I feel that the growing practice of sending young people abroad to volunteer is often not only failing the communities they are meant to be serving, but also setting these travellers, and by extension our whole society, up for failure in the long run.

Hundreds of thousands of young people are going abroad to volunteer each year, as part of school requirements, to build their resumes/CVs, and as part of gap year trips.

Yet much of this demand is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right, or the obligation, to bestow our benevolence on people. Never mind if we don’t speak the language, don’t have the skills or experience to qualify for the jobs we’re doing, or don’t know anything about what life is like “over there”.

As a former serial volunteer myself, I’m not in any way trying to criticise the good intentions of these volunteer travellers - I know from my own experience that our desire to help is sincere - but I now also know that good intentions are not enough.

Our lack of critical engagement about international volunteering is creating a double standard.

When someone goes for a work experience or internship placement in a law firm or an accounting company, they don’t expect to be leading a case in a courtroom, or managing their own clients - they understand their number one job is to learn (and bring the coffee). Yet when we go abroad, we sometimes forget that we have to learn before we can serve.

It’s like we think we are all Clark Kent. At home we slave away and work hard to be useful in our jobs, but then we enter a magical phone booth and - ta-dah - we take off to a far-away country and somehow our Superman suit, or our volunteer T-shirt, gives us all of the power and knowledge we need to save the world.

We’re teaching our next generation of leaders that development work is easy, and that their skills are so valuable to the people abroad that it is worth donating money to send them to help.

And we’re teaching them that, just because they come from the UK or the US, they are in a position of superiority over the people they are going to “serve”.

A number of volunteers are completely unsupervised - you just walk in and play with the kids”

We must stop volunteering abroad from becoming about us fulfilling our dreams of being heroes.

The travellers are not just missing out on learning the lessons that lead to more sustainable changes in themselves and in the world, but they are also often negatively impacting the people they are meant to be “serving”.

Orphanage volunteering is one of the most popular volunteer travel offerings in part because it fits with both our desire to be heroes and our desire for fun.

Volunteering to take care of orphans might not sound too bad at first - at least I didn’t think so on my initial orphanage visits.

But then I started to realise that my visit repeated over and over and over again can indeed become a problem.

Imagine if an orphanage near your home had a rotating door of volunteers coming to play with these children who have already been deemed vulnerable.

Imagine if, during times when they were meant to be in school, they were performing “orphanage dance shows” day after day to visiting tourists. Imagine if any tourist could come in off the street and take one of the children out for the day with them? You are right in any assumptions you might have about what type of harm that could expose them to.
Daniela Papi. “Is gap year volunteering a bad thing?" BBC.

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