Fighting Voluntourism With Sustainability


During one of my first rotations as a medical student, the topic of my non-profit work came up in a conversation with my attending physician. After asking a few questions about what we do in Haiti, his next statement was something along the lines of, “I’ve heard that a lot of money raised for relief work in Haiti has been mismanaged by unskilled volunteers and doesn’t accomplish anything sustainable.” I heard the question in his voice before he got a chance to ask it—what makes your work any different?

This is a valid question and one that I hope everyone who chooses to partake in charitable giving is willing to ask of the organizations they support. Medical “voluntourism” is a real problem and requires would-be volunteers and donors to diligently vet these organizations before taking part in something that does more harm than good. Fortunately, I was prepared to answer this question and highlight the key differences between voluntourism and the work of 3P.

In general, voluntourism:

  • Focuses on short-term, non-sustainable experiences and projects
  • Highlights more of the “life-changing” experience of the person traveling, and less of the well-being of the people they attempt to help
  • More closely resembles a resume-building activity than a genuine act of service
  • Is potentially exploitative
  • Promotes the “white savior” complex
  • Is trendy, feel-good, and leads to self-promoting social media posts
  • Resembles a vacation
  • Has unskilled workers do a useless project that keeps them busy and makes them feel like they’ve accomplished something
  • Emphasizes seeing people in hardship, essentially reducing human beings to a “poverty zoo”
  • Promotes unhealthy dependency, taking jobs away from locals who could do the same job
  • Accomplishes nothing of lasting value

What Makes 3P Different?

1. Long-term, active efforts toward sustainability

When we visit in person, the projects and clinics we serve with are not “band-aids on a cancer.” We are supporting ongoing projects and providing extra hands to get the job done. The work will continue when we are gone and will be there for us to help with when we return.

When we are at home in the US, we are continuing our work to support our friends in Haiti via efforts in fundraising, research, and project development. We hold supplies drives to collect items that are easier to obtain in the US than purchase in Haiti. We hold community fundraisers to support the ongoing projects taking place in Haiti. We host public education nights to bring awareness to our work, as well as Haiti’s history and how the US has played a large role in shaping the socio-economic issues that Haiti faces today.

2. Focus on the people being served, less on the people doing the serving

We make efforts to remind ourselves that serving these people is a privilege for us, not an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back or pad our resumes. Our annual visits to Haiti are not vacations or “experiences” for our volunteers to check off a bucket list, but are instead intentional journeys to maintain relationships with our Haitian brothers and sisters and work alongside them towards shared goals. Financially speaking, every single dollar given to 3P supports programs and projects that directly promote the medical care and health of Haitian people, not CEO salaries. Every volunteer who participates in a trip to Haiti pays the entirety of the trip costs out of their own pocket.

3. Promote the dignity and respect of the people we serve

As far as media representation is concerned, Haiti is often nothing more than a newsworthy charity case for well-intentioned Westerners to throw a few dollars at. Its citizens are repeatedly robbed of their dignity and collectively reduced to a sad story about a place where people are so poor they eat trees.  In our experience, Haiti is indeed rife with issues in poverty, but is more importantly a welcoming, diverse, vibrant community of individuals who deserve our respect more than they need our help. We take great efforts to promote this positive, dignified, and more truthful image of Haiti at every opportunity.

4. Go to great lengths to avoid exploitation

The Church of the Brethren, of which our partner organization the Haiti Medical Project is a ministry, is also responsible for creating the Brethren Disaster Ministries (BDM)—the incredibly reputable organization after which the Peace Corps was modeled. Our partners in the Haiti Medical Project (HMP) are equally reputable and financially trustworthy. All volunteers brought into the country for a work camp through BDM or HMP are asked to sign an ethical code of conduct that outlines the exploitative behaviors they are expected to avoid. As a partner to these organizations, 3P is intentional about upholding these ethical expectations as well.

