What does it mean exactly when someone says they want to make a difference?

From reading over 1,000 Common App essays within the past couple of months in my work at Character Labs, I have become very familiar with the frequency at which people believe they are making a difference. Perhaps it was a two-week trip to Haiti where they built a school for “impoverished children” and learned how to “cherish the opportunities” that they have been afforded in their lives. Or perhaps it was a one-time visit to a local soup kitchen during Christmas day to hand out cans of soup to “the homeless.” Whatever the case, I have become more disillusioned with the entire concept of charity, especially voluntourism. And although I will always cherish an individual’s desire to help, I sometimes wonder if they are helping at all.

I have been aware of voluntourism as an industry throughout my entire life, I have never quite had a strong opinion until recently. This past semester, I worked on a consulting project with a voluntourism group that specialized in impact through yoga. I have much to say about that, but unfortunately, I am still bound by a non-disclosure agreement. My old high school also had an organization called BuildOn that would send high school students abroad to build a school in some developing nation affected by centuries of extractive colonial policies. The trip totaled around $3,000 per student, with a total of around 20 students each year.

At the time, I had been indifferent. After all, without being on these trips, who am I to pass judgment on the effectiveness of these trips? But since coming to college and taking a series of classes on colonial history and developmental economics, I cannot help but reflect upon BuildOn with a sense of distaste.

1. BuildOn accentuates cultural exoticism and white savior complexes.

Low growth rates and civil wars are the results of extractive economic policies and ethnic tensions within national borders. Extractive economic policies and ethnic tensions within national borders are the results of colonialism by European countries. White Europeans with guns were able to conquer masses of land in countries where they were overwhelmingly outnumbered by instilling ethnic tensions by selling arms to prevent a collective revolt. Back then, local societies had thought they have been given the gift of weapons by the Europeans to conquer their neighboring tribes. They had thought the Europeans were on their side because they had been to finance their wars. A couple of years later, they were no longer able to unite against colonial powers because of a history of conflict. And now, the same high-income and privileged individuals with European descent are coming back with the same inaccessible resources to, once again, “save” them.

Of course, that’s not to say that all individuals who pursue these trips are exclusively both high-income and white with European ancestry. Many aren’t. I’m also not saying that building schools are the modern equivalent of selling arms to finance conflict. That’s outrageous. But, to me, there is something inherently discomforting regarding a picture of a privileged, high-income high-school student smiling in a crowd of little brown children. It feels discomforting to hear about a student “understand their privilege” when they pay $3,000 to go abroad and spend two weeks in a village that they are never going to see again for the rest of their lives. It creates a sort of moral hierarchy between the helpers and the helped. When I see those photos with those captions in Instagram, I cannot help but feel as if, to these high-schoolers who have traveled half-way around the world to build a school, treat the people they serve as props as opposed to people.

I remember a while ago, I saw a picture on Twitter of a couple white teenagers posing in front of a Welcome to Compton sign. The picture was captioned, “I hate white people.” I saw a retweet about the picture, captioned, “why do [white people] treat the hood like a trip to the zoo.” At the time, I couldn’t exactly articulate why I found the picture profoundly wrong. Why would people care about how other people lived their lives? To me, it was a matter of liberty; I thought that people could live their lives in whatever way they wanted, as long as they didn’t hurt other people. And, to some extent, I still have the same sentiments as I did before. But the reality of the situation is that such a stunt does hurt others. Because, it exoticizes a life. Because, while I can only even imagine the grievances of individuals living in the lower income neighborhoods through films like Straight Outta Compton, to some people, for some people, it is their life. And when a couple of high-income teenagers come to the mantle of their life and converts it to an exotic consumption like in an Instagram photo, it commodifies a struggle that is their life.

