Learning Service Step by Step: A Journey Toward Meaningful Community Engagement

This is a guest post by Learning Service follower Elizabeth Bezark.


Part I

Thank You for Staring: A Day in the Life of an Unengaged Volunteer

During my first international community engagement experience, my group and I took a daylong break from learning how to build fuel-efficient cookstoves in Antigua, Guatemala to visit a local school down the road from the stove factory. An image from that school visit remains clear in my mind after four years: A group of twenty elementary school students sat in desks with their hands politely folded in front of them. Their dark-blue uniforms contrasted with the pink, green, and blue pastel wall behind them. My group of ten mostly white university student volunteers, dressed modestly but more casually than the children, sat in rows of desks on the other side of the classroom, too far away to interact with or hear each other. We listened to a few songs in Spanish and a few songs in English and otherwise continued to sit separately at a distance. For hours.

Schools in rural communities are not zoos.


Later that day, the students called our names to give us thank you cards that they made prior to our visit. I could tell their class had spent hours on this craft project. Before passing out the cards, the students performed a talent show for my group, including a few common Guatemalan songs and dances. While I appreciated the kindness in their gesture, it felt emphatic and misplaced in context. I kept asking myself: Why are we here? What exactly are the students thanking us for?

After asking my program coordinator those very questions, I learned that that day was a holiday for the students during which no instruction was planned, so our presence did not take away from their learning time. However, I walked away from the experience feeling that their display of gratitude didn’t match my group’s level of engagement. The focus of the program I had traveled with was experiential education, which for those who don’t know means education through having an experience, reflecting on it, learning from the reflection, and then using that learning and reflection to plan for the next similar experience. My program leaders weren’t aware that there were no activities planned for that specific day, and neither they nor the program coordinators, nor the school’s teachers used any backup activities from their experiential toolkits. The students essentially thanked us for staring at them. Had we understood that the school had no need for volunteer support that day, and that the school hadn’t planned activities, most likely because they expected us to come up with some, we should have reconsidered visiting at all. Schools in rural communities are not zoos.

In hindsight, activities such as us performing an impromptu talent show for or with them or bilingual language exchange activities would have created monumentally more meaningful interactions. The students could have taught us a few words in Kaqchikel or Spanish, and we could have taught them some words in English. The program coordinators could have brought some bilingual storybooks along. The language barrier could have inspired mutual learning. Why didn’t the people preparing the structure of the program plan for meaningful, interactive activities as backup for these situations? Why didn’t we make thank you cards to show appreciation for our time with them as well? Instead of spending hours staring at each other and breaking the silence only with a few songs, someone could have taken initiative to make that day more engaging. This could have been me, and I take accountability for my part in the lack of initiative to foster meaningful engagement.

If more groups showed up periodically, I would likely have begun to really question their presence.

After I returned to the States, I learned that the school’s partner organization, with which my alma mater contracted for this program, visits the same school during multiple programs each year. While I don’t have information on the other groups’ activities and the school owners’ perspective on any of those groups, I still wonder about the impact of multiple groups passing through every year. Did my group’s one session with the school create an ideologically problematic situation on its own? Not necessarily. However, considering that my group was one of many that the students had encountered, I wonder: Do they ever grow tired of calling names of volunteers they’ve never met before and will likely never see again? Is singing and dancing for strangers a norm for them?

If I were nine years old and one group of college students from Guatemala came to my school for a similarly-arranged day, I probably would have thought that that time together was fun. I would have enjoyed seeing people from a different culture. If the college students sat across the room from my class for a few hours and if we didn’t interact, then I would likely have felt slightly confused. If more groups showed up periodically, I would likely have begun to really question their presence. I wonder if and when the students at that school in Antigua began to question the presence of groups of volunteers passing through their classroom on a regular basis.

To be fair, my group did interact with the students during the last half-hour of our day there. We played jump rope and picked flowers together with the students. My friend and I made daisy chains with one of the students who told us that she enjoys math. I told her that my favorite subject was math when I was her age too. If only it hadn’t taken hours to realize that staring at each other was not interactive. The end of the day went better than it began, and I only wish that the majority of the day had been worth their gratitude.

Do schools in the States normalize visits from groups of college students from other countries on a regular basis?

