International volunteering: a help or hindrance? | City Bible Forum

International volunteering: a help or hindrance?

International volunteering: a help or hindrance?

Sun Mar 6th, 2011

Recently there has been some discussion about the benefits of international volunteering. A letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald late last year criticising the international volunteering movement:

Salving consciences of the well-to-do

What gives wealthy Westerners the right to march into Third World countries and start building houses (''Holidays with heart … Vietnam'', December 27)? There is something sickening about white-collar professionals slumming it for a couple of weeks on a ''humanitarian project'' while forging superficial friendships with the locals. The words condescending and patronising leap to mind.

How would we react to a bunch of random strangers building a house for our family? We wouldn't have to react, because it wouldn't happen. We wouldn't let an unqualified builder anywhere near our premises, but we have the audacity to believe it is all right for us to build such structures in poor countries, despite our lack of experience. Please!

No matter how good it makes altruistic travellers feel, their arrival prevents local builders from obtaining work. The recent rise in volunteer holidays to the developing world may cause more harm than good. These feelgood volunteering expeditions are nothing more than guilt trips that focus on the need for the well-off and well-meaning volunteer to feel useful, while neglecting the long-term needs of struggling communities.

Before you jump on the bandwagon to build a house or school, or help out in a remote orphanage, think deeply about the consequences of your actions before satisfying the urge to comfort your heavy conscience.

Jonathan Hill Old Erowal Bay

This is an interesting letter and the writer makes some good points. Indeed there are some international volunteering programs that do harm. I read a story of about a group who volunteered for a village in India and built a well the local villagers didn't want. International volunteering programs need to ensure they actually benefit those they are trying to serve. Therefore it is important to work with local agencies who are managing these types of projects on the ground.

However I fear there are some gross over exaggerations in his claims. If you take Jonathan Hill's argument to its logical extreme the very concept of foreign aid is ‘condescending and patriotic’. It seems like the poor are doing a pretty good job by themselves and don’t really want any intervention at all! I don’t quite know how volunteering programs prevents local builders from obtaining work (we are dealing with a situation of if we don’t give them a good house, they’re not going to get a good house for they can’t afford one!)

Anyway, I put this letter to Diana Judge, the founder of Break Free Expeditions (whom we're partnering with to offer an international volunteering experience). She has had a lot of experience dealing with the poor in the various international volunteering projects she does. She has written a fascinating response:

Love it!! So glad that someone is asking these questions!! My response to him would be:

1. has he been on a volunteering expedition anywhere?
2. has he seen and experienced poverty 1st hand and would he like to live to like that - not just for a week but for a lifetime?
3. from our experience the reactions we get from those that we build for are - "I can't believe that someone on the other side of the world even THINKS about us let alone would spend their own $ to come over and build us a home". "Thank you for building me a home - it saved my life, my health, my marriage"
4. families are living in shacks of tarpouline bits and old pallets, mud floors (refer photo) - anything is an improvement on that.
5. Families are going hungry at least 2 days per week so having a secure, safe and warm home is out of their normal orbit without some help from us.
6. We work with organisations that also do community development and teach income generation so as to avoid "cargo cult" mentality and a long term reliance on aid! The difference I have personally seen is just huge in our families - better self esteem so can get jobs, new skills etc. Of course always the odd one or two that don't make progress but the rest do - totally worth it!
7. Friendships are only superficial if you want a superficial relationship - the families I visit each year who have received homes have special memories of that time, and ask about our volunteers - and vice versa when I see our volunteers they want to know all about the progress of their families. Some will exchange letters and messages. Knowing someone cares about you is amazing
8. we hire locals to be our building foreman, workers alongside us etc - we generate employment not stop it!! They are super experienced and know what they are doing. Without us builders, building suppliers, accomo, catering, local markets etc wouldn't be doing as well.
9. We put $ back into the economy through hiring labour and by buying all materials locally. We train our families on the way through the house build on how to build, paint, plasterer and leave our tools for the families to use when we are gone - we present a set to the family at the start of the build so they get an idea of what to do, take ownership of their house build as well. We provide skills so they can generate additional or new income to feed and look after their families
10. The relationships that are forged "both ways" during a build are incredible for both sides. There is nothing condescending and patronising - in fact westerners come away humbled and having learned so much more about the "poverty" in their own lives after seeing the richness (not material but other ways) of the families and commnities that are built for. They bring this richness back to their western communities and help transform that (I have egs of that). Many volunteers go the project with the wrong motive but come away transformed - we know that and help them through the process
11. Response might be why not send the money instead of going yourself - I am yet to receive a cheque for $4,000 from anyone who asks that question!! Giving to reputable organisations is always good! Going yourself means you see it yourself, see where the money goes, it makes it personal, it changes your world view so hopefully you end up doing something worthwhile with that change to help others! It also takes the cynicism out of giving - if you can see where an organisation puts funding and you see the positive change yourself you are more likely to give. We are a bit different to some organisations in that 100% of the building contribution goes to the building project - we don't take a margin on the building funds.
12. A changed world view makes a changed person who can change a community, a nation and a generation for the better. Who doesn't want that?
13. Be great to invite the guy to come on a trip!!

