Change Starts at Home

How volunteers harm the communities abroad that they're trying to help, and what else can be done with those good intentions

Shoshie Hemley, Reporter

As you go through your Instagram feed during summer breaks, there tend to be plenty of snapshots of your peers building schools or playing with orphans in places like Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Most posts are often captioned with how these trips have changed the volunteer’s life in some meaningful way, probably to be written about in their college application essays. But behind the sweet pictures of American students smiling with orphans from foreign countries, a dark truth lurks. Short-term trips to visit developing countries and help children have become increasingly common. Western culture has found a niche in voluntourism. Millions of people partake in the form of tourism in which travelers engage in volunteering and charity work. But most visitors don’t know the true effects of their work.

Shoshie Hemley ’21 on a volunteering trip in the Philippines

The reality is, short-term service trips harm the children they are supposed to help more than they benefit them, as well as the nations and communities they come from. Children in countries like the Philippines and Cambodia have seen a large influx of Americans, Australians and Europeans doing work with them in recent years. The tourists come and go with pure intentions, but their execution is poor. What seem like innocent and harmless relationships between the children and the volunteers is truly gilded. According to the Urban Institute, repetitive, short-term relationships with strangers, a constant form of instability, negatively affect children’s mental health. Quite often, neither the volunteers nor the children understand how truly harmful these relationships are. They should have long-term, loving, supportive relationships with an adult, not just different foreigners that hug them and take pictures with them for a few hours every few days. These streams of strangers coming in and out can be developmentally harmful to the children. As stated by UNICEF, volunteering in orphanages “negatively impacts children in care, who must repeatedly try to form emotional connections with different adults.” Children need steady and reliable relationships, not to become college application fodder for every traveling student. 

I saw this in my home country of the Philippines. There are “orphans” on the street begging who in truth have homes with parents they go back to every night. According to the Better Care Network, volunteering increases the demand for orphanages because the more funding put in them, the more families believe it’s the better option for their children and abandon them. Many parents in developing countries rent out their children to orphanages that aren’t truly orphanages in order for people to exploit the Westerners along with the children.

A young Filipino girl who regularly sees volunteers from all over the world

But many tourists don’t just visit orphanages. They build–or at least claim to build–schools and houses. It may seem like the work that goes into these productions benefits the community, but it actually does exactly the opposite. Most volunteers that go on these trips are inexperienced in building, and take much longer than professionals would to do the same work. When I went on a trip with my old school to the Philippines to build houses, I saw the truth about what we were doing. There were a few experienced local adults helping us out, but they were the ones actually doing the work. We tried our best, but would you hire a bunch of 14-16-year-olds to build your house here in the U.S.? So why do it in foreign countries

Millions of Americans travel far and wide to help the poor of developing countries, but the U.S is filled with poverty and those in need. According to, there are 21.3 million people in the U.S live in deep poverty, and 95 million people in the U.S live close to poverty. And according to, there are roughly 400,000 children in America in the foster system, 25 percent of whom are waiting to be adopted. Rather than spend thousands of dollars on plane tickets to spend a week poorly building houses, instead show a commitment to your community and help out in your own country, state, or city. Voluntourism is not a black and white topic, many volunteers do help the communities they visit–but it’s the long-term, skilled volunteers who do the most good, not short-term trips that you might embark on.

But you can still make a positive difference in the world. Everywhere you look in the U.S., there are plenty of people in need. By donating to local homeless shelters or food drives, your money will be more efficiently used to help people, that help won’t have unintended consequences, and you’ll be creating material difference instead of wasting money on a trip that serves only to stroke your ego. Charities like UNICEF, Boys & Girls Club of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Children’s Defense Fund, Save the Children Federation, and Feed the Children benefit children through monetary donations and long-term volunteering commitments far more than visiting children in another country for a few hours ever could.

A Filipino toddler stares shyly into the camera

So while there are many American tourists with good intentions visiting developing countries to help out, for many, their intentions aren’t as pure as they think. It is time to question our true intentions when doing service work. Do we commit acts of kindness to make other people feel good? Or to make ourselves feel good? It’s not genuine charity if the true intention of the trip is to get some good pictures of you looking charitable to all those “poor foreign orphans” for your Instagram. It’s not genuine charity when you’re only going on the trip to get Silver Cord hours or for it to look good on your college applications.  Even if we ourselves don’t know it, or can’t admit it, many Americans are going to “help” in developing countries for both conscious and subconscious selfish reasons. If we truly want to help, if we truly want to do good without the public recognition, than we need to start in our own communities and donate. You can create a positive change in your own nation by just donating money and volunteering at your local homeless shelter. You don’t need to go far to make the world a better place. Change starts at home.