Additionally, analyzing this situation over the years has illustrated for me that ideas such as community engagement and the impact of volunteer groups don’t always land on a positive-negative binary. While most of the day’s inactivity in no way warranted their emphatic display of gratitude, we did eventually interact with the kids, which was fun for all involved. Our day had a rocky start and a more positive end. My program included a pre-departure orientation on the potentially negative impacts of voluntourism, emphasizing the need to continuously reflect on our intentions and impacts. Thus, none of us walked away thinking we had saved the world or that we were the students’ only source of joy for the rest of that year. This pedagogy is to that program’s credit. However, as far as I know I was the only student who questioned our presence during the school visit portion of our program. This situation taught me to think critically about community engagement. Sitting in desks and staring at a group of children constitutes neither learning nor serving. Such a situation perpetuates school visits in rural communities as a norm in voluntourism programs. To repeat my sentiment from earlier, this practice treats schools in rural communities essentially as zoos. Do schools in the States normalize visits from groups of college students from other countries on a regular basis, legitimatizing their presence with the title of ‘volunteer’? You know the answer to that.

This problematic school visit guided me to seek more engaging learning service opportunities. It taught me that program marketing and excellent orientations do not always translate to meaningful engagement on the ground, especially when program delivery results from multiple partner organizations with different priorities.


Part II

Short, Sweet, and Simple: Community Engagement Through Learning Service



A few years after my time in Guatemala, I journeyed to Thailand with an international experiential education provider that emphasized ethical learning service and meaningful travel. I didn’t expect this provider to deliver an engaging program perfectly, however, I thought they would have done so better than a small student organization nestled deep within a university structure. During my program in Thailand, my group spent a week with a permaculture education center and organic farm in Nan.

While there, I learned about organic farming, and I learned how to cut bamboo strands to weave into baskets. As needed, we followed the direction of the farm’s owners in digging rain trenches and planting bulbs. When we participated in these activities, we understood that our short-term contribution was part of the long-term sustainability of the farm, which existed before we arrived and which continued after we left. On days when the owners didn’t require volunteer support, we followed the sabai sabai (which roughly translates to ‘laid back’ or ‘relaxed’ if I remember correctly) culture of Thailand and spent time just being. We learned how to cook green curry from ingredients grown right there on the farm. We wove baskets from bamboo that we cut down in the forest and sliced into strands.

We understood that our short-term contribution was part of the long-term sustainability of the farm.

During our time at the farm, we did spend time at a school. However, this time, we had a plan. One of the owners of the permaculture education center teaches English, and she planned this visit as an opportunity for her students to interact with native English speakers. We spent a few hours with the students, during which time we sat in a circle small enough so that we could all hear each other. We introduced ourselves and then talked about our favorite subjects in school. We learned a few Thai words as we taught them a few English words, and then we had lunch and left. It was a simple interaction that did not involve any elaborate thanking rituals. There were a few silences, maybe even awkward silences, but those did not last hours. The primary teacher of that class planned the short activity with our group, we followed her plan, and then we left to explore Nan while the teacher continued with her day teaching the students.


The example of more meaningful service was an example of a simpler activity. In the voluntourism industry, there seems to be an expectation for community engagement to have extreme impact and a very hands-on approach. However, this doesn’t always make sense. My program in Antigua used hours of time unproductively and involved the students’ elaborate thanks. My program in Nan involved a short and sweet, structured activity and a simple exit. Sitting around and staring at students in a school in Antigua does not warrant a talent show and thank you cards from elementary school students. Sitting in a circle and exchanging a few words with students at school in Nan and parting on simple terms also does not, but it illustrates a healthier example of engagement. One might still question whether or not multiple groups visit that school in Nan during a given year, and one might reflect on the impact of this, even though this second story illustrates learning service done better. Active learning took place. Active reflection is still necessary.

There seems to be an expectation for community engagement to have extreme impact and a very hands-on approach.

I don’t claim to have a definitive solution to learning service fails, nor a definitive formula for learning service wins. However, I conclude with some questions for reflection while choosing a learning service program to participate in or to lead.

  • What constitutes meaningful community engagement?
  • What activities will participants engage in? Who will select these activities?
  • What aspects of the voluntourism industry breed elaborate gratitude rituals that don’t necessarily depend on a group’s in-practice activities?
  • When is it appropriate for one group to spend time at a school? What about multiple groups throughout a year?
  • Are a provider organization’s partnerships within host communities (with local non-governmental organizations, with local schools, with homestay communities etc) healthy? From whose perspective?
  • What does a healthy learning service experience look like in practice?

I invite readers of this post to use these questions to reflect as I do the same on my learning service journeys.


Elizabeth Bezark is a University of Oregon graduate with a BS in International Studies (Honors with an emphasis in sustainable development). She has strong passions for meaningful travel, ethical community engagement, and intercultural education. She sees these practices as valuable ways to foster global citizenship in herself and others. She is a current student of the Omprakash EdGE (Education through Global Engagement) program, and she’s currently studying Spanish to prepare for extended time in Perú next year. The main image shows the elementary school in Guatemala that Elizabeth visited.

The Orphanage Voluntourism Campaign: Is the End-Game in Sight?

