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.