Service/Mission trips are wasting good money? Is Michelle Kay Stanton right?

I love the internet.  Sitting at my computer minding my own business I get an email from David Broodryk a good friend and key strategist in the Disciple Making Movements.  Actually I was doing some planning for a trip I am taking to Kenya in January with 4 other people.  He sent the link below.  Since I believe agitation is the key to education, I have immediately included it in our pre-trip orientation. (Fortunately they’ve already paid for their airfare!)
It is this kind of hard truth we need to process, to get thru to a catalytic leading style rather than the dependency creating leading that we practice, as pointed out in this post.

My question, do these things relate to this side of the ocean as well?  If so, how?


Merry Christmas!


7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips”

Quick outline of points.

1. You’re really only helping yourself.

2. Your impact is limited.

3. “Voluntourism” is offensive.

4. They’re an egregious waste of money.

5. They promote a cycle of dependence.

6. There’s a difference between skilled and unskilled help.

7. They promote the western savior complex.

Read on to see each point addressed.  Unusually long but worth the read if you can stomach the challenge!



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Feature Image: Screenshot from the hilarious satire YouTube video by SAIH Norway


EDIT: I’d like to add that this is not a new idea. The problems associated with voluntourism are well known amongst the professionals who work in international development.  At the request of many, I have added many links at the end of the post to inspire further reading on the subject.

There have been many different articles written about the ineffectiveness of short-term voluntourism trips to developing nations, including here and here by our friends at in-Training. You know the kind of trips I’m talking about: a spring break spent painting an orphanage in Haiti as opposed to drinking all day in Panama City Beach; a 10-day excursion in exotic Peru, with the pics with Machu Picchu to prove it; or, for the overachieving do-gooders, a couple weeks spent touring a slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

However, these types of trips often exploit the people and communities they pretend to help. Worse, these short-term service self-fulfillment trips can end up doing more harm than good.

I’m guilty of this myself. I spent a couple of weeks in a remote Ukrainian village in 2006, where I basically just hung out with a few orphans and occupied space. The following summer, immediately after graduating high school, I spent a few months in Uganda where I did only slightly more work until I realized the true uselessness of my unskilled presence there.

I had the best intentions, but I lacked the necessary tools to be effective. Here’s why trips like that are a problem.

1. You’re really only helping yourself.


Elle Stayton

Me on the right with two kids who look incredibly uncomfortable.

Do you want to feel fulfilled? Do you want to “Be the change you wish to see in the world?” How about adding some international healthcare experience to your residency applications? The common theme in those sentences is “you”. But it shouldn’t be about you, it should be about the people you’re there to help.

My least favorite but most common response when asking someone about their micro-trip abroad goes something like this: “I was heartbroken to see how life is there. It really makes me realize just how good we have it. My life will never be the same.” (*Rolls eyes*)

If you truly want this experience — to change your world perspective, etc. — then at least call it like it is and admit you’re going on a self-fulfillment trip. Don’t call it humanitarian work when the only human benefiting from this experience is you.

If you took away more than you gave, you’re doing it wrong.

As Al Jazeera America points out, “As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”


First, don’t go on these type of exploitative trips. But if you must travel, make sure the organization you’re going with is well-respected on the ground and is truly invested in the people or community that it is there to help, not just in the volunteers’ experience. Many organizations have a mission statement, check to see if its focus is on the community or the voluntourists. Not all of the short-term efforts are a lost cause if the organization’s focus is on the right things. Then continue to invest in the cause when you return and use that newfound understanding of world to help improve it. Don’t forget about it once your Facebook pictures get old.

2. Your impact is limited.



He needed medical care for his ankle. The colorful bracelets distributed by the voluntourists who had just left couldn’t fix this.

People on such short trips usually don’t stick around long enough to realize how ineffective they are being.  I was in Uganda independently, and I was there long enough to see short-term voluntourist groups trickle in for a week, play with the kids, give them a bracelet or something, and then leave all-smiles, thinking they just saved Africa. I was surprised when the day after the first group left, exactly zero of the kids were wearing the bracelet they had received the day prior. The voluntourists  left thinking they gave the kids something they didn’t have before (and with bragging rights for life). But the kids didn’t care, because what they really wanted was school uniforms, their school fees to be paid, guaranteed meals, basic healthcare, and the like — the basics.

If you went on one of these trips and questioned if you really “made a difference” or not, the answer is probably not. Good intentions are not good enough. To use a medical analogy, an aortic dissection cannot be fixed by giving the patient an aspirin, wishing them well, and then walking away whilst patting yourself on the back for helping. Similarly, temporary measures do not solve the chronic and multifaceted societal problems many developing nations face.

Worse, they can even be harmful to children who struggle with abandonment issues.  This should not be understated; have you ever considered the negative impact it routinely has on kids after they bond with someone for a week, and then that person disappears from their life?