This is a guest post by consultant and campaigner Martin Punaks.


Rising awareness of orphanage voluntourism

A decade ago very few people had heard of the term ‘orphanage voluntourism’, but now barely a week goes past without the media covering it.  For anyone who is unaware of what orphanage voluntourism is, it involves well-intentioned volunteers who give their time and money to orphanages in the belief they are helping vulnerable children.  But without realising it, their willingness to do this is actually creating the incentive for children to be unnecessarily separated from their families and put into profit-making orphanages.  In addition to aiding a form of child trafficking, the volunteers’ support for orphanages reinforces an outdated and harmful model of residential childcare; exacerbates psychological attachment disorders in children having to cope with a rotating roster of hundreds of volunteer carers; opens the door to potential child abusers posing as volunteers; and undermines the local workforce.  In short, supporting orphanages paradoxically harms children.

My own work on orphanage voluntourism began nearly a decade ago as the Country Director for Next Generation Nepal.  We recognised that reunifying orphanage trafficked children with their families was only addressing symptoms, because for every child we took home another fifty were being trafficked into orphanages.  So we set about documenting the problem and raising awareness of the link between orphanages, trafficking and volunteering in Nepal.  By the time I left Next Generation Nepal in 2016, Nepal had joined Cambodia and other counties on the international map of orphanage voluntourism hot-spots.  However, although we started a lively debate, in practice few travel and volunteering organisations had been convinced to withdraw from their orphanage programmes.


First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win

I often think about the orphanage voluntourism campaign through the lens of the famous Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.  For almost the first decade of the campaign, most travel and volunteering organisations were either ignoring or humouring us.  But then on 21 August 2016 something pretty amazing happened – JK Rowling tweeted about orphanage voluntourism and the media went crazy.  JK Rowling’s intervention shifted the debate from us being ignored and humoured, to being fought against, with travel and volunteering organisations publicly defending their practices and criticising us.

But their defence came too late, because the tipping point had already come.  The inclusion of orphanage trafficking in the US TIP Report in 2017 and 2018 and in the Australian Modern Slavery Act further generated mass media coverage of the issue, and one by one travel and volunteering organisations began to withdraw from orphanages.  The impressive list of these organisations on the ReThink Orphanages website is a testimony to this.

This year Hope and Homes for Children and ABTA launched an Orphanage Tourism Taskforce with several high profile tourism industry partners.  Meanwhile, at the World Travel Market in London, travel and volunteering organisations were showcased on the responsible tourism child protection panel, talking about their own solutions to the problem.  This begs the question – have we moved from Gandhi’s fighting stage, to finally winning the argument?

Whilst there is much to celebrate in terms of the progress we have made, sadly I do not believe we are in the end game just yet.  Conversely, I think the next few years may be the most challenging of all, as the campaign diversifies to address multiple different types of stakeholder groups at different stages in their understanding and evolution away from orphanage voluntourism.  So in this article, I set out my own thoughts on where we need to go from here.  This is not intended as a comprehensive strategy, but simply some ideas – as someone who has been involved in this movement now for nearly a decade – on what we could do to make our campaign even more effective.


We need to return to the grassroots

The movement against orphanage voluntourism began at the grassroots with small organisations and campaigns operating in places such as Cambodia and Nepal, as well as to some extent the UK.  However, in more recent years its focus has shifted predominantly to Australia, Europe and the United States.  This has been for a very good reason: to influence legislation and policy in the countries where volunteers come from.  Incredible progress has been made on this front, and there is still much work to be done to influence the policy positions of governments, donors, travel and volunteering organisations, educational institutions, faith-based organisations, and so on.

Yet, whilst this strategy is vitally important, there is also a risk that it puts too much emphasis on the assumption that policy will automatically shape practice on the ground where children are being harmed.  Highly respected development anthropologist, Professor David Mosse, has shown that in reality policy does not influence practice in the way we expect.  Mosse’s work convincingly demonstrates how those working at the grassroots use their agency to ignore, resist, adapt and reinterpret policy to suit more urgent demands from within their own context, and he argues that as development professionals we need to be more realistic about how this works.

Anyone who has spent significant time working at the grassroots, as I have, will have experienced the inevitable gap between policy and practice on the ground.  So whilst I am giving talks at events in Europe, singing the praises of the Australian Modern Slavery Act and US TIP Report, my colleagues in Nepal tell me that most people on the ground are unaware of these policy developments, and sadly not much is changing yet.  Or they tell me that where there is awareness of these developments, orphanages and volunteering organisations are using clever tricks to greenwash and re-package orphanages as ‘childcare centres’, ‘boarding schools’ or using other euphemisms, or they are reassuring supporters that they have found ways of making orphanage volunteering safe for children, and so on.

