as ever grateful recipients of charity. It creates an awfully uncomfortable dynamic – one which makes you wonder if these trips are constructed more for the purposes of the doer’s psychological or spiritual needs rather than a genuine interest in ending poverty.

A lot of what is known about the poor focuses on how terrible their lives are. We tend to think of poor by the World Bank definition of those who live under $2 a day. Don’t get me wrong, these are real factors that poor suffer through, but the question barely asked is how people manage to live and survive on such sums. I think that if this question was considered by more volunteers, it might banish some of the stereotypes and preconceived ideas that many volunteers have about the people they are ‘saving’. Contrary to what you might expect, the poor do make significant choices. This might seem surprising as so often we imagine that securing survival must be all consuming, that every available fund goes towards food and shelter. Yet the average person living under a dollar a day doesn’t actually put every available coin into obtaining more calories. Food typically amounts to about half of the household budget of these households. The rest of the budget is not allocated completely too essential commodities either. A significant amount is spent on things not inherently needed for survival. In India, almost every poor household will spend money on religious festivals, weddings, and funerals. It’s not uncommon to visit a house in a slum and find a color television, radios, even refrigerators. What this means is that more often than not the poor do have a significant notable amount of choice when it comes to spending, and chose not to exercise that choice on directing all their spending towards more food.

This goes to show that the poor are not passive beings waiting to be saved, and nor do their aspirations stem from our western notions of wealth and happiness. Aspiration is all about context. The aspirations of an individual living in a poor household aren’t to become more like someone with almost no cultural homogeny. We tend to relate to people similar to ourselves, usually meaning that most of our desires are somewhat obtainable and productive. I apply this idea to myself – it makes sense for me, a 20 year old student living in Australia, to relate to other students and professionals around me. It does not make sense, however, to compare myself to Bill or Melinda Gates, as the gap between our lives is far too great. This is not to say that large aspirations do not exist, rather that people mainly draw aspiration from the lives, achievements, or ideals from those similar. Thus, if the desires of someone living in a slum in Delhi do not mirror mine, and if I was to impose myself into the lives of someone without ever considering this, could I really say I was making their lives better?

While in Delhi, I met a family who had managed to move out of the slums and into a middle class house. This is no small feat, and by our standards, this was the most optimal outcome for a poor household, to get out of the slum. Yet what seems perfect on paper was far from the reality of the situation. Despite making it ‘out’, a significant proportion of the household remains unhappy. Sad about leaving behind her friends and community, the household matriarch is likely to move back to the slum in the near future. The tangible improvement in living standards has not necessarily made their lives better. And this is perhaps the most important lesson that is missed by outsiders that enter foreign communities – that happiness and wealth are all relative constructs.

Volunteers fund and deliver worthwhile programs that perhaps would not occur otherwise, but the effectiveness and sustainability of the practice is what I question. I question this because I believe that in order to escape the vacuity of globalization, the developing world appears to have become a ‘playground’ for the privileged to relieve the guilt of good fortune. So how can good intentions be better placed? For starters, international contributions would be more effective by constructing real solidarity between underprivileged communities based on mutual understanding and respect. This includes deep understanding of the culture and language of the community you are entering. Volunteers without much experience or transferable skills should consider volunteering locally, in their own communities. Rather than focusing on the immediate symptoms of poverty, perhaps volunteers should focus on the stem of the causes that often sprout from an unfair global economic system. This might include campaigning at home for better foreign policies. This will likely go a lot of further towards truly alleviating poverty, especially when you only have a few weeks to spare.