Calling Bull on Service Trips

I read an article last week that made me really uncomfortable. Because, dang it, I fall right into the population that the article is calling out.

In her December 2015 article 7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips”, Michelle Lynn Stayton points out that “helping” isn’t synonymous with long-term solutions to the problems that local populaces are facing. And that wanting to help isn’t the same as actually helping. And that spending a buttload of money to travel to somewhere new and exciting under the guise of “service” is a load of self-aggrandizing hooey.

It’s another in-your-face call out of voluntourism, and a decently-referenced one; Stayton links to supporting articles and reputable sources on the topic that I won’t reproduce here.

I’ve never taken a service trip, but I imagine that I’d feel pretty proud of myself for many of the wrong reasons that Stayton spells out. I would justify it like this: “Hey, I want to go on an adventure and see new parts of the world. I’m going to spend the money anyway, so why not do some work that could make a difference along the way?”

I think that, in and of itself, might actually be okay IF I did the research beforehand to make sure that I was working with a reputable aid organization that first and foremost served the needs of the local population in a responsible and sustainable manner. IF I made sure that I wasn’t endangering or exploiting the people that I would be working for.  IF I was realistic about the effects that my volunteerism would have on the population and region.

Of course, if I did all that, I’d perhaps come to the conclusion that the money spent on my theoretical service trip would be better spent as a check, and that if I want to see the world I should go on a vacation.

I’m friends with an American man who currently resides near Belize City, BZ.  He had this to say about voluntourism in his area:

We see lots of large groups that come to Belize to paint schools or build churches. That $1000 they spend to come work for 5 to 10 days can employ a local person for 40 to 80 days.

On the main land a general labor [sic] makes $25 BZD ($12.5 USD) a day. On the Islands they make $50 BZD ($25 USD) a day. Minimum wage [is] $1.60 USD an hour….The locals can build a two bedroom home and deliver it for $15,000 USD. So if 15 people stayed home and donated the cash they could buy a family a home.

Belize is a particularly attractive place for many Americans to to visit because the local currency is set at 2:1 BZD:USD and English is the national language. And it’s freaking beautiful country that has an abundance of history, cultures, and environmental treasures. It’s also a country that has areas of enormous poverty and a developing infrastructure that’s not nearly as advanced as most first world countries. It’s a great place to vacation, and it’s a great place to support financially. Just…maybe not at the same time.

How we spend our money and how we contribute to the world are deeply personal things. How we balance our privileged position as citizens of prosperous first world countries and our knowledge that shit is real bad in other places (some of those places being within our own borders) is deeply personal. How we decide to “help” is deeply personal. I’m not judging your experience or your decisions. And I think that one can participate in useful service trips that have beneficial and sustainable effects.


Articles like Stayton’s serve to remind me that what feels good and exciting and adventurous is not always the same as making a beneficial, sustainable difference. It reminds me that I need to dig deeper – do the research and examine my motivations for getting involved in causes, fundraisers, volunteer opportunities.

Calling Bull on Service Trips
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7 thoughts on “Calling Bull on Service Trips

  1. 1

    All valid points, though your conclusion is more nuanced than your title.

    Still, I organized (as the ‘person on the ground’ rather than the ‘person back home’) a whole lot of service trips over the years, and there are points to be made in the opposite direction. The people who came return with a broader consciousness that spurs them to be more involved than those who haven’t had the experience, the contacts, the memories. Yes, absolutely, that $1000 would have done more immediate material good had they just forked it over to pay for locals to do the thing, but by bringing someone over you can (NB ‘can’ not ‘always do’) get a personal touch and a personal ownership that proves more valuable in the long term, even in the strict financial sense. People who have gone donate more money–and raise more awareness, and volunteer more–than people who haven’t.

  2. 2

    Whether it’s natural disasters (e.g. the typhoon that hit the Philippines a year ago) or everyday life, the Red Cross and other reputable aid agencies say the same thing: sending money is the most efficient way to help. They buy locally to get it cheaply and to help boost the local economy.

    Another way to help could be to donate things that are useful but aid agencies might not provide. A quick search of sites says Belize schools and school districts welcome donations. There are plenty of stationery stores in Belize City to buy from locally, rather than trying to ship the weight – ask what the schools want, then go buy it.

    The best things to bring from abroad are what they need but can’t get locally. Ask them in advance by email.

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