I have always had a perverse admiration for the ingenuity of traffickers (for example, the way they convincingly presented themselves to families as ‘child rights NGOs’ after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal).  I know them well enough to know that they will keep finding innovative ways of making the orphanage business continue.  My view is therefore that, while important policy work in the US and Europe must continue, we also need to turn our attention back to the countries where orphanage voluntourism is happening.  I would like to see more resources allocated to small but highly effective grassroots organisations like Stahili Foundation in Kenya, One Sky Foundation in Thailand and Next Generation Nepal.  These organisations are working directly with host governments, voluntourists and orphanage trafficked children, and they achieve a lot with very limited funds.  When I donate to charities, this is where my money goes.



We need to be talking to Asian voluntourists

We need to start talking about the rising wealth of many Asian countries – such as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and India – and the corresponding increase of Asian tourists and voluntourists.  China is already the leading country in the world in terms of outbound tourist expenditure, and by 2030 this is predicted to be double that of the United States.  The evidence of a rising interest in voluntourism amongst affluent Asians is mounting, including, unsurprisingly, a desire to volunteer in orphanages.  Yet the orphanage voluntourism movement is dominated by ‘Western’ agencies and thought leaders, and its campaigns are still mainly targeting ‘Western’ volunteers and organisations.  This needs to change fast, or we risk winning the campaign in one part of the world whilst losing it in another.


We need to work with the ‘woke’ and ‘unwoke’

One of the challenges we now face are the vast differences in levels of understanding of this issue amongst our target audiences.  For example, within the tourism industry, on one hand we are working with many self-professed ‘responsible tourism’ organisations who are 100% with us on disagreeing with orphanage tourism, and are already working on ethical alternatives such as engaging with children through community-based tourism.  This group has moved well beyond the ‘Don’t Volunteer in Orphanages’ message and they want us to use our resources to help them safely transition from their orphanage programmes and design new ethical products.  There is a strong moral justification for us to do this because, without our interventions, the so called ‘ethical alternatives’ could be equally as harmful to children.  ReThink Orphanage’s soon-to-be-published divestment resource will be hugely helpful here.  However, on the other hand, evolving research also from ReThink Orphanages suggests that there are still many volunteers and organisations completely unaware of this issue, which justifies the need for fresh campaigns telling people not to volunteer in orphanages – such as Lumos’ recent #HelpingNotHelping campaign.


We need to better recognise our privilege

Another challenge the orphanage voluntourism movement faces is that it is still dominated by privileged white Euro-American-Australian voices (like mine!), with an under-representation of voices from the places where voluntourism happens. This not only brings us uncomfortably close to neo-colonial critiques of the development sector as a whole, but in practical terms leaves us vulnerable to criticism by our detractors that we do not value the preferences of communities who say they want orphanages and voluntourists. There is also a danger that our narrative portrays less-developed countries as delinquent because they still have orphanages, while we portray ourselves morally superior because we say we ‘abolished orphanages many years ago’.  There are two ways we need to address these concerns.  First, we need to encourage and amplify voices from the Global South whose views resonate with ours – people like Stephen Ucembe and Ruth Wacuka from Kenya, Sinet Chan from Cambodia, and Rishi Bhandari from Nepal.  Second, we need to be more honest that we have not really solved the orphanage problem in the Global North.  Exposes in the UK into unregulated profit-making children’s homes associated with trafficking and abuse, and the profit-making inpatient healthcare economy which “turns people into commodities”, suggest that UK residential care is in fact not that different from the orphanage business in places like Cambodia or Nepal.  Therefore, let’s acknowledge our privilege and our problems, and create a movement that recognises that we all have work to do in all our countries.



Sometimes we need to use the carrot and the stick

The default position of many organisations in our movement is that they do not name and shame.  For the most part I wholeheartedly agree with this position.  I like to believe that the majority of stakeholders propping up the orphanage business are not doing so out of disregard for children’s best interests, but they simply don’t understand the impact of their actions, or if they do, they don’t know how to change.  Therefore playing the role of a critical friend to help these actors is usually the most effective strategy.  However, there is a counter-argument that sometimes the stick can be just as useful as the carrot.  For example, Human Rights Watch’s sensationalist expose of child abuse in Russian orphanages did certainly not endear them to the Russian government, but it is likely that it was influential in opening the door to less critical organisations to be invited in to help the Russian government to address its orphanage crisis.  A recent quandary for some of us in our movement was the news of members of the British Royal Family endorsing a controversial orphanage, which also happens to run a voluntourism programme.  When an institution as influential as the Royal Family supports orphanages, it is inevitably going to massively undermine our messaging.  In this instance, however, after much internal discussion, most of us concluded that it was not worth talking about this publicly for fear of a backlash or reducing our chances of privately being able to start a dialogue with the Royal Family.  I still think this was the right decision.  However, judging by the impact organisations such as Human Rights Watch have had on rights-based issues, I sometimes wonder if there is a place for occasional sensationalist campaigning.  In a social movement that represents a broad church of organisations with varying positions, is there a role for such an approach?


