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Only WEIRD People Volunteer Abroad

July 23, 2012

The weirdest people I know. Celeste, Monika, and I in Kenya!

Without a doubt, international volunteering is more popular than ever. A perceived need for international volunteers has prompted a movement for “voluntourism”. Over one million people in the United States volunteered internationally in 2008 alone which increased from 145,000 volunteers in 2004. While seemingly positive, this could pose a problem because only WEIRD people volunteer.

That is, the typical volunteer is white, educated, industrialized, rich, and from a democratic culture. This idea of WEIRD people is a recent topic in psychology, where the thought that maybe white undergraduate students are not indicative of worldwide views is a novel one (Jones, 2010). However, I thought it was incredibly applicable in international volunteering. In a study by Lough (2010), the largest percent of international volunteers (30%) were between the ages of 15 to 24 followed by people between the ages 45-54. In addition, over half of the sample had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Volunteers are usually white (88%) compared to any other ethnic group. In addition, McBride and Lough (2010) found that white people were more than twice as likely to volunteer abroad than black people. 1 in 3 volunteers lived in a home with an income of over 100,000 dollars.

While this seems like common sense and perhaps unavoidable (families with higher amounts of income would have more resources to volunteer), how does having such a homogenous volunteer base affect cross-cultural relationships? In a study by Cross-Cultural Solutions (2009), one of the largest international volunteer organizations, they surveyed alumni volunteers on their experiences volunteering abroad. Volunteers thought they were most effective while promoting cross-cultural interaction, caring for infants and children in daycare facilities; tutoring or teaching youth and adults; and collecting, preparing, or distributing foods, crafts, or other goods. 25% of volunteers believed that their work could have been performed by a local community member, but only 11% believed that a local could have done it better. 76% of volunteers thought they made a lasting contribution to the host organization. That is, only 11% of the volunteer base believed a local could have taught in their local community, cared for their own children, and engaged in cultural practices better than a volunteer with limited knowledge of the host community. Typically, the majority of volunteers did not think their presence has many negative effects on a community. Only 18% of volunteers believed they caused problems within the host community and 6% believed the community did not want them or need them.

This begs the question, why do volunteers see themselves as equally capable, if not more, in practices rooted in culture and lifestyles. Unfortunately, as the majority of international volunteers are WEIRD, we might be perpetrating ideas of white privilege and creating unequal relationships unconsciously. Peggy McIntosh speaks about white privilege in her article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (2003) and states that “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow them to be more like us”. White people can afford to be oblivious of language and customs of persons of color without feeling any penalty. In addition, white people experience little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

As a result, it is possible that international volunteers could not only be ignorant of other cultures and unhelpful volunteers, they could unconsciously ignore the perspectives and ideas of the very cultures they are trying to help. This leads to Western solutions for problems that might not be culturally relevant since western volunteers have never had to be culturally sensitive before.  This can also be reversed to apply to ethnic cultures. Members of developing countries have to worry about including the perspectives of other races, learning the customs, dress, and language of other countries, particularly the United States and other Western nations, if they wish to receive foreign aid. Thus they cater to us to make sure we feel comfortable while working abroad.

This hit home for me while I was in Kenya last summer. I asked our partner organization Abba, a local elementary school/orphanage, when it would be a good time for me to  come in and teach. The reply was a resounding “anytime!” However, I found out later in the day that they had exams for the next two weeks, in which my presence would have been distracting at best. I asked our Kenyan advisor, Carol, if Kenyans do not use the word “no”. She said that Kenyans most definitely say no to each other. When I asked why they wouldn’t tell me no, she said, “Because we don’t think Americans can handle the word no”.

Volunteering can also lead Westerners to hold false perceptions about the people they are supposed to be helping. In “I’ve come to help: Can tourism and altruism mix?”, Benjamin Sichel (2006) points out that volunteers assume that since they are wealthy and privileged, they will be useful in volunteer work. This can lead volunteers to assume that the local population is too stupid or ignorant to teach their children, work in hospitals, or build houses, if volunteers are needed to help them do so. This can create an assumption that wealthy volunteers know better than the culture and people they are serving. This is damaging to our cross-cultural relationships, when we don’t see developing countries as equal.

It’s time to start thinking of the implications of sending over a million volunteers in service abroad, when many of these people believe that their work is equal if not greater than the work of the community and have never had to integrate other cultural practices into their world views. So before all you WEIRD people grab your passports, consider your adventure as a learning experience first and an altruistic mission second.

References (In APA format, like a good psych student):

Cross-Cultural Solutions. (2009) International Volunteering. Retrieved March 15th, 2012, from

Jones, D. (2010). Psychology. A WEIRD view of human nature skews psychologists’ studies. Science (New York, N.Y.), 328(5986), 1627.

Lough, B. J. (2011). International Volunteerism in the United States, 2008. Center for Social Development, 10(11). Retrieved from

McBride, A., & Lough, B. J. (2010). Access to international volunteering. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 21(2), 195-208. doi:10.1002/nml.20020

McIntosh, P. (2003). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. In S. Plous, S. Plous (Eds.) , Understanding prejudice and discrimination (pp. 191-196). New York, NY US: McGraw-Hill.

Sichel, B. I’ve Come to Help: Can Tourism and Altuism Mix? (2006, Nov, 2). Briarpatch Magazine. Retrieved from

2 Comments leave one →
  1. petersm0 permalink
    July 25, 2012 8:43 pm

    Excellent post! Those stats are crazy… I thought the starry-eyed high-schoolers on Bainbridge were atypical, somehow.

    I wrote a follow-up post here, going deeper (blogception!) into the discussion of privilege and problem-solving.


  1. Changing the Face of International Travel « The Passport Epilogues

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