As residents of the United States, we're all afforded a certain amount of privilege.
This isn't to say that we've never faced difficulties in our lives — that's not what privilege is — but there certainly are some advantages that come with living here.
For us college students, this is especially true. Our privilege manifests in most of us having had access to at least some sort of college-preparatory resource prior to university. Also, most of us have enough money — or someone willing to loan us enough money — to pay for tuition, books and housing.
So, point: many of us in the U.S. and the Western world — "developed" nations as we've been calling them recently — have some advantages and resources which other people in other countries might not have.
And many of us feel guilty about that because, well, imperialism.
In order to alleviate that guilt and to right wrongs, many Westerners have opted to volunteering their services abroad to "developing" countries. Think Madonna. Think Bono. Think idealistic college kids taking gap years.
I think I need an extra hand to count the number of times I've had a friend or acquaintance tell me that they're volunteering in Africa — no, never a specified country. Just "Africa."
Now, I'm not saying that advocacy and aid are bad. But you do have to remember what they paved the road to hell with.
Short term mission and volunteer trips often do more harm than good. The biggest problem is that the participants are not usually well-practiced doctors, engineers or other professionals with real assets to offer.
It's mostly churches, bored rich people, celebrities and inexperienced students. Many times, these people damage local economies by taking away, as volunteers, paying jobs from residents (which is ironic, considering the whole "immigrants take our jobs!" rhetoric that runs rampant in the U.S.).
Or, the entire endeavor turns into "voluntourism," an industry that thrives on Western paternalism.(http://www.cntraveler.com/ecotourism/2013/02/volunteer-vacations-rewards-risks) "White Man's Burden," anyone?
And, what of the children? In Cambodia, for example, orphanages have become "a booming business trading in guilt."
Sometimes, desperate parents send their children to orphanages, hoping to get foreign dollars in return. As for children who have actually faced the trauma of losing their parents, forming emotional attachments to short-term volunteers only adds to the trauma once the volunteers leave.
Also, I think that whether a person realizes it or not, he or she might go on a mission or volunteer trip to a developing country for their own benefit. They go to feel better about themselves. This type of trip has been dubbed "the ego trip." Clever, right?
Let's take a look at Madonna, for example, who was called out by Malawian president Joyce Banda for her entitlement — it seems as though she expected Malawians to be eternally grateful for her kindness, though kindness, by definition, comes without expectations of repayment.
And though Madonna and countless others have donated millions of dollars to undeveloped nations, keep this in mind: As a whole, "Africa has received $1 trillion in benevolent aid in the last 50 years, and per capita income is now lower, life expectancy has stagnated, and adult literacy is lower."
Obviously, we need a new plan of action.
I propose that Western countries abandon the white savior complex and; if they want to help, establish a constructive dialogue with the people themselves on what they need. Maybe it's an extreme concept — that the residents of these countries know better how to address their problems than outsiders — but it's one we need to get on board with.
So, if you're going to an impoverished country for the summer — or, if you did during an alternative spring break — keep this question in mind: are your concerns ethical, or is this just résumé padding? Are you truly causing positive change?
One more thing: please don't take a picture with a bunch of brown kids in the background specifically for your new Facebook profile pic. Bad form, that.
Andrea Richardson is a sophomore in anthropology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.