We need to communicate better with Generation Z

Let’s be honest: many of us from the early days of the orphanage voluntourism movement are getting older.  In my younger backpacking days I would get my travel advice from a hardcopy of the Lonely Planet.  But these days most Millennials and Generation Zs are influenced by very different mediums.  I attended a ‘hackathon’ recently at a creative agency in London’s trendy Shoreditch district to help plan a new voluntourism campaign.  Whilst there I discovered for the first time, from our hip young facilitator, that putting information on a website is consider ‘old school’ – instead, Instagram and YouTube is where potential young voluntourists will go to get their advice.  “Is this guy for real?”, I can hear all under-30 year olds saying as they read this confession, but I can assure you I was not alone!  Not only are communication mediums changing, but our style of communication needs to adapt to fit into short engaging soundbites, if they are to have any chance of being listened to by a younger generation bombarded by media messaging.  For an issue as complex as orphanage voluntourism, this is a big challenge, and the only people who can help us rise to this challenge are young people themselves.



We need to embody the values we expect from volunteers

Much of our movement’s messaging is about telling voluntourists to search deep within themselves and consider their motives for volunteering, and to think of the best interests of children and families over their desires for adventure, ego-satisfaction and enhancing their CVs.  We advise them to be open to learning and to work in collaboration with existing local projects.  Yet we often don’t embody these values ourselves in our work.  As anyone who works in the human rights’ sector will testify, we sometimes have a problem with ego and a lack of collaboration between like-minded organisations.  Living around Buddhists for so many years has influenced my own thinking that if one’s motivation is pure, then the chances of success are much greater.  Therefore I believe it is important for us to learn to quieten our egos and remember our own mantra that the best interests of the child are paramount (not the best interests of our organisation or our reputation).  This is much easier said than done of course – and I struggle with it as much as anyone – but we have to try.  Similarly, a few organisations in our fold have sadly become embroiled in scandals in recent years around bullying and harassment of staff.  This is never acceptable: it undermines everything we stand for.  We therefore have to truly embody the values we preach.


What happens next?

A decade has gone by from when a few brave activists in Cambodia began the conversation about orphanage voluntourism.  We should take a moment to reflect on how far we have come since then, and give ourselves a pat on the back.  But we are still a long way from the end game, and in fact the next few years promise to be as challenging, busy and exciting as it ever has been.  We have to continue to build and embrace a diverse global movement of activists, from many different backgrounds and with radically different life-experiences, to speak to the plethora of international stakeholder groups whom we need to influence.  And we need to learn to truly embody the values which we espouse.  It will not be easy, but if you are anything like me, that’s exactly why we keep doing it.


Martin Punaks is an International Development and Child Protection Consultant, and the Strategic Advisor for Next Generation Nepal.  He has been an active player in the global campaign against orphanage voluntourism for almost a decade, and he vows to continue playing his part until orphanage voluntourism is completely abolished. The main photo at the top of this article is copyright of Next Generation Nepal, 2015.

How to Travel Ethically in Nepal

This is a guest post from Jenny Adhikari, a tourism professional based in Nepal.


As someone who works in the tourism industry, and who tries hard to ensure that the company I help to run is responsible and sustainable, I am often dismayed when I see travellers engaging in actions that can cause actual harm. Most of the time, the damage done is entirely unintended. Here I offer some tips for those wishing to travel ethically in a country I know and love well, Nepal.


