Why you shouldn’t do volunteer work


Burke Cochran, Co-Features Editor

Volunteering abroad changed my perspective, but not in the way you would expect. I didn’t become a sap for poverty, I didn’t become forever changed after seeing other parts of the world; however, I did have one realization.


Volunteering is bad.


Now, on paper my trip sounds pretty good. A sure fire way to make sure I get further than the local community college, or at least I hope. But there’s a lot more ethical conflict than would be expected on a trip for high school students to go build some houses in the Dominican Republic.


The initial two days of the trip we spent working on a bottle house. This was a structure in which the wood frame of the house would be filled with empty bottles for insulation, then covered with chicken wire, and cemented in order to have a cover.


This was for a family in absolute destitution. Working heaves from scrawny, wealthy, white teenagers would be echoed by heaving coughs coming from the women of the house – forced to cook with open flame in areas without proper ventilation, for said teenagers. Screams from unblemished, wealthy, white teenagers after seeing the outhouse without plumbing would lead to looks of shame from elders – embarrassed of the conditions they are forced to live in. Even so,  children laughed and children played, not knowing a world where better amenities existed.   


Yet, we – the voluntourists, as I’ve learned is called – had the bastardly audacity to take this far enough to ask a single question: Do they have it better off than we do?  


Do they, the Dominicans left in the shadows of the industrializing world, have it better off than we do because they have seemingly better community values, yet half the lifetime to enjoy it?


Do these people enjoying a more tasty cuisine, have it better off than we do, even though the cooking conditions led to every single one of the elderly women in the community having severe lung issues.


Do these people have it better off because they live a life free from distraction of technology, yet only three-fourths of kids even survive to the final grade of primary school


And if this hasn’t made clear the blatantly clear conclusion thus far, hopefully this one little word could make it comprehensible: no.


So, the next day the adventurous, white, wealthy teenagers – forgetting the woes seen the day before – went to a tourist area where we ziplined into lakes, took night swims in underground caverns, and ate fried chicken. Reinforcing a dangerous cycle of economic dependency on tourism from the United States – something which should be duly noted has not led to beneficial in the past.

Poverty in the Dominican has not always been this bad. It used to have a thriving economy on sugarcane. The Dominican depended on the United States to buy this sugar cane. The U.S. did buy this sugar cane. Until, they didn’t. The United States switched to making food with high fructose corn syrup, and all the dominicans and haitian immigrants previously working on sugarcane plantations lost their jobs, and still haven’t found another source of income.


We visited one of these communities the next day. They are called bateys and there are over 400 across the Dominican. These places are streaked with poverty, and political instability, as Haitians are disliked by Dominicans.


The weak, wealthy, white teens spent time making cement and making holes in a wall with hammers so that actual construction crews could actually build the school.


And then, the trip took a turn for the more controversial.


We visited a small market in the batey of Caraballo. A very obvious tourist trap.


Vendors were pushing and shoving us to come to their shops, defenestrating the dignity of these students for the desperate need of a few dollars. There was one shop vendor, a 16 year old girl who was pregnant, coercing us into buying her cheaply-made bracelets so she could feed her baby. I felt bad. I spent a lot of money for these people.


And then it hit me. This wasn’t a tourist destination. This was a place for us. This group, and organizations like it, created the instability and poverty that is still existent in these rural areas.


“…still haven’t found another source of income…”


“…a very obvious tourist trap…”


“…the voluntourists, as I’ve learned is called…”


These ignorant, wealthy, white teenagers created this dependency that led to the conditions that they get on their high horse by saying their helping. The epitome of the white saviour complex. However, we don’t allow for change in these communities. We don’t allow for anything to get better. Every week, the organization brings in new kids to feed the people of the town for a week.


But that isn’t helping. They’ve been doing this since the 1980s. At one point, there was as many as twenty organizations working in this town. It hasn’t helped. It reinforces the deplorable conditions these people are forced to live in.
Don’t volunteer.