Over 90% of the worlds population live in poverty - someone doing something, sharing something, broadening the westerners world view to be educated, care, give can only be a good thing for those living in poverty! Of course volun tourism isn't the silver bullet - but doing SOMETHING is better than doing NOTHING. Remember how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I think Diana is right, there is no silver bullet to solving global poverty. But international volunteering offers a unique way of doing something practical for the poor in the world. The City Bible Forum are going to Mexico in June to build houses for the poor of Tijuana. We have an information session on June 21 in the CBD of Melbourne. If you're interested, please contact us, we welcome anyone who wants to do something practical for the poor of the world.


  • Alt
    Tue Sep 6th, 2011 reply

    I would like to see less religious charities including over seas effort because I think it's unethical to have a charity with strings attached. When Haiti had an earthquake, what they needed was food and supplies, they did not need bibles. So I applaud religious individuals who put their faith to the side and contribute to a secular charity because the humanitarian work is more important. I rail against religious charities, particularly those supported by government, who'll discriminate based on faith, gender or as is most common, sexuality.

    If you want to help people, help them. Don't use that opportunity to coerce people into being converted at the end of a soup spoon.

    • Alt
      Wed Sep 7th, 2011 reply

      Mike, Thanks for your contribution. However I'd suggest splitting the humanitarian need and the spiritual motivation is very difficult for many Christians because it is precisely their spiritual motivation which results in them being generous to their neighbour in need. It's also interesting that many Christian charities don't discriminate to those they help. This contrasts with Islamic charities which in general support only Islamic people (and do discriminate).

      I would also suggest that the language you use is a little overplayed, I don't think many Christian charities coerce people into conversion.

      Also, to suggest that the humanitarian work is more important than the spiritual is a value judgment based on your worldview. To many believers the humanitarian and the spiritual work is very valuable.

      • Alt
        Wed Sep 14th, 2011 reply

        ---- "s very difficult for many Christians because it is precisely their spiritual motivation which results in them being generous to their neighbour in need."
        So it's precisely their spiritualism that motivates them to help people? Then why are atheists not hindered? Our motivation is to help people, for the sake of helping them.

        If it takes extra motivation, then I have an even lower respect for religious charity.

        ---- "It's also interesting that many Christian charities don't discriminate to those they help."
        But many do. I was reading just the other day of the Red Cross in the states refused to take money from an atheist community group because they were atheists. I hear endlessly about how the LGBT are discriminated against for being, as the Catholics put it, "Disordered". There was a big stink about this not long ago in New Zealand of all places because the Sellys weren't playing nice with the gays.

        If a religious charity wants to discriminate, that's their prerogative. What gets up my nose, is that the government supports them in spite of that which is atrocious.