General Advice on Ethical Travel in Nepal

  • Stay in locally-owned places. Do some research before booking a hotel to try to ensure that your money is going into the local economy. Even better: go for homestays! The money goes directly to the family and you will get an insight into the Nepali way of life. If you can, I recommend homestays run by indigenous or Dalit communities, whom are traditionally marginalised.
  • Take the road less travelled. Places like the Annapurna region, Chitwan National Park and Everest Base Camp already have as much tourism as they can take and are in danger of being damaged by “overtourism”. But there are countless other beautiful places in Nepal well worth a visit. Going to different places will spread your tourist dollars more widely, and the people will offer you a warm welcome for showing interest in their area.
  • Use local guides and porters. This is important especially when trekking, so you have someone to help you if things go wrong. It also provides vital income for people from remote places. Try to employ females if possible, as the industry is still very male-dominated. Going through a company will offer a little more security – it’s no guarantee but at least you have someone to complain to in case their are problems.
  • Research your travel agency. A good company will be transparent with their policies. Ask questions such as: Are they paying proper salaries to their staff? What are the working conditions like? Do the staff have the right equipment? Is the agency working against social injustice, by being members of ECPAT’s The Code or similar? What is the weight limit for porters to carry? (The maximum weight for a porter to carry in Nepal is 30 kg on low altitude treks, according to International Porters Protection Group. Never agree to your porter carrying more than that! Check out IPPG’s 5 guidelines.)
  • Know that volunteering on a tourist visa is illegal. Although this is widely practiced, in theory both paid and unpaid work on a tourist visa is punishable.
  • You have to learn before you can help. If you are serious about wanting to engage with aid and development work in Nepal, you should start by coming as an observer instead of diving in. Stay in homestays and learn to understand the culture, so that you can more easily understand what the needs are and if/how you can contribute. If you have specialised skills you will soon find a way to utilise them.
  • Bring a refillable bottle with a water filter. Plastic waste is a huge problem not just in Nepal but globally, so let’s avoid contributing to it. Also bring a plastic bag to pack and carry your garbage until you find a good place to throw it out.
  • Don’t throw away old trekking clothes. Unless they are completely destroyed, your trek staff will be able to find a good home for secondhand gear.
  • Collect dead firewood. Nepal has recently doubled its forested area but deforestation is still a problem. Help to collect dead firewood when trekking so that the people don’t have to cut down trees to keep you warm and full.
  • Ask before taking photos. Nepal is a super photogenic country, but remember that you are taking photos of people’s day-to-day reality. If people are in your shot, ask for consent. Also make an effort to understand what you are photographing before you take the photo.
  • Avoid elephant riding. Elephants are wild animals and the domestication process is grim and painful for the elephant. Jeep safaris or walking tours are just as good.
  • Think before giving money to people begging. Instead donate to registered NGOs or hospitals who know how to use your donation effectively. Some begging is part of an organized crime ring, and offering money perpetuates the problem.
  • Report child exploitation. If you see anything suspicious contact ECPAT or CWIN.
  • Buy locally-produced handicrafts. There are high-quality beautifully-made products available in Nepal made by local artisans. There are also fair trade organizations that work to empower craft producers and sell their wares. You can also get lessons with local artisans to learn their skill. As well as supporting the economy you also show the locals how valuable you think their handicraft skills are, in these days of plastic and use-and-throw.
  • Eat at restaurants that support NGOs. The food is delicious and the profit goes towards social causes.


Why to Avoid Volunteering with Vulnerable Children

  • It fuels child trafficking. Children are a lucrative trade in Nepal, as the demand for “orphan tourism” is bigger than the supply of actual orphans. Only 10-20% of the children living in orphanages have no living parents. Children who could stay with their families in their villages are brought to tourist hotspots, where the chance of finding sponsors and donors is biggest. The orphanage owners collect donations from naïve and goodhearted people but the amount that reaches the children is variable. Most ends up in the pockets of the business-minded owners.
  • It traumatises children. These are children who have already been separated from their parents. Volunteers give the children love and care for a short time, but when they leave the children’s trauma is exacerbated.
  • It leaves children wide open to abuse. As orphanage owners wants the volunteers’ money they will not demand a police background report. Therefore child sex tourism is a huge problem in orphanages in Asia.
  • You would not be qualified to do it at home. In developed countries people are not allowed to work with vulnerable children without significant levels of training. Why would it be allowed in developing countries? Sometimes volunteers are offered opportunities they are not qualified for, on the basis of their skin colour alone. This is a colonial mentality – there are usually local people with the language, skills and education to do a better job.
  • It cements the image of “white saviour.” Usually volunteers come to do the “fun activities” like playing, while the local staff are left to the “boring” work like cooking, cleaning and disciplining. This can result in children believing that foreigners are kinder, better or more fun than locals, idolising foreign culture instead of valuing their own.


Jenny Adhikari has been living in Nepal since 2007. She is together with her husband running the Kathmandu-based trekking and travel company Beyond Borders Ethical Adventures. They work actively with promoting sustainable and ethical tourism in Nepal. The main photo shows Jenny out trekking in rural Nepal.

I Was Not Their Savior

This is a guest post written by Canadian student Meredith Brown.


I’ve been an explorer since the day I was born. Ever since a young age, my curiosity has always kept me on my toes. I questioned everything I got my hands on. Even the short weekend trips to national parks up in the northern part of my native Canada made me beam with excitement. I dragged my sister kilometers deep into the local ravine, sending my parents into cardiac arrest. I’ve gotten lost on three separate occasions in the biggest mountains in the world, too busy looking around to realize where I was.

