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Americans are obsessed with solving other people’s problems. We all feel productive when we solve problems, but when we start diminishing people’s problems into small, seeming solvable ones, we start to oversimplify them. This all starts with America’s love for volunteer tourism. Myself, I’ve always loved volunteering. You get to help people while gaining experience. So when I got the chance to travel to Nicaragua during the summer, it seemed amazing. I taught a public health class to elementary schoolers and helped facilitate a community project with the local youth. Our program focused on using resources the community already had to keep the project sustainable, instead of bringing in Western ideas and resources.
However, on my flight home, as I saw other participants posting pictures on Instagram of their host siblings in front of their rural homes, I couldn’t help but see a sense of superiority they all felt. This glamorization of international volunteering is a constant reminder of American’s superiority complex. No one wants to Instagram pictures of them helping local residents get better credit scores, or picking up trash at a local park when they could be posting selfies of their African host siblings on their shoulders in Malawi. Now I’m not saying we should never volunteer abroad or never focus on any international problems again, but I am saying we need to understand our purpose in these situations.
Our mission shouldn’t be to go in with the mindset we know best because more often than not we don’t. By going into someone else’s community and saying “I can do this better”, we start to undermine the local people and their ideas. Instead of going in with a sense of authority, we need to go in with an open mind and an ability to get help from the community. Helping people is an amazing experience, but solving other people’s problems by reducing them for our own ego goes against the whole purpose of volunteering.