Do good intentions outweigh bad outcomes?

Updated: Sep 23

Do good intentions outweigh bad outcomes? This is a concept many of us myself included grapple with, we have to ask ourselves do our good intentions outweigh the bad or negative outcomes that come from our actions. In this article, I want to focus on this concept when it comes to giving aid and volunteering. It’s normal and even expected that those who are more fortunate should help those who aren’t, especially this past year as so many people all over the world have lost their jobs and homes due to the pandemic. However, does the how and why you give aid or charity to the less fortunate hurt them or impact them negatively?


You’ve probably heard the phrase “don’t waste food because there are starving kids in Africa” or “you should be grateful because there are poor people”, and maybe because of the sentiment behind these sayings you’ve thought of going on a volunteer trip or doing missionary work in Africa, South America or Asia. However, my question to you dear reader is, do you think the people in a small village in Africa or a slum in South America deserve your help more than the poor people in your community right at home, why do you think that your assistance or help will be more beneficial halfway across the world than at your local charity or to the homeless person you see every day on the way to work or school?

In recent years the term “Voluntourism” or volunteer tourism has become quite a topic of discussion, in simple terms it means to volunteer where you give your time or skills to a community whilst travelling internationally, but let me paint a much broader picture for you. Many people, in particular, young adults who’ve just finished high school or university and want to take a break or gap year, want to do something meaningful whilst also having fun. The most common option nowadays is to go on a volunteer trip to a foreign country. These trips are usually cheap, with some volunteer organisations offering 2-week trips or even up to a month for as little as $2000 including accommodation, transport to and from the airport and during your stay, plus food. They offer a chance to travel to a different country, a chance to meet new and interesting people and on top of that do some volunteer work. On the surface, this seems like a great opportunity all around for everyone, you get to have fun and have something interesting to put on your CV and the community you volunteer for gets to benefit from your ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, however, these trips can be more harmful than most people think or even intend because at the end of the day who is truly benefitting from this experience?

In recent years the term “Voluntourism” or volunteer tourism has become quite a topic of discussion, in simple terms it means to volunteer where you give your time or skills to a community whilst travelling internationally, but let me paint a much broader picture for you. Many people, in particular, young adults who’ve just finished high school or university and want to take a break or gap year, want to do something meaningful whilst also having fun. The most common option nowadays is to go on a volunteer trip to a foreign country. These trips are usually cheap, with some volunteer organisations offering 2-week trips or even up to a month for as little as $2000 including accommodation, transport to and from the airport and during your stay, plus food. They offer a chance to travel to a different country, a chance to meet new and interesting people and on top of that do some volunteer work. On the surface, this seems like a great opportunity all around for everyone, you get to have fun and have something interesting to put on your CV and the community you volunteer for gets to benefit from your ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, however, these trips can be more harmful than most people think or even intend because at the end of the day who is truly benefitting from this experience?