I did no harm and no good. My explorations rarely affected anyone – other than my poor parents, of course. As I grew up, however, places outside of my home country intrigued me. So, when I heard of the various experiential trips my high school was offering, my parents struggled to get me to shut up about them. After lots of begging, they finally gave in. I had the privilege to embark on service trips to Thailand and Cambodia alongside several of my classmates. The opportunity to help people whom I believed needed my assistance made these trips much more meaningful and exciting for me.

Heading out on the plane to Cambodia, with a group of fellow high-schoolers all laden with gifts for our homestay families, we felt a sense of anticipation for how much their lives would change through our contribution. I guess I was excited to feel the same sense of fulfillment and pride I had felt after my journey to Thailand the previous year, as at the time I had believed my presence had a large impact on the recipients’ lives. However this time I came out of the trip challenging this “savior” mentality.

Our group of 17 students was thrown onto a small island in the Mekong River called Koh P’dao. The plan was to create two cement water tanks and a vegetable garden for a local family. As you might expect, as Canadians coming from privileged backgrounds, our experience mixing cement and hoeing dirt was . . . . minimal.

The project got off to a slow start. The local men tried to teach us the skills to make cement, as they have been doing this type of work on the island for years. Confused, we did our best to follow their instructions. The more I tried, I repeatedly failed – resulting in one of the locals giving a smile and fixing my mistake.

Basically, I was useless.

The following day we began to work on a vegetable garden for a family of six. This is when I seriously questioned why I was there. After hoeing the ground and planting seeds for a few hours, our group took a break to escape the harsh sun. I looked back at the progress we had made and felt a sense of pride. Like I had finally made a small difference. But, this feeling did not last long when I took a closer look at what the local women were doing.

They had begun to work in the garden and fix the seeds we had planted moments before. Our careless actions of simply placing the seeds on the dirt had resulted in the women putting in extra time and work. Work they could have done faster the first time around. They were sweating profusely, and they held their babies with them and they did not complain as the 17 of us sat in shade eating our snacks. I was ashamed.

Why were we here? Were we just entitled, privileged students coming to feel like we were making a difference? Were we actually selfish people?

These questions rang in my head throughout the rest of the trip, and upon touchdown in Canada. As I crawled into my warm, comfortable, and cozy bed, these thoughts couldn’t leave my mind. I decided to do more research into international volunteering in the hope of finding some answers.

The idea of having a negative impact while volunteering abroad is not new to Claire Bennett, the author of Learning Service. Of one trip in Cambodia with a group of Australian students, she recounted, “the project was a shambles, there wasn’t really a need for it, they were a burden on local resources, they offended the local community.” In the end, “those volunteers went home thinking they had helped some people and made a difference.”

Oh my god. Oh my god. I couldn’t help but think that this was not only just like my project in Cambodia, but the hundreds of trips that my school had sent groups on for the last 30 years. It was hard to understand because it was the first time I had heard anything like it.

My school had started the sign up for service projects to go back to Cambodia as well as seven other countries, and my fears of unethical voluntourism were not laid to rest. Bennett’s points were concerns I refuse to shove in a corner any longer. I wanted a solution.

Thankfully, upon reading Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, I knew that there was hope for us as students to make a positive impact when we travel. This is a complicated and prolonged discussion, but it begins with getting one point clear. We are not saviors. We are not going to save a community over a two-week timeline. We are not on a rescue mission.

Instead, we must view these trips as a chance to learn about another culture. Invest ourselves into their lives. Show respect to local people. Open our eyes to a new world. If students come back from their projects with a new passion to change the world, then they will do just that. We do not have to travel thousands of miles away to make the difference we want to see.

I will be the first to say the concrete impact of my time in Cambodia was minimal. I am no longer embarrassed or ashamed to admit it. After months of reflection, I understand that the main difference I made occurred upon arriving home. The lessons and teachings I learned from my Khmer host family, the elders on the island and my trip guides have stuck with me until this day. It has inspired me to learn more about Cambodia and become an activist for human rights. One day, I hope to return and help make the change I wanted the first time around.

For now, I will continue to be an explorer. There is a lot left for me to learn and discover before I could ever call myself a savior.


Meredith Brown is an 18 year old student from a small town just outside of Toronto, Canada. She is currently attending Queen’s University studying business. She first became aware of the dangers of voluntourism on her service trip to Cambodia with her high school, Appleby College. It was here that she learned about why we all need to rethink service and question the purpose of our presence in other countries. The main photo shows her ad some classmates on the banks of the Mekong River on the island of Koh P’dao.

Education is Failing to Develop Young People’s Understanding of the World

This is a guest post from Jonathan Brown, a high school teacher in the UK.

