THE BLOG
06/18/2010 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Skills and Experience Would YOU Want From a Voluntourist?

Before traveling overseas to lead an aid project or volunteer, think about what factors would lead to success or failure by a foreign volunteer in your own country.

Imagine that you live in one of the ghettos of New York or Los Angeles and are struggling to keep your kids in school and off drugs while at the same time working extremely long hours to put food on the table. Or perhaps you live in the rust belt. You are seeing your community die in front of your eyes and haven't been able to find a job in over a year because there just aren't any. Maybe you live on the Navajo Reservation where you are being pulled between the old ways and adapting to the new ways. There are no jobs and no businesses can be built because of complex land rights that were put in place a century ago to keep the reservation from being sold out from under your people.

Do you have a scenario in your head? Can you picture your life in that community clearly?

Now imagine that you are told that a Kenyan or Chinese college student is coming to your town to help solve your problems. They'd like you to help find housing for the student (preferably in someone's house so they can experience the local culture), you'll need to get them a translator, they'll need to be brought in to meet with local government officials, you'll need to call together meetings of your neighbors and other stakeholders, and it'll all need to be done very fast because they only have a couple of months off for their summer vacation (or a semester off depending on the school and program).

What skills, knowledge, abilities, and time commitment would you want the volunteer to have to make it worth all of the sacrifices and work you'll have to do to help facilitate their work? What do you think the chances are that they'll be successful? Given that you and your community are on the edge of survival, is this a risk that you're really willing to take? If so what do the outcomes have to be to make it so that your benefits are greater than your risks?

How would you feel if the project failed? How would you feel if you learned that one of the main reason for all the work you did was so that the volunteer could expand their world views and be more aware of international issues?

Now that you've considered all of these factors, here's another question. With all of the social problems we have in our own country, why aren't you working to solve problems locally instead of flying half way around the world to solve someone else's social problems? The U.S. ranks 29th in infant mortality - behind that of some developing countries. One in six U.S. children live on the brink of hunger in 26 states. Approximately 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in the U.S. each year.

If you think that problems in other countries/societies are easier to solve, you're in for a big surprise and probably a failed project. In fact your chances of a successful project are much greater in a place where you understand the language, culture and politics. Believe me, these all have a huge impact the success of a project. If you do a project in your own community you'll be around long enough to see whether it was successful, sustainable, or had unintended consequences. All of these are hard to see in short term foreign projects.

Make your mistakes locally. Learn your lessons at home where you can see the impact. Become successful at improving your own community before you try to improve someone else's.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.