So what we need to teach our kids is the biggest lesson that I learned in six years in Cambodia is that: we have to learn before we can help. We have to learn before we can help, or else we’re causing more harm than good.
I get e-mails from teachers all the time that say, “We’d like our students to have a volunteer experience for 1 or 2 days, not on a project that’s already started, we want them to have it from start to finish so they can get a sense of accomplishment.”
What are we teaching our kids? We have to learn before we can help, but we already know this. When we send young people abroad to intern in a law firm, we tell them they’re going to do menial tasks, file papers, sit, listen, and learn, they don’t expect to be lead prosecutor in a court case the next week, and we know they’d mess up if they tried, right? So we have this double standard when we send them abroad to volunteer, we’re making it seem like development work is easy, and anybody can just come do it.
Even the words that we’re using are setting our youths up to be superior, we’re “volunteering” or doing “service learning”, as we say in North America. If you’re there to serve someone that you’re superior to, it’s sure hard to understand that you should be learning from those same people. We’re fueling a system of sympathy tourism. Sympathy, by definition, means pitying someone else. We don’t need to be teaching our kids sympathy but empathy. We need to teach our kids empathy because empathy requires an understanding of others, and if you understand others, you have to learn first. It means entering the world saying, “I’m here to learn from you,” not, “I’m here to teach you.” It means being humble.
We need to stop sympathy volunteering, and start empathy learning, and we can even use the same vocabulary if you like. How about we take “service learning” and we flip it around? If we take a learning service approach, what we’re telling our youth is go abroad, and learn how to serve in the future. We’re saying go abroad and learn, and get yourself the tools that you need to begin to understand the complexity of development work. Get angry, get interested, and then go home, and you have 355 other days of the year, or the rest of your life, to improve how you give, improve how you travel, and improve how you live.
I think we’re losing kids from this long-term fight that we need to solve our world’s problems in three ways. First, some people go abroad and they get completely overwhelmed when they enter a place that’s very different than their own. And if they don’t have someone there to help them digest that experience, I know I did. When I went to India when I was 20, I thought leprosy was made up in religious texts, and I swore I would never go back.
We’re losing some people because they go abroad, and they get a chance to be a hero, but they never engage with the complexity of aid. So they go home with pictures, and they show that they’ve done their part. We’re fueling a guilt offsetting program. You can live however you like all year, as long as every now and then, you go volunteer in an orphanage and offset the rest. But we’re never engaging with sustainable solutions to our world’s biggest problems. And sometimes, we lose people because they go abroad, they volunteer, and they stick around a little bit longer, and they say, “Wait, you told me this was easy, but this is kind of hard and I might have messed up and you let me fundraise for my flights, and all these people are behind me, and I didn’t succeed,” and they give up.
So if we want to keep these people in the system, and have them solve our problems in the future, we need to offer learning first. So that organization that I founded in Cambodia we stopped offering volunteer trips, and we started offering development education tours. So we’re not offering simple answers anymore. Instead, students usually leave with a lot more questions than they started with, but that’s the point.
Development is complex, so we need to arm our youth with a context for that complexity. What does that look like? Debates and discussions, reading articles at night, questions and answers sessions with development professionals. A chance to exchange ideas with local youths. There’s tons of educational travel options out there for young people. But we need to start rewarding that, and encouraging that, just as much if not more than we do volunteer travel. We give volunteer time-off and extra pats on the back to the people who go volunteer, we need to do the same or more for those who are going to learn.
Educational travel has so much potential, for you and I, for everyone. Imagine an educational hotel chain where professors and residents are curating learning content for travelers who come through, we can create that. It’s up to you and I to create that, and it’s up to us to demand what’s already there. So if you’re a parent and you’re listening to this talk, tell your child, you’re not measuring how many wells they build, or how orphanages they visit on their first trip abroad. Tell them you want them to tell you everything they learned. So you can set them up to be prepared for the responsibilities that come with their global citizenship.
And if you’re someone who’s about to go abroad to a country or culture that’s different than your own, choose a learning approach so you don’t have to make the same mistakes that I did. And the next time a teacher e-mails me to design a feel-good spectacle for their students, I’m going to e-mail them back, send them this talk, and tell them to define success for their students as learning first before serving, so that we can set them up to succeed in the long-term. They will do the world-improving later, if we give them the right tools and we plant the right seeds, and then we’ll start getting mangoes.