Re-thinking Volunteer travel: The Learning Service Mindset

Millions of people travel abroad each year, some seeking a break from their busy lives, some for work and perhaps others as a means for an adventure. Many however, (around 2 million people each year), travel with the desire to ‘give back’ and choose to volunteer as a means to do so. These volunteer trips are what we now refer to as voluntourism, which has become increasingly popular over the past couple decades. Evidently, voluntourism has since become big business, generating millions of dollars each year as it feeds off the kind hearted intentions of many do gooders. The promise it provides is that you’re going to make a difference in the lives of some of the poorest individuals and communities across the globe, allowing many volunteers to fulfil their self gratification. The truth however, is far from this as I’ve come to learn.

My first experience in what I now understand as voluntourism, was on a family holiday to Fiji (and later a Schoolies trip). I recall going on a day trip to the main island to visit a village. Here we were welcomed by many children (who weren’t in school), men, women and the village chief. The tour included a guided walk through their village, visiting their school and some homes, as well as a cooked lunch/feast by the local women who lived there. I remember at the time feeling quite excited that we were to join the chief for lunch, however I also recall the feeling of uncertainty, that perhaps despite us paying good dollars to see them, that I should not be there. This feeling deepened when we walked through the village; and this was because I soon realised that the village had been greatly impacted by a cyclone recently, so many homes and their school were quite damaged. I felt sad for them, especially the children who seemed happy to see us – did they think we were here to help?

Yes ‘help’. Now that I reflect on this experience I can completely understand what it is that made me feel so uneasy about this tour. We were simply impeding on them in a time that was most inappropriate; we played with children, who weren’t in school because their were visitors (some of the school still operated at this point), we entered peoples homes and disturbed their privacy (who’s many homes were partially destroyed due to the cyclone), and the local people used many of what I assume were their precious resources to feed us. It seemed as if we were more of a burden then a help. I understand that at this time, they would have accepted tours because despite the situation unfolding in front of them, they may have had no choice since it was obviously a means of income for the village which they so desperately needed. However, reflecting on this now, I can think of so many other ways this village could be financially supported without having to be burdened and interrupted by western tourist with flashing cameras.

After all if our intentions were selfless and kind hearted, why did they have to come with such burdens to the local community?

Isabella Da Ruos

My second experience, upon high school graduation, was during a ‘schoolies’ trip, which included another day tour/trip to Fiji’s main island to donate sporting and school equipment. Here, we met about 80 children, who took the day off school, to accept these gifts and in return we once again were gifted with a big feast. Whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment handing out the equipment and supplies, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. Guilt because all these children, most who seemed uninterested, (and locals who seemed bothered and burdened) were out of school and out of pocket – once again. Reflecting on this now it would have been much wiser to have one member directly donate the goods, as of course this would mean the local community, kids and businesses would not have had to have a valuable business and learning day wasted as a means to accommodate for us westerners. After all if our intentions were selfless and kind hearted, why did they have to come with such burdens to the local community? Many years later I actually learned that the school was dumping many supplies and equipment because they had no need for much of it, I also learnt that our trip put local supply businesses in jeopardy for months after we had left.

This reflection has not come easy for me, in fact, it took me many years later to truly reflect and understand why it was I felt so uneasy in these experiances. It was my decision to enrol in a Bachelor of International Development, and full fill my desire to live a life full of helping people, that ultimately allowed me to be exposed to the cold, hard truth of volunteering. My journey through my International Development degree absolutely changed me, my attitudes my values and definitely my actions. Prior to my degree I had spent many years dreaming about future volunteer trips I would partake in, many of which I’d hoped would be in orphanages – of course this was long before I came to know the many surprising truths that lay behind orphanage tourism and volunteering. Learning about this all was really tough since I’d spent so long wanting to do just that. I never gave any thought to who the organisation would be, why and where their money went, all I knew was I wanted an adventure and to do something ‘worthwhile’. So naturally I felt a lot of guilt when I later found out it was this reckless, entitled thinking that was actually causing more harm than good.

Over the course of my degree my existing thoughts, conceptions and beliefs were constantly challenged when it came to the world; be that in politics, in the environment, in human rights and in volunteering. The list is endless, I challenged myself to the point that I wound up being a completely different person. For example, once a woman who despised anything to do with the environment – and now one who blogs about it, once a woman who recklessly dreamed, now reflects cautiously, once a woman who never considered animal nor human rights, and is now an advocate for them. I am so grateful for the way this course has shaped not just my learning but also the person I am today.

Perhaps one of the most critical parts of my degree that has shaped my future learning and actions when it comes to volunteering, is my time spent abroad (one month) in Cambodia with some experts in the field. The value of this trip on my learning and life can simply not be put into words. But what can is the many ways one of my trip leaders from Pepy tours – Clarie Bennett, an author of ‘Learning service’, has helped me in understanding true, responsible volunteering.

So, I thought I would share my top 5 favourite lessons that I have learnt, not just in my degree, but also in her book – which I consider to be the ultimate bible for anyone wanting to volunteer abroad.

So without further ado, here they are:

1. Not all Volunteer travel is responsible travel – I used to believe that volunteer travel was the most responsible form of travel, but as my experiances and ‘Learning Service’ points out, a lot of volunteer travel is just part of a wider system of international development. The best practices in development are community driven and based, so evidently anything else which focuses on a white saviour, I can get off a plane and solve all your problems attitude, is not the best form, nor the most responsible intervention on the development spectrum.