I was a teenager in England in the early 2000s. At that time I saw opportunities to volunteer abroad being advertised in schools, but I had little desire to do it myself. Most of my friends that travelled did so for more “conventional” reasons – seeing new landscapes, interacting with different cultures and having new experiences. I also might have been not that drawn to the idea as I was studying modules related  to International Development and had more of a nuanced understanding of the issues.

Even during the eight years that I have been a teacher, I have witnessed a surge in the trend of overseas volunteering. The reasons for this are complex and vary between individuals – for example I have seen students of faith volunteer internationally with their religious groups, driven by teachings about our obligation to help the less privileged. But far more frequently I think students undertake voluntourism projects as an alternative to the conventional travel my peers took 15 years prior.

I think the reason for this is that students these days don’t want to be seen “wasting” their time, which is the common stereotype about backpacking. This desire is driven by parents, travel companies, universities/employers, and by the education system in general, and while the motives between these different driving forces vary, the results are the same. As parents often are supporting the child financially during their time abroad, they want to feel as though their child is getting something in return, for example a new skill or attribute which could help them in the future. Another driving force is the competitive market of the travel companies, which have to keep diversifying their products and offer what that their client base demands. Increasingly, experiences like working with a community or building something is seen as more desirable or ‘authentic’, and looking at this cynically, are also travel products for which high prices can be charged. Then there are the pressures exerted by universities and employers about how students can build up their personal statements and CVs. We are at a stage where many students in their final years of school plan their lives and social activities around acquiring skills and experience that they hope will impress to a university or potential employer.

In many ways, this generation of young people are more connected to what is going on in the world than students of the past, largely due to their increased access to information via the internet and TV. This in turn has led to a far larger number of students with a real interest in global issues than I remember from my own school days. For example, when I studied World Development in 2006 there was one class of about 20 students, whereas at the same college just ten years later there were four classes of close to 100 students. There are also certain issues on which young people’s knowledge is on a par with or even surpasses that of adults – for example climate change, which is covered in both the science and geography curricula at school. Also the increase in awareness of the issue of ocean plastics since the latest David Attenborough documentary has been tenfold.

However whilst the number of those who take an interest in development issues has grown there are still some misunderstandings that are widely held, most of which revolve around the continent of Africa. In most students’ minds, “Africa” goes hand in hand with “poverty”. This is largely driven by the British media which heavily focuses on the issues and problems faced by the continent. This is the focus of almost all documentaries, charity fundraising and news reporting.

The other common misconception that students have is that being poor economically translates to being poor in all other senses. Almost all students have no understanding of being rich or poor in any other ways apart from monetarily, and most students believe that a lack of money directly translates to everything else in a country being poor (like health, education and general wellbeing). I think there is also a misconception that economic development directly correlates with happiness. Students often assume a very narrow definition of happiness, connected to material possessions, without considering that other communities and cultures might have different definitions.

The thing is, that instead of an education system that is responding to this need and to the global reality of the world being more interconnected, UK public education has been pushed to the brink. Over the last decade or so there has been a cultural shift in the school system towards one that is increasingly exam-focussed. And with this increased demand for grades is increased pressure on teachers’ time and resources. This means that teaching students about global issues has become of secondary importance and is often left entirely to the priorities of specific schools and teachers.

So here’s the situation. On one hand there are external pressures on young people to go abroad and “do something” for their futures and careers, along with their own motivations to take action on global injustice. On the other, I am worried that we have an education system that is not supporting the kind of learning that is required for students to make informed decisions about how to do this effectively. Most students who participate in the traditional “old school” form of voluntourism truly think they are helping. This may be naïve of them, but I genuinely think that the desire to participate in such programs is driven by a lack of education.

I am not against young people being motivated to volunteer, and I think it is important to give students ownership of their own choices. What is important, however, is that the student has access to the information needed to make an informed and educated decision. So if a student told me they were interested in some kind of voluntourism I would encourage them to research different types of travel and the pros and cons first. And if they then decide to participate in a voluntourism experience I would strongly encourage them to research the various companies, projects etc so that they make a considered choice. That’s where Learning Service comes in – the more knowledge and information young people can gain, the better. I do believe that a vast majority of students want to make better decisions but don’t know how.

Working with young people gives me great hope and optimism for the future. I don’t recall my own generation having either the same access to information about the wider world or the same passion to make a difference. However I have seen my students demonstrate inspiring idealism and real desire for change. This motivates me to give them the kind of education about global issues that they deserve.


Jonathan Brown has a BA and PGCE in Geography and a Masters in Education, Leadership, Policy and Development. He has worked as a teacher in schools and colleges in the UK since 2011.