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Over the last decade, the growth in international volunteer travel, or “service learning” as it is often called in schools in North America, has turned what was once a fringe activity into a mainstream practice. Volunteers of all ages are looking to visit more and more remote places on the map, and fueled by this growing demand, thousands of new volunteer companies are opening up each year to offer this service. The growth in demand and prospects of financial gain through hosting volunteers has attracted everything from enterprising grassroots organizations to large businesses, with some, like Projects Abroad, reporting more than 20 million dollars in revenue each year.

For travelers, this explosion of international volunteering options, some with the finances to use their marketing dollars to outshine any negative feedback, makes it very difficult discern the best place to give your time. In some areas, the popularity of international service is solidifying the practice of going abroad to volunteer as an essential part of a young person’s development with some wealthier schools even requiring this of their students in order to graduate.

With widespread acceptance of international volunteering practices, we’re teaching people that it is not just an opportunity they can take, but an expectation, or an obligation, that they go abroad and “help”. By using heroic comparisons of “saving people” and images which pull at the heart strings, we’re teaching people in “developed” countries that people in “emerging markets” are in need of, or in desire for, their “help”. What we are often overlooking is that just because someone comes from a richer country, does not mean that they in exchange do not have a lot to learn from the people and places they are visiting.

In fact, if we continue to promote a “helping before learning” mentality, we’ll continue to cause the plethora of problems that have expanded in the last decade due to the growth in international volunteering: corrupt and profiteering organizations that send well-paying (and well-meaning) volunteers abroad to un-vetted placements, an explosion of “fake” orphanages designed to use children as tourist attractions keeping kids on the edge of poverty to evoke more donations, unskilled travelers paying foreign companies to allow them to take the roles of local workers and leaving a dearth of knowledge when they leave, and more. It’s time to put the learning first in international service learning. We HAVE to learn before we can help. This site is designed to provide resources and support to build a learning-first approach to life-long service.
There are many people and organizations around the world that are looking to improve the impact of volunteer travel.... and if you are one of them, we want you on our team! Our team right now consists of people all over the world who believe that "we have to learn before we can help". A few of us got into Learning Service through working with PEPY Tours in Cambodia, a travel company that shifted from voluntourism to development education. Others of us have written books on the topic, volunteered all over the world, or worked in media and non-profit work. Each of us is interested in re-claiming the learning in international travel and improving the impact of our collective good intentions.

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