Daniela Papi, deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, talks on What’s Wrong With Volunteer Travel? at TEDxOxbridge. Below is the full transcript of the TEDx Talk.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: What’s wrong with volunteer travel by Daniela Papi at TEDxOxbridge
“What’s wrong with volunteer travel?”, you ask.
Well, I believe the growing practice of sending young people abroad to volunteer is setting us up for failure. I’m going to tell you about my practices, my experience volunteering, some of the trends that I’ve seen, and also some ideas I have for how we might be able to improve this.
There’s a Cambodian phrase that says, “If you plant papayas, you can’t get mangoes.” I think that a lot of volunteer travel right now is offering really short-term solutions for complex problems. And yet, we’re really disappointed when we’re not getting long-term development results, like when you get a papaya, and you’re expecting a sweet, juicy mango.
We’re not only failing the youth that we’re sending abroad and the communities that they aim to be serving, but we’re also harming our collective futures, because if the next generation doesn’t have the tools that we need for sustainable development in the future, we’re in trouble.
Volunteer travel is one of the biggest growth sectors in the tourism market, and millions of young people go abroad to volunteer each year, I was one of them. I even set up an organization in Cambodia that’s taken hundreds of people over to help. We started in 2005, when some friends and I wanted to bike across Cambodia. We were going to teach children about the environment, and health, while raising money for what we thought would be the best way to improve education: to build a school.
The thing is, we didn’t know much about the environment, didn’t know much about health, and definitely knew nothing about Cambodian education. Yet we got pats on our back, and we had funds in our pocket, and we were off to save the world. When I arrived in Cambodia, I was so excited to see this building. I was picturing the next Prime Minister or Nobel Laureate coming out of it. We had so many things to donate: pens, pencils, books, teachers, and I arrived, and I realized something I already should have known: schools don’t teach kids, people do. We were planting papayas.
A Cambodian friend came up to me later and said, “You know, you foreigners, you really like to put your name on buildings, don’t you?” And he was right. Here’s an empty building with my name on it next to an empty health center with some Belgian guy’s name on it. You know in that movie “Field of Dreams”? They got it wrong. If you build it, they will not necessarily come.
I spent the next six years living in Cambodia, trying to figure out how to put an investment of a school building to use and building a team to make that possible. I thought it would take a few days, and a nice building, and it’s taken a lot more than six years; yet, I’d volunteered all over the world before that and every time I went home thinking, “Job well done.”
Cambodia was the first time that I stuck around long enough to peek behind the curtain after the few days or few months when a volunteer drops in, and I didn’t like what I saw. I realized that a lot of the things that I had been doing, that I had been encouraged to do in past volunteer trips could sometimes cause more harm than good. I realized that giving things away like shoes or water filters could sometimes destroy local markets, and that buying things from kids who are selling stuff on the street could sometimes keep them there.
I watched the orphanage tourism sector grow. Now orphanage tourism is one of the most popular among volunteer travelers, and it lets you and I, and anyone off the street, walk in, and play with vulnerable kids, and have those same kids do dance shows night after night, for visiting travelers.
Actually, UNICEF released a report last year that three out of four Cambodian ‘orphans’ in orphanages have one or both living parents. The volunteer tourism market is part of a system that is fueling this separation of kids and their parents, and that’s not something that I signed up for. I’m sure most of you who’ve volunteered abroad as well don’t want to be a part of that either, and we don’t want to be setting our kids up for that same experience that I had.
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.