As spring break approaches, undergraduates around the country are getting ready to embark on Alternative Breaks. These programs send students on service trips all over the country and the world. They have indisputable value as great learning experiences for the participants, but it is not clear whether they actually do any good for the communities being served.
What Alternative Breaks does is create a slightly-better iteration of volunteer tourism. These trips do not have many of the serious ethical problems of for-profit volunteer tourism as Alternative Breaks participants tend to come to their sites with at least some training and background in their volunteer area. However, this training does not eliminate a central problem plaguing every form of volunteer tourism. These service activities will always fail to do much good because they are short-term solutions. They do nothing to alleviate the systemic problems that exist in the areas these volunteers go to. Spending a week building a school or teaching children a few English words does little to actually help those children gain continuing access to education. In fact, there is always the chance these volunteers are having a net negative effect by taking work away from locals or disrupting the community with short-term service. Even if there is no overall effect of these service trips abroad, the thousands of dollars it takes to send someone abroad can be better spent by hiring locals to do the same jobs.
We need to be suspicious of how much good we are actually doing whenever we engage in service. It is an insult to the people we are allegedly serving if our litmus test for good work is naive good intention. As undergrads we need to realize that we often lack the experience and skills to do any lasting good in the short term. Service is often a Sisyphean task where most of our effort seems more devoted to keeping the boulder from rolling back than actually pushing it forward.
Achieving anything meaningful for impoverished, marginalized or otherwise struggling communities requires long term commitment. Groups like the Peace Corps ask for two-year commitments — the minimum necessary to do even an inkling of good when volunteering abroad. At least volunteering locally encourages consistent engagement, which is far more beneficial than the one-week service projects. These kinds of opportunities can be just as rewarding as a trip abroad, and we can take comfort in the fact they are create at least some kind of long-term good.
None of this is to diminish the value of Alternative Breaks or any other volunteer tourism activities as learning experiences and as personally enjoyable experiences. There is undeniable potential for growth for participants and these experiences can be an inspiration for service afterwards. However, participants should know that the work done in these short periods of time have little lasting influence.
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Email Shiva Darshan at [email protected]