5. Engage with the community we serve

We are currently sponsoring three communities in Haiti that we attempt to visit in person once per year as well as financially support 4 annual mobile medical clinics. We are in the process of ensuring a Haitian 3P liaison will be present at all 4 of them to provide education and gather information. We are intentional about building relationships with these communities and getting to know the people we serve. We consider many of them our friends, staying in touch with them throughout the year and genuinely looking forward to the next time we will see them in person.

6. Focus on empowering community members to make change

We are careful to be seen not as the agents of change, but rather as a bolster for others to become agents of change. While we do choose to be present in a few of the clinics we sponsor during our annual visits, we are intentionally absent from the remaining clinics so as to avoid promoting the “white savior” complex (more on this below) and instead allow Haitian community leaders to take charge. This will be specifically done through our 3P Liaison Program, where we will employ qualified Haitians to lead education programs and collect data from clinics in our absence. Once the funding is raised, we also plan to supply scholarships for prospective Haitian nursing and medical school students who pledge to return from their schooling ready to serve their country with their skills.

7. Support the work of local people

When we visit in person, we are not simply cheap, unskilled labor. We are either working alongside Haitian physicians and pharmacists, offering whatever useful assistance that we can, or we are occupying the children of patients with games, music, and other activities while mom and dad see the doctor. We are not taking away jobs from anyone, but helping lighten the burden of folks who already have these jobs. Further, all 3P-sponsored clinics operate under the supervision of licensed Haitian physicians and nurses, supporting the salaries of these professionals and helping them continue to work in Haiti.

8. Understand that impact outweighs intent

We educate everyone in our non-profit to be mindful when talking about their experiences in Haiti, both leading up to their trips and once they return. How we choose to talk about Haiti matters a lot. If all we talk about is how impoverished, broken, and sad everything was that we saw, we are perpetuating the narrative that Haiti is a charity case and is somehow beneath us. Even if that’s not what we mean, that is exactly what we are saying. Impact outweighs intent.

Now, we certainly encourage everyone to tell the truth about what they see, but to be mindful that for some people, our stories are the ones they will remember the most when they think about Haiti. The truth is, most people will never go there themselves unless they are doing humanitarian work or partaking in the dreaded “voluntourism,” so what we say matters. So we don’t just talk about the lack of resources and poverty. We also talk about the hearts and the character of the people we met and served with. More importantly, we talk about dignified and respectful ways in which others can help these people escape poverty by getting involved with 3P. We share with others how we plan to make a bigger difference in the future of the people we met, people who need help but are not charity cases.

9. Fight against the “white savior” complex in our work for the real Savior

While I cannot speak for everyone in 3P, I will personally attest that my inspiration to fight against unjust systems that marginalize others stems from my faith in Christ and my adherence to his command to serve “the least of these.” Regardless of where we find inspiration, an important way this manifests in 3P is how our members combat the “white-savior” complex—which involves well-intentioned white people, particularly white Christians from the US, travelling on mission trips to developing nations that are primarily populated by people of color. Playing on a narrative found countless times in Western culture, where a white character inspires or “saves” a character of color, white Christians often unintentionally promote the false narrative that people of color can’t save themselves. In their efforts to be the hero of the story—subconscious or otherwise—they overlook and often displace local leaders who are trying their best to make positive change in their communities.  They play directly into the role of “white savior” by living out this narrative in their mission work, indoctrinating not only themselves but also the very people they are trying to help. This can ultimately result in ascribing victimhood where it may not have previously existed, setting entire groups of people up to believe they are helpless or less than. In their best efforts to solve problems, white Christians often worsen them and create new ones.

Combating something so nuanced is tricky at best, and nearly impossible for the unaware, well-intentioned Westerner. Fortunately for 3P, our awareness of this issue results in important conversations, shaping the decisions we make as an organization and helping us gain cultural competency. For myself and the other members of 3P who openly follow Jesus, these conversations are a humble reminder that no one, no matter how privileged, can “save” someone else. This, we believe, is the work of God and God alone. None of us can save. But all of us can serve.  

This article is an opinion piece.  The views and opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Project Piti Pami or any of our partners.