Alice Robinson reflects on a volunteer trip in Sri Lanka that she went on as a teenager and how it motivated her in editing the Learning Service book.
When I was fifteen, I signed up for a three week international volunteering trip to Sri Lanka. It was organised by a for-profit company and advertised and coordinated through my school. The trip was marketed as an opportunity to help communities affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. A few months in, the focus shifted from the coastal areas to central Sri Lanka, based on the logic that plenty of relief was already flowing to the coastal areas directly affected by the tsunami.
I was thrilled about the prospect of travelling to Sri Lanka and truly believed that we would be able to contribute meaningfully. We were expected to fundraise about three thousand pounds each. I threw myself into the task with zeal. I got up at 6am every day to do a paper round and saved every penny. I wrote to local organisations and asked people I knew to support my fundraising efforts, and as a group we organised events. I spent nearly two years preparing for the trip. When we arrived, we spent just under two weeks in the school – painting the walls, refurbishing a library and painting a playground. We spent a third week visiting Sri Lanka’s beaches and hilly tea plantations.
“It was only much later that I began to question myself.”
It was only much later, as I learned more about international development and the issues around international volunteering, that I began to question myself, my motivations and the ‘impact’ we had had. I realised how much I didn’t know or think to ask at the time. For example, how much input into or ownership of the project did the school management have? What was the nature of the relationship between the school and the company that sent us? How much did we disrupt the teaching and learning in the school? How much of the money we raised went to the company that sent us? Was anybody monitoring our activities? More fundamentally, why did we fundraise thousands of pounds to fly halfway around the world to do something we had no experience of, and that local people could easily have done themselves with a fraction of the money we had raised?!
Over time, I have started to see short-term international volunteering as another manifestation of the huge inequalities of our world: a world in which privileged young people from rich countries get to travel in huge numbers to countries in the global south, to ‘help’ and for their own professional and personal development (while companies that send them make a healthy profit), at the same time as a vast and complex machinery of border control is evolving to prevent people from travelling in the other direction.
Looking back, I can see a lot of things that could have been done differently, but most of all, I wish that I had approached that first volunteer trip with a lot more humility. There is a huge problem with the idea that inexperienced young people can ‘help’ in contexts they know almost nothing about, in a short space of time. This is fuelled by harmful representations of poorer countries and simplistic narratives about poverty, that suggest problems can be addressed through simple, apolitical actions; while neglecting the root causes of poverty and inequality, and our own role in perpetuating them.
“The reality is that so many of the issues that international volunteers set out to address are extraordinarily complex and inherently political.”
The reality, of course, is that so many of the issues that international volunteers set out to address are extraordinarily complex and inherently political. They are best addressed by those who know the culture, the history, the context, the challenges, the politics; those who’ve been there long before the volunteers arrive and stay long after they have left. There’s definitely scope for others to contribute, but it requires long-term commitment and a whole lot of listening and learning.
With hindsight, a lot of this seems obvious. But it wasn’t for me at the time, and it (presumably) isn’t for lots of people who still sign up for short-term volunteer trips abroad. The international volunteering industry continues to grow and grow. But if people were equipped with a bit more information, encouraged to ask more (and more difficult) questions and, most importantly, to challenge their own motivations, assumptions and privilege, they might make different decisions. I’m not saying no-one should volunteer abroad, but there are better and worse ways of doing it, and it should be approached with a healthy dose of self-awareness.
“Volunteering can be the beginning of a much longer journey of learning to be an ally in challenging the structural causes of poverty and inequality.”
This brings me to the Learning Service book. I learnt a lot from the process of editing it – about the scale of volunteering and the industry around it, about the harms it can cause, and about how it can be done differently. I also loved working on it because the authors were so dedicated to the book and its message, open about their own mistakes and journeys, and enthusiastic about different, better ways of doing things. But most of all I enjoyed editing it because it is basically the book that I wish that I had read at the age of fifteen, when I first considered volunteering abroad. It sets out a vision for a different type of international engagement: one that involves continual self-awareness, reflection and learning, and ongoing political engagement. It proposes a learning-centred approach to volunteering that involves proper research at the outset, suggests the questions that people should be asking of themselves, their motivations and of any prospective volunteering trip, and sees volunteering as the beginning of a much longer journey of learning to be an ally in challenging the structural causes of poverty and inequality. I am biased – but I want to put a copy of the book in the hands of anyone I meet who is considering volunteering abroad!
Alice Robinson is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research focuses on local humanitarian action in South Sudan. From 2015-2016, she was involved in editing the Learning Service book. You can find her on Twitter at @alice_miranda1. The photo is from Alice’s trip to Sri Lanka. An extract from this story appears in the Learning Service book.