It’s a concept that I have not been familiar until recently: othering. All individuals around the world are bound by the set of experiences that would make them human. Of course, each culture, by definition, has its own unique set of experiences that set each culture apart from one another, but underlying the differences still exists the universal human experience. Some experiences aren’t universal, like poverty, but they still exist as a part of the lives of many individuals across the world. And when these individuals are defined by a couple of high-schoolers by their living conditions, it diminishes their lives to just extensions of poverty. While I would imagine that there are merits in going on service trips in order to expand an individual’s perspective of the world, there is a difference between truly understanding individuals as people with deeply distinct and unique lives and understanding individuals as a reinforcement of pre-exsting conceptions of developing countries.

2. BuildOn does not actually hire any teachers in the schools they build.

I have had a couple of influential teachers in my life that have drastically changed my perspective and awareness of the world. Of course, my education had been mostly outlined by a constant wave of studying and preparation for college, but it had also been defined by a few moments where I had consciously changed my opinion on an issue. Those are the moments I cherish. The 17-acre property where my school resided had been a staple of my high school experience but not defining. I could have easily received the same education in a significantly less extravagant building and have received the same education, as long as the teachers were the same.

And so, I wonder, what’s the point in constructing a school without teachers? I’ve learned from my microeconomics classes that the Cobb-Douglas function requires three inputs for any production of any good: land, labor, and capital. In this case, building and maintaining a school requires a couple of more inputs, not limited to teachers, textbooks, writing tools, not to mention the countless conditions that need to be met for a school to thrive. A school without a facility is not a school just as much as a school without teachers is not a school. And so, when so many resources are poured into the construction of a school without teachers, I wonder if the efforts of building a school are creating a positive impact at all, except for creating an expensive lump of concrete.

Countries with low literacy generally have a low GDP per capita, which means the cost of labor for countries with low literacy is also low. In the United States, the minimum wage is $7.25/hour. In most low-income countries, like China, labor protection laws do not exist, meaning that laborers will be paid in accordance with market demand, regardless of how low the wages are. Paired with high fixed-exchange rates, the minimum wage of the US can quickly sum into a year’s salary for that in a matter of days. This is why only ~1.5% of the total cost of production of an iPhone (~$1.50) goes to the Chinese laborers that assemble the iPhone, but over 60% of the profits (over $600) goes to Apple when, in actuality, most of the labor required to build an iPhone goes into the manufacturing process.

Of course, they are “volunteering.” But their service is anything but free. Their plane tickets have an opportunity cost. When a group of high schoolers comes to another country to build a school, I wonder why. They aren’t needed to build a school. Given the high unemployment rates of many low-income countries, the laborers of the country these high-schoolers are claiming to help could easily construct the same building at a significantly lower cost than at the hands of a group of well-educated high schoolers from a high-income country. It is easy to construct a building that resembles a school; it is difficult to create a sustainable improvement in the quality of life of individuals without serious commitment and investment into the success of the school, which would require hiring teachers and donating teaching materials. If only there was money for that.

It reminds me of the time I went to Atlantic City after my senior prom in high school. When I walked the boardwalk with my friends, I spotted a massive glass building towering over the beach. Glass buildings were supposed to carry an air of modernity and purity to them, but this building had a layer of untouched smut layering the surface of the glass. At night, its abandoned spirit seems to haunt the otherwise vivacious energy of our squad of children almost finished with our compulsory education. Later, I learned it had been called the Revel, a $2.4 billion casino investment that closed within two years of its opening. Aside from the harrowing exterior, the interior of the building had been completely empty for the past four years. If the casino had no employees, no clients — how is it even considered to be a casino?

I could imagine the schools that BuildOn builds go through similar cycles of creation and abandonment. I wouldn’t know; the statistics found in follow-up reports cannot be found publically, and when I asked my high school’s director of BuildOn for information regarding the schools that were built during previous trips, he declined to answer my questions on four separate instances in a span of five months. I cannot imagine that the follow-up reporting after the trip would be stellar.

