This popularity of charity work abroad, especially when catered to young people in the West, has its issues. Websites will show off the ‘life changing’ experiences of past volunteers in Africa, South America, and Asia, teaching English and building homes, with an entirely misguided intention. Millennials mean well, mean to improve the world a little, and corporations and charities take advantage of this, selling something as cultural improvement that is, in truth, damaging.
Take the building of homes—volunteers have rarely been employed in construction work before heading abroad, are maybe briefed about how to handle this task, but would hardly be considered professionals. Yet they build structures that pose the threat of collapsing and hurting locals both physically and financially.
On a more psychological level, a set of volunteers constantly leaving may give those children a sense of insecurity and impermanence—think orphans being handed from one foster home to another. Bonding with volunteers who show all the love and interest and then leave nevertheless after a few weeks is in no way a healthy experience for locals, and the charity worker’s presence cultivates the stereotype of the ‘white saviour’, culturally superior and ultimately there out of the goodness of their heart.
This leads to the final and perhaps most damaging kind of charity work undertaken in third world countries: the teaching of English.
Superficially, this seems like a good idea, helping impoverished locals with literacy and education. But it goes back hundreds of years to the basic principles of colonialism. Most of the countries now considered the ‘third world’ were once colonised by the west, and they suffered both the physical and the ideological effects of imperialism.
The main tool the British used to control, ‘civilise’, and subdue the natives was precisely the English language; going back to those countries still affected by poverty as a consequence of colonialism and promoting the use of English is grotesque to say the least.
Promoting literacy in itself is not inherently wrong (although is comes with its problems), but it should never be English literacy.
Instead of sending kids on ‘spiritual’ journeys, allowing them to turn natives into characters for stories to tell friends back home, charities should focus on the promotion of local, native culture, employing their own people to teach kids and women important skills, and keeping this kind of subtle imperialism far away from countries already suffering from it.
There are ways of being a good volunteer, but none will ever involve the teaching of English.