If you must go on one of these short-term trips, then leave behind more than you take away. Don’t just give out bracelets, help provide for their real needs. Do something that actually matters that wouldn’t otherwise be done if you weren’t there, just make sure it isn’t taking jobs away from the local community. This may not be fun; it will be work. Many well-respected organizations publish impact reports. I suggest reading through those and assessing the effect the organization is having on a community/cause before giving it your time and money.  Also, consider your options helping from your own country. Research how much foreign aid is going to that area or for that cause and write your representatives about it, inform your peers about the situation, hold a fundraiser and donate the money to a (legit) organization that knows the situation well and is there for the long haul, etc.

3. “Voluntourism” is offensive.


A UNICEF-sponsored ChildSafe campaign, in collaboration with Friends International.

UNICEF-sponsored ChildSafe campaign, in collaboration with Friends International.

The term “orphan tourism” comes to mind here, which is exploitative. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) agrees, orphanages and slums aren’t a tourist attraction, so they should not be treated like one. They are not a destination to be checked off one’s do-good/feel-good bucket list. They house real people with often devastating backgrounds who are in need of care longer than you can provide, more food and medical treatment than you’re equipped to give, and a more sustainable community that is less susceptible to things like war and disease. They do not need your pity, temporary attention, or to be featured in your Facebook profile photo for a month, as The Onion mockingly points out.

Worse, the growth of voluntourism has even made things worse in certain places, as The Guardian shares:

“[I]n Cambodia, as in other parts of the globe, orphanages are a booming business trading on guilt. Some are even said to be kept deliberately squalid. Westerners take pity on the children and end up creating a grotesque market that capitalizes on their concerns. This is the dark side of our desire to help the developing world.”

Here’s a video about the negative impact orphanage tourism has had in some areas, and why it can be harmful to children.


Invest long-term into helping a population or region. This can include volunteering with or financially supporting legitimate organizations who are committed to a situation. Also, considering studying international development and then working in that sector professionally. You could become a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State, a human rights attorney, work at the United Nations, work for a non-profit or NGO, etc. Although fair warning, I did this and then eventually became disillusioned after realizing the glacial pace at which progress in international development occurs. Trying to solve complicated, chronic problems is not as fun as #InstagrammingAfrica makes it appear. It takes dedicated work, little by little, and I highly respect and admire my colleagues who are still in the field.

4. They’re an egregious waste of money.



The tens of thousands of dollars a group spends on a short-term trip to an orphanage could instead pay that orphanage’s food budget for a long time.

Two weeks on a medical trip to Tanzania can cost you $3,040, not including airfare, which is roughly $2,000. If six people go on this two week trip, that’s more than enough money to pay for a local doctor’s annual salary. Let that sink in.

Medical missions/voluntourism is a multi-billion dollar industry. If one truly cared about helping a community or a cause, then they could re-purpose the money that would have been spent on a tour of the area and instead invest it directly into the community itself.


Take the money that would have been spent on a self-fulfillment trip and donate it to legit organizations. This could include Doctors Without BordersWatsiPossibleUNICEF, and many more that are already on the ground full-time, doing effective work.

5. They promote a cycle of dependence.



Just what Americans need, more jewelry to buy.

International development is too often impeded by international dependence.

There are times when a community is forced to be fully dependent, like during the aftermath of a natural disaster or when violence forces people out of their homes and into resettlement camps. Barring exceptions such as those, when a community learns to rely on donations it is less inclined to become self-sustainable, which stifles growth.

Preventative medicine and long-term care are both more effective treatments than applying a bandaid. Do several bandaids worn in succession fix a gaping wound? No. The wound will become infected or heal improperly because it was never treated correctly. Similarly, to truly be effective, one should focus on working to prevent future problems from occurring (through development), and on long-term solutions (through dedicated work by legit organizations).

Even one-for-one programs contribute to the cycle of dependence, or at the very least, don’t solve long term problems. For more on this, I recommend Vox’s article on why “Buying TOMS Shoes is a Terrible Way to Help Poor People.”


It’s the whole teach a man to fish principle. Sustainable development is key. This takes research, dedicated investment, patience, collaboration across multiple parties, and a ton of work. Many organizations are committed to this type of real work. (Shout out to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, an organization I used to work for that helps strengthen democracies in developing nations.) Also, if an organization employs few to no locals, find a different organization.

6. There’s a difference between skilled and unskilled help.



(Mostly) legit

Here’s an example of skilled help: A surgeon joining Doctors Without Borders.

Here’s an example of unskilled help: A group of American teenagers–who have never built anything bigger than a derby car–attempting to construct a wall at a school. There are (at least) two problems with this.

A) They are shoddy construction workers. Good intentions don’t build sound walls.
B) They are taking jobs away from local construction workers who need the work.

Medical mission trips are much more respectable than fruitless voluntourist trips, but are still not immune to the issues of this article. Vaccinating a few hundred people in Haiti for Cholera is a wonderful thing. It has a lasting positive effect on society. Training local medical staff and bringing medical supplies to a clinic is also valuable. Providing relief to an overburdened, under-resourced clinic is great. That is skilled help.

