Is your service abroad doing more harm than good?






Morning view from the rural community I visited.

What better way to spend a semester or summer abroad than crossing the Atlantic, exploring a new culture, and volunteering in a developing country? Sounds like a deeply rewarding experience to me. However, I want to share how we can be more mindful and what we shouldn’t do when serving communities in a foreign country.

As you all might know, I am currently participating in a summer community public health program in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Part of my program allows us to visit rural communities and learn about the various obstacles rural communities face. I would like to talk about a clinic I visited in my most recent visit to a rural community, but will leave out details regarding the location and names of the organizations and people involved. I do this out of respect for the privacy of the community and individuals so it is best if it remains unknown.

A lot of times when students, either in high school or college, visit developing countries there is always some type of “service” involved, so that students feel that they are truly making a difference and helping vulnerable communities. But, what happens when this act of generosity is over after a week or summer trip? One point that is usually brought up is the issue of communities becoming dependent on the service of others. If they are constantly being visited by students trying to better themselves while heroically helping other people in the process, when does this community start to change into one that is no longer seen as “in need”?

Keep my questions in mind while I share this brief story with you.

The clinic we saw was a community service project led by an organization to build a two-story clinic for the rural community. However, they did not commit to the project, so the clinic was left unfinished with only half of the building being completed. The first-story is made of red bricks and the second is made of grey concrete style bricks. The second-story of the building was made by a visiting group of college students who helped finish the construction of the clinic.

Walking up to the clinic I immediately noticed the colorful artwork that was painted along the walls of the building. If you were walking by the clinic you might guess it was closed by the lack of people and cars next to it, but you wouldn’t guess it was no longer operating. Inside you can see the dusty medical equipment and the walls covered in quotes promoting good health. But, the most unsettling part of all is that you can feel the false hope that was instilled into the community. After the students helped finish the clinic, the supplies and doctors slowly stopped arriving. It went from operating seven days a week to five days to only Thursdays and then, no days at all.

The organizations and students involved who built this clinic are no longer here. The doctors who they counted on to help the community are not insight. Yet, the community that they passionately served is still present. Whose fault is it that this community still lacks a healthcare facility? Should we blame the students? Is it their responsibility to respond to this issue? Did the students actually do something helpful?

So, how does one do community service abroad?

This is an important question to ask yourself if you are trying to help people in a foreign country. I admit that there is no right way to do this and I am speaking from my own beliefs and lived experience. Nonetheless, I wanted to share some points I would like you all to consider before you start serving communities abroad or anywhere, really.

Points to consider:

  • Mindset
    • Many times, people do community service because they want to help people in need. There is nothing wrong with helping people. However, there is something wrong with thinking that people need of your service because they cannot adequately care for themselves on their own. It is very likely that you are not the first foreigner who is entering a rural area trying to impact lives. It is also the case that you may not make as much of an impact as you expect and that is okay. Many of the communities I have seen are rich in natural resources, but for political reasons face other obstacles because of poor management. Whatever the case is, it’s also important to not label every person and place as “in need” or “struggling” just because they do not live like you do in your home country.
  • Is this sustainable?
    • Think back to the story of the clinic I shared. Was it sustainable? I do not doubt that everyone who helped was doing it with the best intentions. They wanted people to have access to medical care in the rural area and I do not want to minimize the effort that was put into building the clinic. The point is that a clinic was made for a community that did not last as long as it was planned for. Besides the service work, it is just as important to plan for the longevity of the program. That means thinking of who will lead and serve the clinic (Or program, project, etc.) when you’re gone? Where does funding come from? What about materials and maintenance? What does your commitment look like?
  • Intent of sharing photos vs Impact of photos
    • Of course we all want to record or take photos of the people we meet abroad, but do we have to share it on social media? If you normally don’t post photos of every child you meet in your home country-why is it so necessary to share the photos of you with children from developing countries? If these are kids you interacted with for less than an hour-what is your intention behind sharing that photo? It is important to remain conscious and think critically about the images you take and share. Because posting photos of you helping communities is low-key boasting of how kind of a person you are. If you are trying to convey a certain image of yourself online, don’t post that photo. You know that saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? It definitely is and they aren’t always positive-remember that!
  • Are you trying to become culturally competent?
    • First off, it is great that you want to become culturally competent. And if you think you are… let me be honest you probably aren’t. We need to remember that to become socially conscious or someone who can work effectively with people from different backgrounds as you is an extremely difficult task. There is no 10 step guide you can complete to become a certified social justice expert. Culture is dynamic and you cannot expect a few college classes or trainings to teach you why people care so much about culture and intercultural development. You must always keep learning and thinking differently of every space you enter and the people in that space.

If you read all of this you may be thinking “Wow-this guy really hates people who do community service” but rest assured that that is not the case! I am not trying to speak poorly of people who do service abroad. Rather, I am sharing some of the problematic things I have learned and seen during my own trip. Our priorities should be to put other people first and always strive to advocate and empower communities, instead of doing a disservice to developing communities.