        --- "Also, to suggest that the humanitarian work is more important than the spiritual is a value judgment based on your worldview. To many believers the humanitarian and the spiritual work is very valuable."
        That's fine, but why not feed the poor and then educate them before trying to stamp out their faith in their religions to stamp yours on to them. Not you obviously, but this kind of coercion is far to par of the course than is tolerable.

        Whether you think spiritual work is important or not, I think is irrelevant to charity. The notion of charity is strongly tied with altruism, caring about other people first and foremost. Why don't we try and give people what their bodies need most first, and then sort out what their souls need.

        • Alt
          Wed Sep 21st, 2011 reply


          Thanks for your views again. I agree with many of your views, however I still think you draw too sharp a line between motivation and result. Why is it a hindrance for people to be motivated by spiritualism?

          Unfortunately from my observations it is the Christians who are the most generous in giving their time, energy and effort to helping those in need. I could be wrong on that one, do you know any research on this topic?

          If you want to help out for altruism, then you're very welcome to join our Mexico house-building trip next September. I may be motivated by spiritualism and you may be motivated by altruism, but the final result will be pretty similar I think.

          Hope you're going well,


          • Alt
            Sun Sep 25th, 2011 reply

            Why would atheists found charities based on their atheism? Atheists contribute to humanistic charities which are at their core secular and open to religious people - that's not atheistic.

            And seriously, before you presume they're rare or non-existant, just google 'Atheist Charities' and 'Secular Charities'. There are plenty.


            Also keep in mind how outnumbered atheists are.

            -----------"If you want to help out for altruism, then you're very welcome to join our Mexico house-building trip next September."

            I contribute my money to causes that can prevent more poverty in the long run than giving a man a fish so he can eat for a day, so to speak. And I contribute my time to the local animal shelter.

            ---------"I could be wrong on that one, do you know any research on this topic?"
            I happen to know that the more secular (and atheist) a country the more charitable it is nationally and internationally. New Zealand and Australia came tied in first place for charitibility in the world according to The World Giving Index 2010 and if you look at the numbers, there is an inverse correlation between religiosity and giving.
            It's the same with the Human Development Index. The countries that are the most atheist are consistently the healthiest, happiest, wealthiest, poverty-free, unemployment-free and crime-free in the world. Norway and New Zealand again picking up the highest positions there.

            I'm going to go out on a limb here, because I can't back this up, but I really think the correlation between irreligiosity and wellbeing is not because somehow not believing in a god is helpful (I think it's at best neutral) but rather that without religion, there is less sectarianism. When religion is down and education is up, people see each other as equals much better, but religion is one of those things that pushes people more toward tribalistic, in-group/out-group thinking. Them vs Us. The saved and the damned. Etc. When you think like that it changes your attitudes towards people.

            --------"I agree with many of your views, however I still think you draw too sharp a line between motivation and result."

            This kinda thinking reminds me of the Nazis who said at Nuremberg, "I was just following orders!".
            When it comes to morality, motivation is key, motivation is a huge part in how pure your actions are.

            --------"Why is it a hindrance for people to be motivated by spiritualism?"

            Spiritualism, depending on the origin, comes with all sorts of baggage, hence why there is a long history of drama between religious charities and LGBT groups. That is not the case when you are motivated by altruism rather than spiritualism.

      • Alt
        Wed Jul 17th, 2013 reply

        It's really a great and useful piece of info. I am glad that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

    • Alt
      Thu Jun 28th, 2012 reply

      its good to help people in trouble, but whats the use in that if there are better off here for the short time on earth and then spen ertentity in hell.

      • Alt
        Thu Jun 28th, 2012 reply


        Thanks for your comment. I'll respond briefly by agreeing with you at one level. Yes, there are spiritual questions and dimensions and eternal questions are crucially important. But this does not remove any sense of earthly compassion or care - consider the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25) or Jesus' earthly ministry of caring and healing.

        Our Mexico housebuilding trip does offer opportunity to share eternal questions and issues with the locals for those who would like. If you join the trip, I think you'll find that both earthly and eternal issues are dealt with.

        Hope this helps,


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