Everyone has heard of, or maybe even been a part of, a service trip that benefited a community in a far off country. They went for adventure, to learn about a foreign place, and to feel a strong sense of achievement and fulfillment from helping those in need. The only problem with this model is that it only looks at working in the developing world through a simplistic, transactional sense, where the volunteer presumes that their work will directly produce a positive outcome. The truth is that working in developing countries as a foreigner is highly complex and looking at it in a transactional manner can sometimes be damaging.
The often overlooked aspects of humanitarian work
Cultural conditions dictate much of the 'problems' that we as outsiders see in developing countries. Trying to change the culture from the outside is an extremely bad idea because it is not effective and it quickly causes animosity between the foreigners 'who are trying to help' and the locals 'who have done it this way for generations." Sometimes the problem is that the foreigners want to change something that the locals don't see as an issue at all. This is the worst-case scenario, but fortunately that doesn't happen very often nowadays.
Problems can also be based on cultural differences that sometimes make it hard for the two groups to work together on a basic level. On the vast majority of service trips, travelers don't know the native languages and communication can be very challenging, or even nonexistent.
Another potential problem involves political and economic differences. Political issues can arise when the appropriate parties aren't brought into the project or when corruption poses problems. The economic situation is also rarely brought into consideration. Many times the kinds of projects being undertaken and the the way they are being done don't take into account economic issues. To illustrate this, I'll point out that any chance that you can to put money into a struggling economy is a way to boost it and spread the money around. If you buy building materials from a local supplier, they will use the money to buy clothes, food, etc. for their family. The stores they bought from will then use the money to buy other things and it will provide an economic boost to the whole community. Bringing in outside donations of materials often prevents locals from buying local goods, which doesn't help the community economically.
The sustainability of the work
An important question that should be addressed by an organization is this: how will the community continue the good work that has been done? Systems have to be put in place to ensure that the building/program continues. These systems have to be planned ahead of time with layers of accountability. Some organizations have done a great job of this, while others have only thought short-term. Organizations shouldn't start a project unless they know that they can be involved for many years and continue to provide support to the community as they work toward independence.
Service trips tend to address one predominant issue and they do a good job treating that one issue. However, they often leave out everything else that makes working in developing countries so challenging. We are beginning to see a new wave of neocolonialism, which consists of wealthy organizations - with good intentions - enforcing their idea of what should be done to 'fix' problems that developing countries face. They don't always respect cultural differences and end up forcing their home country's culture and ideals on the developing country. However, many organizations exist that have the right idea in mind, valuing the local culture greatly and connecting the volunteers with the community in a healthy way. We encourage those interested in volunteering to do research on the organization to see what their values are, and whether or not they have systems in place aligned with long-term success.