I recently returned from a year in Ghana, where I was volunteering at a women’s rights organization. Upon my return, I’ve noticed an increasing amount of criticism towards the idea volunteering abroad— articles upon articles about those who go from privileged lives in North America or Europe to help in the developing world and do more harm than good.
I get it. I got it before I left. People in the developing world can do it themselves. I know this, but you know what? I learned an incredible amount living in West Africa, and I will spend the rest of my life using the skills I learned and the passion I built to do my best to help the world.
Sure, I could’ve learned a lot volunteering in disadvantaged communities in my own country. Okay, someone with more experience may have been able to contribute more.
The thing is, I don’t think I did more harm than good. I know my experience made me a more informed individual. The people I love back at home know more about the developing world than they did before. I received genuine thanks from my Ghanaian coworkers, and I transferred as much knowledge as I could.
I got more from the experience than Ghana did, sure. Is that so bad? I don’t feel like I took anything away. I know I wasn’t seen as a “white savior”. I did what I could, and my presence didn’t make the country worse off than it was before.
That despised term “cultural experience” is a valid reason to volunteer abroad. Most volunteers don’t do more harm than good. People trying to help shouldn’t be mocked.
Plenty of people have studied this topic, but have they asked the people in those developing countries for their thoughts? Learning about other cultures is important for everyone, on both sides of an interaction. I for one will be forever grateful I had the opportunity to live somewhere I had previously known very little about. I made connections with people I never would have met, had the time of my life, and did what I could.
Idealism is a quality to be admired, not admonished.
So go to Africa. Go to South America. Go help as much as you can and learn as much as you can and grow as much as you’re able. Opportunity is discriminatory, yes. Use that opportunity. Grow. Connect. Learn. Contribute what you can.
Fuck the haters.