3. BuildOn convinces individuals that they are actually helping.

The reality is that sustainable increase in GDP per capita comes from raising human capital and not saturating labor markets. Creating schools increases human capital, indeed, but only if students graduate and if the schools stay open. Even among schools that have been well-established for many years (e.g. Philadelphia public schools), enrollment does not always lead to sustainable increases in income. There exist a multitude of other issues that cannot be addressed on a superficial level such as parsimonious government funding, racial segregation, and parental pressure to drop out, to name a few. Once magnet schools are excluded from the equation, the reality is that only 36% of graduates in Philadelphia schools go on to pursue a college degree. I cannot imagine it would be much better in countries without the support of the US federal government.

I agree that raising incomes is very contingent on increasing human capital, and thus, increasing access to education. I agree that creating schools are necessary for increasing human capital. It is also true that in order for schools to be truly effective in raising human capital, students would need to graduate. If we cannot even create an environment for students to graduate here at home in Philadelphia, how can we expect to do the same in a country among people whose problems we do not understand the slightest?

Everyone makes a difference. Doing anything, anywhere makes a difference. I go to Penn because I want to create a difference, but I am also indirectly funding the aggressive gentrification of West Philadelphia. It’s a “difference.” But the number of times I have read high-schoolers writing about their “crucial impact in their development” or their “important role model in their lives” makes me wonder if they understand the limitations of their existence at all. Of course, the Common Application creates a structure that incentivizes stretching accomplishments, but at the same time, I cannot help but shake the thought that these high schoolers actually do not believe that they are stretching the truth. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually thought that they were making an impact.

But sometimes, attempting to help without understanding how to help actually creates more detriments than benefits. It is morally imperialistic to believe that a group of high-schoolers from a high-income country with no knowledge about the indigenous culture or expertise in a specific task can march into a low-income country and fix problems when, in reality, developmental work is incredibly difficult even for experts in the field. Introducing new goods and large surpluses of currency through charitable motivations could potentially disrupt existing markets as well as create unsustainable growth dependent on foreign aid. The constant influx of new travelers could possibly create room for abuse and attachment issues for children especially since volunteers are, mostly, not accountable to local jurisdiction given their wealth and status.

If I am being very honest, it is difficult to write about my grievances towards voluntourism without a drip of hostility seeping into my words. I don’t have anything against the mission of BuildOn personally; I’m just using it as a means to discuss voluntourism within the context of an organization that I am familiar with. I have tried to keep my personal distaste for voluntourism at a minimum, but I’m sure that parts of my writing were soaked with bias. And that being said, I haven’t personally been on a service trip before, so I can only analyze the industry from the perspective of an outsider with a background in political economy as opposed to a participant. Although it does keep my perspective more objective, I could imagine that there are some subtleties that I have missed as well.

It’s completely acceptable to travel. Ethically, of course. It would be hypocritical of me not to say that traveling has been one of the most eye-opening activities that I have have the privilege to participate in (although, always second to education). However, it bothers me to see countless high-schoolers write about how much of positive impact they are creating when, in actuality, they are creating nil to a possible negative impact. I don’t doubt when individuals who go on service trips say that their trips have exposed them to poverty and other cultures. After all, they are living in another country for a small period in time. But, as someone interested in emerging markets work, the idea of high-income high schoolers coming to a low-income country and claiming they are “making it difference” — I would be lying if I didn’t say it didn’t bother me profoundly.

Perhaps voluntourism has positive impacts on local communities beyond exposure from an Instagram photo and some culturally appropriated clothes. The evidence seems to suggest otherwise. The evidence suggests that $3,000 x 20 in wire transfers to a reputable local NGO with a focus on education can build a school, establish a system to hiring qualified teachers, pay teachers at a constant rate for years at a time, buy vital teaching materials and other necessities, maintain facilities and operational expenses, and others. Of course, I’m sure that funding 20 high-income high-schoolers to “build a school” has the same impact as well.

I just prefer to call it for what it is: tourism. Not social impact, not volunteering, and definitely not philanthropy — possibly harmful tourism.