However, there are different organizations, like the one in this advertisement, that completely miss the mark. Notice how the rhetoric in almost every single sentence is focused on the volunteer’s experience rather than the patient population’s benefit, other than when being exploitative. Here are some highlights, “You can rely on us to deliver the experience of a lifetime.” How good for you. Also, “Once your plane has landed in your country of choice, our ground team will meet you and take you straight back to our private, fully catered and security-guarded accommodation.” So you can have the most bubble’d and unrealistic experience possible.

Nowhere on the site did I find impact reports about the influence they have in each community. But the site is littered with westerners’ blurbs recounting what an awesome experience they had seeing such gnarly things!


Medical missions are definitely more valuable than building a wall in an orphanage that will just be torn down when the group leaves, only to be rebuilt by the next group. But don’t just go exploit a community for your own cool experience. Do some research on the organization before joining and find out how they’re helping the community. Have they been effective? How is the patient population or local medical staff benefiting from this organization? Are they more focused on providing medical tourists with a good experience, or is their primary focus helping the patient population? If it seems like the former, then find another organization, because there are many like the latter who could definitely use assistance or resources, even if they don’t have a colorful brochure or sweet Instagram feed.

7. They promote the western savior complex.


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Me definitely not helping this woman in any substantial way, but definitely adding this photo to my MySpace page when I returned.

Much ink has been spilled about the white-savior industrial complex. It boils down to narcissistic westerners asserting their perceived superiority by “rescuing” a developing nation, and it is highly criticized by many.

Further, when people visit only the worst of a country, they don’t get to experience anything beyond its helpless stereotype. Can you imagine the take-away of a group of foreigners who came the the U.S. visiting only Skid Row? It would be incredibly inaccurate to assume the rest of America was like that. Yet, far too often, people associate the worst region of a developing nation with that nation as a whole.

For a hilarious take on this, I highly recommend the following video, “Radi-aid,” which is about Kenyans donating radiators to the poor Norwegians who freeze during winter. It was done in response to 2014’s cringeworthy and offensive (yet star-studded) music video, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” by Band Aid 30 following the Ebola epidemic.


Gain some cultural understanding before embarking on a new land, and realize the many good parts of the place you’ll be traveling. Try to learn something from them; many cultures are less greedy, more forgiving, etc. than those in the west, so go in with a sense of humility and appreciation of the local population.

Finally, for those who are still unconvinced, this post on WhyDev debunks some common myths for voluntourism, such as “it can’t be that bad” and “something is better than nothing.” Here’s a preview:

“For people who don’t spend their studies or professional lives thinking about humanitarianism, the notion that spending two weeks cuddling Cambodian orphans could result in anything other than smiles and happiness might seem far-fetched. Even when possible negative outcomes are explained (child safety concerns, attachment issues, separation of children from family, etc.), it’s hard for individuals to see their own relatively insignificant involvement as leading to these horrific outcomes.

However, volunteers should recognize that they’re one drop in a far bigger, far more damaging ocean, and that their short placement should not be held in isolation. Volunteers may not be around to see the negative effects of their activity, or may be so ethnocentrically blinkered they cannot recognize what’s happening right in front them. But this doesn’t mean these effects aren’t absolutely real and long-lasting. International volunteering – when done badly – can and does result in serious harm.”

And if you’re still not convinced about the problems associated with short-term voluntourism trips — if you still think the smiles on the kids’ faces makes everything worth it — then please read the following articles/links (written with more eloquence and less snark than mine, for the easily-offended).

 CNN – Does ‘voluntourism’ do more harm than good?
 Newsweek – The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad
The Guardian – Before You Volunteer Abroad, Think of All the Harm You Might Do
Reuters – Boom in ‘Voluntourism’ Sparks Concerns Over Whether the Industry is Doing Good
Forbes – Cambodia’s Booming New Industry: Orphanage Tourism
Al Jazeera America – The White Tourist’s Burden
Telegraph – Orphanage Volunteering ‘Part of the Problem’
NPR – As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes In Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?
The Guardian – Beware of the “Voluntourists” Doing Good
in-Training – Medical Tourism and the Definition of Helping
in-Training – Do You Really Have Global Health Experience? The Problems with Assigning Social and Professional Capital to Part-Time Global Health Practitioners
WhyDev – Debunking Four Common Arguments in Favor of Voluntourism
• Global SL – Why UNICEF and Save the Children are Against Your Short-Term Service in Orphanages

 Lastly, here’s a lengthy, scholarly paper describing the need for ethical reforms in volunteering. I’m including this because while few people will read it, it goes to show that this is an entire field of study filled with professionals who have relevant degrees in the subject matter and decades of experience in the non-profit/NGO/international development field who have known for years the problems associated with short-term voluntourism. This is not a new idea, and it’s widely accepted among professionals that ethical reforms are needed — even at the expense of your own personal offense.

Happy reading!



Michelle Kay Stayton

Michelle Kay Stayton is an editor at AlmostDocs. As a former senate staffer, her speciality is healthcare policy. Michelle also spent several years focusing on African international development, including a brief stint in Uganda in 2007. Her focus now is healthcare tech, and she wants to develop mobile apps to help bridge the gap between international aid workers and people in need. You can find her at any given Chipotle in NYC, or you can follow her on Twitter @MichelleStaton7


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