Bhatia ’15: Good intentions, harmful impacts

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, September 9, 2014

According to the Association of International Educators, about 70 percent of American college students who study abroad choose to study in Europe, with only about 4 percent studying in Africa, 8 percent in Asia and 10 percent in South America. When it comes to searching online for volunteer opportunities abroad, India, South Africa, Haiti, Peru and Nepal are among the most popular destinations.

Like those at many other American universities, Brown student groups including MEDLIFE, Medical Brigades and the Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children, organize and plan service trips to help underprivileged people through fundraising and by traveling to various clinics abroad. Though the members of these organizations — many of them my friends and classmates — have the best intentions, they are gravely mistaken about the impact of their work abroad. With a two-week service trip, are they really helping the communities they visit?

Often, these groups do not even consistently visit the same communities. The image of a brigade of unqualified, inexperienced college students touring to help the world’s poorest and sickest communities —­ and no single community in particular — comes to mind. It is viscerally troubling.

In going abroad with the intention to “help” rather than to learn and understand as outsiders, such groups prevent volunteers from building genuine relationships with the communities they’re trying to serve. The innocent arrogance in assuming that children “need” to be taught or treated by a young westerner is a failure to understand the problems themselves. It seems to me like these are just volunteer vacations that fail to recognize the complex root causes of health and social inequality, and how these complexities can’t just be distilled to “poverty” in each community. Their projects are inevitably unsustainable — what happens to the communities that volunteers visit once they leave?

“Voluntourism,” taken in the name of goodwill, often has immensely negative consequences on both the community receiving aid and the volunteers themselves. Even when voluntourism does no harm, it is not the solution to the world’s problems. Today’s social problems, including poverty and health inequalities, have roots that run deeper than a lack of available resources or able-bodied volunteers.

In India, for example, the combination of government- and non-governmental organization-provided health care resources are so available that any pregnant woman treated in public facilities has access to health care. This is a remarkable feat.

So why are maternal and child mortality rates in India some of the highest in the world? Volunteer programs that allow foreign students to provide prenatal counseling or primary care for new moms do just that — provide. This is important, but these Band-Aid solutions don’t evaluate whether women seek out these resources in the first place. These programs cannot fix the immense gender inequality that prevents too many women and mothers from seeking health care, even if it is accessible. And even if students get to learn from the experience of counseling women on healthful eating habits, how can this address the reality that many women serve their husbands and sons several helpings of food before they eat the tiny portions that remain?

By studying in developing nations instead of volunteering, students can appreciate the complexity and vastness of the problems they are trying to solve. They learn experientially: by talking to people, by physically being in the place they are learning about. And in doing so, they’re critically aware of their role in these communities. Both Brown and Brown-approved study abroad programs allow students to study in developing nations. Rural stays that were part of my study abroad program in India, Vietnam and South Africa were challenging, but incredibly insightful. Living with homestay families can be uncomfortable when these families do not have enough to provide for you, but still do. But the intention to just learn enables conversations on a much more equal footing.

As American outsiders, we faced no expectation that we would solve anything during our stay. We saw a lot — some things upsetting, others very hopeful. The key for college students is to understand why problems we hope to mitigate exist and persist, before we try to right any wrongs abroad.

It is only through immersion and sharing daily life with families in communities that we can understand community perspectives on the problems they face. This doesn’t happen in a two-week service trip. In South Africa, for example, many international aid organizations, such as the Africa Development Corps, provide HIV counseling to women, since more women than men are infected with HIV. Yet in reality, women have no sexual power to follow the helpful advice provided by these well-intentioned foreigners. Domestic violence in black South African communities — a major factor perpetuating the HIV epidemic — has complex roots in the oppression suffered during apartheid.

Without living and studying in developing communities, we’ll still be blind to historically rooted, asymmetric distributions of power that manifest in the form of health inequity to which too many developing communities have become numb. How can we as college students help reduce HIV infections if we haven’t even begun to understand why they persist? In this way, American volunteers going abroad are doing more harm than good, creating rewarding experiences for the volunteer that are not ultimately impactful for the community.

I’m not saying don’t go abroad. Go — to observe and learn experientially. But do no more, because we are not equipped to solve the medical and social inequalities facing the world and will probably cause more harm than good by volunteering. We need to understand the systemically rooted inequalities we care so deeply about so we can address them in more sustainable ways, instead of covering them up. Until we experience life in these developing communities, we won’t understand what those sustainable solutions can be.

Divya Bhatia ’15 had the greatest and most challenging study abroad experience in the world and can be reached at

  • TheRationale

    Charity doesn’t fix poverty, and many times makes it worse. You need self-sustaining solutions. You need a properly functioning market. Yes, capitalism. But for that you need a proper government that actually upholds rights and freedoms and maintains a rule of law. So that’s looking bright.

    To take a spin on Machiavelli, if you want to help (rather than rule) a new place, go live there.

    Good article. It seems like “not America” is a human zoo we can go visit to make ourselves feel good about how we’re helping those poor, stupid souls who can’t seem to do a damned thing without us. This article suggests a bit more thought and empathy are due.