Transcriber: kevin chanReviewer: Denise RQ “What's wrongwith volunteer travel?”, you ask; well, I believe the growing practice ofsending 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 havefor 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 lotof volunteer travel right now is offering really short-term solutionsfor complex problems, and yet, we're really disappointed when we're not gettinglong-term development results, like when you get a papaya, and you're expecting a sweet, juicy mango.
We're not only failingthe youth that we're sending abroad and the communitiesthat they aim to be serving, but we're also harmingour collective futures because if the next generationdoesn't have tools that we need for sustainable development in the future, we're in trouble.
Volunteer travel is one of the biggestgrowth sectors in the tourism market, and millions of young people go abroadto volunteer each year, I was one of them.
I even set up an organization in Cambodia that's taken hundredsof people over to help.
We started in 2005, when some friendsand I wanted to bike across Cambodia.
We were going to teach childrenabout the environment, and health, while raising money for what we thought would be the best wayto improve education: to build a school.
The thing is, we didn't know muchabout the environment, didn't know much about health, and definitely knew nothingabout 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 Ministeror Nobel Laureate coming out of it.
We had so many things to donate:pens, pencils, books, teachers, and I arrived, and I realised somethingI already should have known: schools don't teach kids, people do.
We were planting papayas.
A Cambodian friend came upto me later and said, “You know, you foreigners, you really like to putyour name on buildings, don't you?” And he was right.
(Laughter) Here's an empty buildingwith my name on it next to an empty health centerwith 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 yearsliving in Cambodia, trying to figure out how to putan investment of a school building to use and building a teamto 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 volunteeredall over the world before that and every time I went homethinking, “Job well done.
” Cambodia was the first timethat I stuck around long enough to peek behind the curtainafter the few days or few months when a volunteer drops in, and I didn't like what I saw.
I realised that a lot of the thingsthat I had been doing, that I had been encouraged to doin past volunteer trips could sometimes cause more harm than good.
I realised that giving things awaylike shoes or water filters could sometimes destroy local markets, and that buying things from kidswho are selling stuff on the street could sometimes keep them there.
I watched the orphanagetourism sector grow.
Now orphanage tourism is one of the most popularamong 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, UNICEFreleased a report last year that three out of four Cambodian”orphans” in orphanages have one or both living parents.
The volunteer tourism marketis part of a system that is fueling this separationof kids and their parents, and that's not somethingthat I signed up for.
I'm sure most of youwho've volunteered abroad as well don't want to be a part of that either, and we don't wantto 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 learnedin 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 teachersall the time that say, “We'd like our students to havea volunteer experience for 1 or 2 days, not on a project that's already started, we want them to have itfrom start to finish so they can get a senseof 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 abroadto intern in a law firm, we tell them they'll do menial tasksfile papers, sit, listen, and learn, they don't expect to be lead prosecutorin a court case the next week, and we know they'd mess upif they tried, right? So we have this double standardwhen we send them abroad to volunteer, we're making it seemlike development work is easy, and anybody can just come do it.
Even the word's that we're usingare setting our youths up to be superior, we're “volunteering”or we're doing “service learning”, as we say in North America.
If you're there to serve someonethat you're superior to, it's sure hard to understand that you should be learningfrom those same people.
We're fueling a systemof sympathy tourism.
Sympathy, by definition, means pitying someone else.
We don't need to be teachingour kids sympathy but empathy.
We need to teach our kids empathy because empathy requiresan 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 usethe 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 understandthe complexity of development work.
Get angry, get interested, and then go home, and you have 355 other daysof the year, or the rest your life, to improve how you give, improve how you travel, and improve how you live.
I think we're losing kidsfrom this long-term fight that we need to solveour world's problems in three ways.
First, some people go abroadand they get completely overwhelmed when they enter a placethat's very different than their own.
And if they don't have someone there to help them digestthat experience, I know I did.
When I went to India when I was 20, I thought leprosywas 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 engagewith the complexity of aid.
So they go home with pictures, and they show they've done their part.
We're fueling a guiltoffsetting programme.
You can live however you like all year, as long as every now and then, you go volunteer in an orphanageand offset the rest.
But we're never engaging with sustainablesolutions to our world's biggest problems.
And sometimes, we lose peoplebecause they go abroad, they volunteer, and they stick arounda little bit longer, and they say, “Wait, you told me this was easy, but thisis 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 keepthese people in the system, and have them solveour problems in the future, we need to offer learning first.
So that organizationthat I founded in Cambodia stopped offering volunteer trips, and we started offeringdevelopment education tours.
We're not offering simple answers anymore.
Instead, students usually leavewith a lot more questions than they started with, but that's the point.
Development is complex, so we need to arm our youthwith a context for that complexity.
What does that look like? Debates and discussions, reading articles at night, questions and answers sessionswith development professionals.
A chance to exchangeideas with local youths.
There's tons of educational traveloptions out there for young people.
But we need to start rewarding that, and encouraging that, just as much if not morethan we do volunteer travel.
We give volunteer time-offand extra pats on the back to the people who go volunteer, we need to do the same or morefor those who are going to learn.
Educational travel has so much potential, for you and I, for everyone.
Imagine an educational hotel chainwhere professors and residents are curating learning contentfor 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 demandwhat's already there, so if you're a parentand you're listening to this talk, tell your child, you're not measuringhow many wells they build, or how orphanages they visiton their first trip abroad.
Tell them you want themto tell you everything they learned.
So you can set them up to be prepared for the responsibilities that comewith their global citizenship.
And if you're someonewho's about to go abroad to a country or culturethat's different than your own, choose a learning approach so you don't have to makethe same mistakes that I did.
And the next time a teacher e-mails me to design a feelgood spectaclefor their students, I'm going to e-mail them back, send them this talk, and tell them to define success for their studentsas learning first before serving, so that we can set them upto succeed in the long-term.
They will do the world-improving later, if we give them the right toolsand we plant the right seeds, and then we'll start getting mangoes.