Whilst it is a noble idea to want to help people we need to look at how effective and ethical it is to go on volunteer trips and why there is a need to volunteer in this manner. The main argument that supports such trips is that it helps the volunteers understand and examine their privilege, that it makes a positive impact on the volunteers and gives them a sense of achievement. However, what are the effects on the actual people whose lived experiences and struggles are being used to help make you a better person? In terms of effectiveness and ethics, I believe a good example to examine to understand the bigger picture is the issue surrounding orphanages in poor countries, it is a belief and an ideal that many people myself included have that children should be our biggest priority when dealing with poverty, that children deserve to be loved and have their basic needs such as food, shelter, education, etc. met including providing them with as much love and a supportive environment as possible. However, when it comes to children in poor countries there is a disconnect between how we help these children that is beneficial for them in the long run and how practices such as putting them in orphanages and seeing multiple people a day for short visits creates false bonds that are more beneficial to the volunteers whose main interest is getting the sense of doing something good rather than actually helping the children. In most wealthy countries there are better alternatives to just putting children in orphanages indefinitely such as providing resources to families so that they stay together, supporting adoptive parents or foster parents or giving priority to living relatives to take in orphaned children, in essence, wealthy countries have realised the importance of not institutionalizing children and instead placing them in a family environment that will support their growth and development which they most likely will not receive in an institution with hundreds of other children in the same situation. However many people in wealthy countries still support this practice in poor countries. According to Save the Children some orphanages looked into in Sri Lanka in 2005 found that 92% of children had a living parent and a 2006 survey by Unicef in Liberia found that 98% of children living in orphanages were not orphans. This was the case especially after a crisis such as a natural disaster or armed conflict, most parents sent their children to these institutions because they believed that if they could be provided with the resources they needed such as food, shelter, medical care, education then it was worth putting them there. What this picture paints is that more needs to be done to ensure that parents and local communities have the resources to take care of themselves, and funds need to be redirected from building institutions that tear families apart. In most cases, there is exploitation, physical and emotional abuse and sex trafficking of children in such institutions, and there is a clear need to eradicate them and put the actual needs of the locals above the wants of volunteers. Many organisations and institutions that provide these volunteer trips spend more money on giving volunteers a “life-changing” experience over actually creating long-lasting solutions to the problems these communities are facing. The article titled “The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?” by Tina Rosenberg for The Guardian provides a clearer picture of the above issues, it explains just how ineffective it is to have unskilled or unqualified people spend thousands of dollars to feel like they are helping over spending these funds to make the difference which they intended. After looking at this issue in particular I believe the solution to this problem and the general issue of poverty and lack of resources would be to prioritise helping the locals directly, supporting programs that empower them and giving them the tools to be self-sufficient rather than to be dependent on the charity and goodwill of foreigners. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a Lifetime”. On the flip side of the coin, some people take such volunteer trips for religious purposes, therefore missionary trips. Missionary trips are different in that the goal isn’t necessarily to help the people materially but to “spread the word” of their religion and to convert people to that religion by giving them material resources such as medication, building schools, houses or hospitals, etc. As a Christian myself I do believe in giving to the less fortunate and showing gratitude for the things you have by helping those who aren’t as fortunate, but as I have begun to develop my ideas and beliefs I also have to ask myself if helping poor people so that they might convert to Christianity or whatever other religion is truly an act of kindness or just a way to change their beliefs to match yours. The Ugandan based organisation No White Saviours has explored this topic extensively on their Instagram page and have many resources on their website as well that explore this topic and many more that give a clearer picture of what volunteering and missionary work are and what they can be if done right. I have to ask, can in good conscience anyone call themself a Christian missionary in 2021 given the history of missionaries particularly in Africa? Can this part of the Christian religion be reformed to not inflict the same harm and damage that the missionaries of colonial times did? Have the attitudes and beliefs that had some missionaries saying statements such as this - "Their bottomless superstitions, their vile habits and heathen customs - their system of polygamy and witchcraft - their incessant beer-drinks and heathen dances which are attended by unspeakable abominations - these present a terrible barrier to the spread of Christianity and civilization." (Wilkinson 1898)., really changed or have they simply taken a different form? There is still a strong sense of wanting to evangelise and “spread the word” as according to the US Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, 440,000 Christian missionaries were working abroad in 2018. This number includes Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians and North American groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), known as Mormons. Whilst missionaries did not set out to achieve the same goals as colonialists there were some similarities, for example, the goal of missionaries was to spread the gospel and to convert people to their religion, this was achieved essentially by settling in that particular area, teaching their beliefs and giving incentives to convert through providing the resources that those people were lacking. Whilst the intention may not have been to assert control or dominance over the people it was bound to happen because of the power imbalance. Therefore it begs the question can modern-day missionary work truly be separated from its colonial past given its history of being a gateway for colonisation? Missionary work by definition means to go to a foreign country to spread the gospel or evangelize through preaching, is this not similar to colonisation which is defined as being the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area? Both these practices rely on changing the beliefs and practices of the people they are settling amongst although for different purposes and with arguably different intentions and often people tend to look at the ‘benefits’ that missionaries bring to these countries but never truly examine what is lost in the process. I believe for many people our identity, values, culture and traditions are tied to our religion and even in cases of those who do not identify with any religion, there is still some influence of religion especially in western countries where at one point societies were modelled after some form of the Christian religion, given these ties it is safe to assume that once you change your religion an aspect of your culture and identity is changed too. An example that I find most glaringly obvious of this is how many non-native English speakers like myself are more fluent in English than our native languages, whilst some of this can be attributed to personal environment or circumstances but because of colonisation and the spread of Christianity many native people were forced to assimilate to a new culture and religion and in doing so lost a large part of their identity and culture. Loss of cultural identity such as loss of native languages might not seem like a big deal to those whose culture is dominant or has not gone through such erasure but for those of us who had parts of our cultural identity erased and in some cases demonised it is a big issue, therefore when dealing with issues of cultural appropriation and villainizing of certain practises it becomes a sensitive topic. Why is this important to the topic at hand you might ask, or how does some random Christian teenager who just wants to help a poor community contribute to this, well to put it simply it’s more than just how you help people it’s also about why you want to help, it’s about why you feel that the way of life of a group of people whose culture, traditions and values you barely understand is inferior or incorrect to yours and therefore needs to be changed, and that dear reader is where I believe the problem comes in.

Whilst on paper and even practically these two practices of voluntourism and missionary work might seem beneficial to both the giver and the recipient, we also need to look at how this is being done and what the motive for helping is. The issue that some people, myself included have with these practices is that often there is a lack of respect for the dignity and humanity of the people receiving the aid from taking pictures with half-clothed or dirty children in Africa without the consent of their parents, the little to no thought as to how sustainable or economical it is for a group of unqualified and inexperienced people to build poorly crafted houses at a high cost that could have benefited the people if it had just been given to them directly or how ethical it is to have different groups of people every week visiting an orphanage and creating bonds with children they will never see again. I believe that my and many other people’s problem with these practices is that the above examples plus a slew of other issues is that realistically and honestly people from wealthy or western countries would never be able to do such things in their own home countries, and so I ask, can you dear reader imagine going to a poor or underdeveloped neighbourhood in London or Paris and taking pictures with children whose parents did not give you consent to do so and especially to publish them as a means to show how poor they are and how lucky you are to have all the things you have? After saying all this I want to clarify that I am not against people volunteering, far from it, I do not believe that going to foreign countries to volunteer is entirely or inherently bad or that you should only volunteer or help only in your home country but I do believe that there needs to be more accountability in how we treat people and view them when giving aid and there needs to be a more sustainable and effective manner to volunteer that helps end the need to do such work, that helps lift people out of poverty as much as is possible without government assistance because that is essentially what volunteering is about, filling the gap where the government is unable to or has failed to. Even missionary work with its controversial history and presence can be beneficial if done correctly and if done in the best interests of the people and not as a way to assert dominance over or change the culture and beliefs of the locals. Therefore I ask dear reader before embarking on either one of these types of trips, ask yourself these three questions: