OVER ONE MILLION PEOPLE in the United States volunteered internationally in 2008, an increase from 145,000 in 2004. While a seemingly positive trend, there’s a caveat: Most of these volunteers are WEIRD.
That is, the typical volunteer is white, educated, industrialized, rich, and from a democratic culture. The concept of WEIRD people has been discussed in psychology, with some researchers positing that perhaps white undergraduate students are not indicative of worldwide views (Jones, 2010). However, I thought it was incredibly applicable in international volunteering contexts as well. In a study by Lough (2010), over half of the sample of volunteers had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 88% were white. In addition, McBride and Lough (2010) found that white people were more than twice as likely to volunteer abroad than black people. And 1 in 3 volunteers lived in a home with an income of over $100,000.
While this seems like common sense and perhaps unavoidable (families with higher levels of income would have more time and financial resources to put towards volunteering), how does having such a homogenous volunteer base affect relationships with those of other cultures? In a study by Cross-Cultural Solutions (2009), one of the largest international volunteer organizations, they surveyed alumni volunteers on their experiences volunteering abroad.
Volunteers thought they were most effective while promoting cross-cultural interaction; caring for infants and children in daycare facilities; tutoring or teaching youth and adults; and collecting, preparing, or distributing foods, crafts, or other goods. 25% of volunteers believed their work could have been performed by a local community member, but only 11% believed a local could have done it better. That is, only 11% of the volunteer base felt a local could have taught in their local community, cared for their own children, and engaged in cultural practices better than a volunteer with limited knowledge of the host community. Only 18% believed they caused problems within the host community, and 6% felt that the community did not want or need them.
This begs the question: Why do volunteers see themselves as equally or more capable in practices rooted in culture and lifestyle? As the majority of international volunteers are WEIRD, are they unconsciously perpetuating ideas of white privilege and creating unequal relationships? In her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (2003), Peggy McIntosh states:
Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us.
From this idea, you could draw the conclusions that white people can afford to be oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color without feeling any penalty, and that white people experience little trepidation about ignoring the perspectives and abilities of people of other races.
As a result, international volunteers may not only be ignorant of other cultures, making them unhelpful volunteers; they could be unconsciously ignoring the perspectives and ideas of the very cultures they’re trying to help. This leads to the implementation of Western solutions for problems that might not be culturally relevant to host communities.
The situation may also play out in reverse: Members of developing countries are used to accommodating the perspectives of other races, learning the customs, dress, and language of other countries, particularly the United States and other Western nations, if they wish to receive foreign aid. Thus they cater to us to make sure we feel comfortable while working abroad.
This hit home for me while I was in Kenya last summer. I asked our partner organization, Abba, a local elementary school / orphanage, when would be a good time for me to come in and teach. The reply was a resounding “anytime!” However, I found out later in the day that they had exams for the next two weeks, and my presence would have been distracting at best. I asked our Kenyan advisor, Carol, if Kenyans don’t use the word “no.” She said Kenyans most definitely say no to each other. When I asked why they wouldn’t say it to me, she replied, “Because we don’t think Americans can handle the word no.”
Volunteering can also push Westerners toward false perceptions about the people they’re intending to help. In “I’ve come to help: Can tourism and altruism mix?” Benjamin Sichel (2006) points out that volunteers assume that since they are wealthy and privileged, they will be useful in volunteer work. This can lead them to believe the local population must be too stupid or ignorant to teach their children, work in hospitals, or build houses, if volunteers are needed to help them do so. The assumption is created that wealthy volunteers know better than the culture and people they’re serving. It’s damaging to our cross-cultural relationships when we don’t view developing countries as equal to our own.
I’d like to see more consideration and discussion of these issues before we continue to ramp up the numbers of volunteers we send into service abroad. It can start with volunteers themselves — before you dive in, think of your adventure as a learning experience first and an altruistic mission second.
- Cross-Cultural Solutions. (2009) International Volunteering. Retrieved March 15th, 2012, from http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/about/recognized-leader/international-volunteering-study.aspx.
- Jones, D. (2010). Psychology. A WEIRD view of human nature skews psychologists’ studies. Science (New York, N.Y.), 328(5986), 1627.
- Lough, B. J. (2011). International Volunteerism in the United States, 2008. Center for Social Development, 10(11). Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/33744391/International-Volunteering-from-the-United-States.
- McBride, A. & Lough, B. J. (2010). Access to international volunteering. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 21(2), 195-208. doi:10.1002/nml.20020.
- McIntosh, P. (2003). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In S. Plous, S. Plous (Eds.), Understanding prejudice and discrimination (pp. 191-196). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
- Sichel, B. I’ve Come to Help: Can Tourism and Altuism Mix? (2006, Nov. 2). Briarpatch Magazine. Retrieved from http://briarpatchmagazine.com/.