Daniela Petrova on the Pitfalls of Volunteering Abroad

In her recent article for World Hum, “A Tourist With a Shovel and a Hoe,” writer Daniela Petrova “looked down her nose at tourists there to have a good time. But was her own motivation much different?” She hits on the main conundrum that faces short-term international volunteers—the actual effectiveness of such programs. Having been on a dozen such trips, mostly with American Jewish World Service, I’m well aware of this issue. A group might spend nearly $30,000 to visit a village and help build a school that costs $2,000 for a local non-governmental organization whose entire annual budget might be less than $20,000. What’s the point?

In a small village in Kenya, Petrova writes, “it dawned on me that the last thing this community needed was our unskilled labor. Most of the villagers were unemployed, and during the dry season—which would last for another two months—they had nothing to do on their farms. They didn’t need Giordano and me to build a community school that they could build themselves. I weighed 100 pounds. My contribution was little more than symbolic.”

The students with whom I have worked throughout Central America and Mexico have always been highly motivated individuals for whom their week (or seven weeks, depending on the program) is often a life-changing experience. Many return to their university and change their majors to international relations; many decide to join the Peace Corps or other programs and go on to live lives of service, working for global justice. For me, that’s worth the price tag. For some students and some programs, it probably would be more efficient to just send a check, but then what about the inter-cultural exchange and solidarity? What are these things worth?

Here’s a piece I wrote last spring that helps make the case for short-term volunteers trips:

More from Joshua Berman
Commission original 8 x 10 drawings from round-the-world artist/traveler
Talk about a one-of-a-kind, personalized gift idea for that someone special in...
Read More