It is summer time and that means that thousands of American college students have their eyes set on trips to random third world countries as summer volunteers. They will work in all manner of projects: eye clinics (I did this once – at Enyiresi Hospital in Ghana – and loved it), rural communities empowerment programs, micro-finance etc etc. Some will do it for the cultural experience, some merely to pad their resumes and some because they actually care about the plight of the poor in the world.
Whatever their motivations, these college students will have some impact on the lives of the poor people that they will be spending the next three months helping. Having participated in a summer project myself, I am reminded of the positives (and negatives) of such undertakings. Such volunteers help save lives – through immunization programs or teaching people on preventative healthcare methods or giving out material aid. They also help broaden the horizon of the villagers they work with, making them know about worlds far away from wherever these people live.
But there is a flip-side. First of all, such ad hoc summer projects are not sustainable and because of that may create dependency and an over-reliance on future summer volunteers. Second, having volunteers parachute in as “saviors from the West” only usurps the agency of locals and helps reproduce the notion that the poor of the world cannot help themselves.
Either way, I think the whole summer volunteer thing has more positives than negatives. It gives students and the people they visit and work with a chance to experience different cultures and perspectives on issues. Through these interactions some volunteers get touched and decide to be involved in the development business or go back home to influence government policy with regard to development assistance. And most importantly, some villagers at the end of it all may feel challenged and/or empowered to make a difference in their own lives instead of waiting for the next summer’s volunteers.