There is nothing inherently wrong with volunteering. You can volunteer at the local shelter or community centre, or you can travel the world volunteering with organizations that need extra personnel in locations where there may be none. However, before you decide to volunteer in an organization, it is imperative to critically analyze the cumulative effect of your involvement in the society. This is where I believe organizations like Global Brigades have taken a misstep. The following are just some reasons why you should think twice about a trip to Honduras as a ‘Brigader.’
By flying in hundreds of young adults from developed countries into Honduras on a weekly basis, Global Brigades takes away the possibility of employment of as many local residents who could have benefitted from the wages. By volunteering to do manual labour for free, the university students no doubt learn a few lessons as to how tough life can be in developing countries, but that does not help the people with whom they are supposedly empathizing.
If a foreign organization keeps coming into various communities and societies of Honduras and tackling most of their public health, water, and medical problems, the government effectively abdicates all responsibility to provide those goods to the people. Area-specific voluntourism breeds a culture of complacency wherein local governments have no incentive to tackle the existing structural problems because of the band-aid solutions that international organizations like Global Brigades provide.
On a more macro level, Global—as much of a benevolent organization as it may be—is not legally responsible to the people. In the case of the Water Brigades, if there are any water problems in the surrounding areas indirectly or directly because of one of its projects, or lack of water downstream, they cannot be held accountable to the extent the government can be. International organizations often escape the level of scrutiny that government projects would usually attract.
If there is anything that starkly portrays everything wrong with the Global Brigades model of international development, it is the Micro-finance Brigade. Every year, eighteen to twenty-three-year-old Canadian students go to Honduras with suggestions as to how to help Hondurans improve their projects and businesses. The audacity of this—that mostly middle-class Canadian students, who have little understanding of the socio-economic context of developing countries, are offering financial advice—is beyond comprehension.
Mount Allison University prides itself in the critical thinking it inculcates in its students, and its efforts at achieving economic and environmental sustainability. Therefore, the administration’s unconditional and uncritical support of Global Brigades is bewildering. By co-opting Global Brigades into its advertising campaign, it has overlooked the costs-benefit analysis of the organization, failing to acknowledge who Brigades really help in the long run—its students. The environmental impact of flying hundreds of students every winter to the tropics to volunteer is astounding, keeping in mind the University’s emphasis on sustainability. Also, the economic sustainability that the administration keeps pivoting to during every other debate on campus is surprisingly lost when it comes to supporting an organization that is intrinsically unsustainable.
Having said all that, it is my firm belief that most students who go for Global Brigades have the best of intentions at heart and just want to help in any way possible. However, in the fervour to help, it is easy to forget that these communities in developing countries have thousands of educated people with excellent ideas on how to improve things. The question you have to ask yourself is this: Would sending a cheque and enabling these communities to help themselves be a better idea as opposed to perpetuating the colonial concept of the West knows best?