International adoption has exploded onto the media scene as the latest celebrity controversy du jour. Yesterday, Madonna’s new Malawian son arrived in London accompanied by a flurry of questions, opinions and accusations. This paparazzi frenzy sparked a whole range of ethical questions. What are the actual benefits of these adoptions? A better life for the child or a feel-good PR booster for the celebrity? How must it feel for the biological family and their surrounding community to have a diamond-clad foreigner and accompanying entourage swoop in and then disappear, leaving nothing behind but the empty space where their child used to be? Couldn’t the thousands of dollars spent on legal fees have been put to better use in the community where the child came from? The list of ethical dilemmas goes on and on.

          Such adoptions—like all things celebrity—receive more media attention than other types of interaction between the developed and the developing world. However, they actually represent a high-profile microcosm of a universal problem—one that is not limited to the rich and famous. London’s The Guardian newspaper recently ran a piece about young Westerners performing charity work in the developing world. The article opened with a description of some young Brits who had volunteered in Nepal: “Fifty spliffs and a thousand emails later, they returned home with a Hindu charm and tie-dye trousers. They had lots of great stories but the world remained thoroughly unsaved.” Comparing these students’ attitudes and behavior with those of their ancestors, the author posed the question: “Are these the new colonialists?”

          During the Colonial period, the adventurous, ambitious and idealistic ventured out to exotic destinations and immersed themselves in “uncivilized populations.” Often, these excursions were characterized by arrogant behavior, little regard for local customs, exploitation of local resources, and the subsequent abandonment of native people. Looking back, we recognize the ethnocentric, unbalanced nature of these excursions. However, when you read travellers’ journals and other accounts from that time period, you realize the colonialists were not always driven by greed and malevolence. Often times, they approached these interactions with good intentions, such as modernizing, educating less fortunate people. However, by focusing on their personal experiences, these self-declared ‘philanthropists’ completely overlooked their actual impact on the civilizations they encountered.

          In the past decade, study abroad and volunteer abroad programs have increased exponentially. Ideally, these programs and their participants hold great potential for increasing cultural awareness and understanding, completing development projects, and helping the less-fortunate. However, even with the best of intentions, sometimes such involvement overseas can have unforeseen consequences. As one volunteer who taught English in Ecuador said, “Volunteers bring iPods and cameras to schools, so the gulf in wealth is quite visible…These children learn that their lives are crap where they are and it makes them want to move out.” Like our colonial forefathers, perhaps we too are sometimes unaware of the actual implications of our noble intentions.

          In the latest Chronicle of Higher Education, John Barbour’s article ‘The Moral Ambiguity of Study Abroad’ addresses such problems. In his opening paragraph, he reminds international travellers, “Simply by crossing an ocean, you have spent more money than most people in the world will earn in a year—more than some will earn in a lifetime.” Barbour challenges those who witness poverty and suffering abroad to “convert their uneasiness and defensiveness into clear thinking” and practical solutions to what are, at best, long-term problems and, at worst, “may even be inescapable parts of the human condition.” While instantly gratifying quick fixes are tempting, they rarely provide the most effective solutions to long-term suffering.

          I am a firm believer in the power of international experiences as a way of improving our world and creating global citizens. Youthful idealism and enthusiasm offer a counterweight to other destructive effects of globalization. However, we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. Without thoroughly considering all aspects and potential consequences of our presence in other societies, we risk further harming the very people we’ve set out to help.