The hard truth is that something is not always better then nothing, sometimes kind intentions don’t always have good consequences.

Isabella Da Ruos

2. Something is Better than nothing – A very common assumption in the volunteering field, which I hear too often, is ‘something is better than nothing’. Often, the same people that assume this may argue that an untrained foreign volunteer teacher is better than no teacher at all, whilst having no evidence that there would be no teacher if the volunteer were not there – also without thinking about the sustainability of this education system, which relies on streams of short term volunteers, as opposed to local qualified teachers or adults. Many times, these thoughts are based on no facts and pure assumption. Take a trip that has a group of foreign volunteers, with no building experience or qualifications, who come to a village to build a school. Quite often this takes away opportunities of potential income from local people who are both, qualified, experience and skilled in building. Furthermore, most of these communities have not enough students or teachers to fill these classrooms and keep them running, so they become abandoned buildings that serve as a reminder each day of the waste of money, resources and time that went into this – which could have been much better spent elsewhere in that community. The hard truth is that something is not always better then nothing, sometimes kind intentions don’t always have good consequences. Once we recognise that our culture and experiences shape our knowledge and assumptions, we can truly begin to reflect on the true consequences of our actions.

3. Taking responsibility for oneself: Taking responsibility for ones self and their development goes hand in hand when taking responsibility for improving the lives of others. Often this is criticised as selfish, however, is actually the contrary, as those who can recognise the personal benefits of their experiances abroad, are those that are most likely to think the most clear about their decisions and actions, which as we have learnt can be detrimental without prior reflection. Many returning volunteers often say they wish they had done more personal development and acquired a learning mindset before departure as it would have made them a more effective volunteer. Take my trips to Fiji for example, if I was more honest with myself and had taken the time before departure to reflect on why I wanted to do those trips, I would have most likely understood that my assumptions weren’t all clear and true and that my intentions at that point of time were mostly a selfish means in order to full fill my own self gratification. If I had taken the time to reflect on this prior to departure and really thought about the implications and burdens of these actions, I would have never visited those islands and instead thought of another way to help that was both responsible and sustainable. Nevertheless, cultivating a learning mindset first requires unlearning, recognising that certain things you thought were true are really just assumptions, cultural viewpoints or views learnt through our own western lenses – which deeply impact how we see and interact with the rest of the world. Unlearning is a very uncomfortable process, but it is one that truly allows good intentions to follow through with good consequences, allowing the experience of responsible volunteering to be one that benefits both communities and foreign volunteers.

4. Ask Yourself Questions – And answer them truthfully: If you take a walk down your local University corridor, you’ll pass some noticeboards that will most likely be advertising opportunities to volunteer and travel abroad, urging young people to stop what their doing and jet off as a means to make a ‘real difference’ in the world. Similarly, a quick google search on voluntourism or scroll on your Facebook will also hand you a bunch of opportunities to volunteer abroad, often by many third party providers. The problem with such an abundance of trips available to people at the touch of a finger, is that it often makes it harder to filter out the better trips – the one’s that focus on sustainable, positive actions and impacts that benefit volunteers and communities – to those that often tend to take a business focus, rather then a focus on the sustainability of the volunteer work and aid. In addition, the overwhelmingness of so many opportunities often gives many people the wrong idea about volunteering abroad, leading to unrealistic expectations which can ultimately lead to a sense of disappointment and therefore withdrawal from a trip, which can potentially harm the community you are trying to help. International volunteers often have certain expectations which are often high and of the nature of wanting to make a ‘big difference’ when really a lot of big change comes from small efforts. So, digging deep into your own motivations for volunteer travel and asking yourself challenging questions may actually allow you to navigate yourself to the right decisions in how best you can actually achieve this ‘big change’ for the world as well as improve yourself along the way! As noted by ‘Learning Service’, some important questions to ask yourself before you plan your next volunteer trip may include; what kind of personal growth opportunities do I seek? What are my core skills? What are my learning goals? What do I value? What impact do I most want to have on the world? Often the most successful volunteers are not those who are extremely experienced, but those who take the time to acknowledge what they can receive from their new experiences gained in volunteering but also how they can truthfully equally offer the same in return.

The actions we should aim to take, particularly in volunteer travel, need to aim to tackle root causes and be done with openness and humility.

The Learning Service

5. Action without Learning is ignorance: The balance between wisdom and skilful action is extremely vital when it comes to volunteering in a manner that is both safe and responsible for all involved. Having too much in one direction will upset the balance of the other. This alone is the perfect summary of ‘Learning Service’ as it represents balancing thoughtful and reflective learning which mirrors its learning service model. The actions we should aim to take, particularly in volunteer travel, need to aim to tackle root causes and be done with openness and humility. In the field, this mindset allows a travellers role to flip from ‘helping’ right away to ‘learning’, which completely re-frames someones whole experience. It also creates different power dynamics and different ways to measure success. Instead of assuming we have the answers, we have the mindset of it as a chance to offer effective help by learning from the people who deeply understand the full extent of their own situations and what help is truly required in order to achieve sustainable, positive change within their community.

If you’re looking for anymore tips on how to volunteer responsibly abroad check out ‘The Learning Service’ on Facebook and grab a copy of their book

Remember, when we know better we can do better!

Isabella Da Ruos