By Claire Bennett, Ayana Journeys facilitator and co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel.
I have lived in Asia for over a decade, with a large portion of that time spent volunteering. I learned a huge amount through those experiences, but never more than when I have stayed in one place for a long enough time to see a number of international volunteer groups come and go, which I did for the first time in Cambodia. I started to notice that many volunteer efforts were being wasted on inefficient solutions, or see new volunteers come in repeating the work (and mistakes) of the previous ones. What is worse, I witnessed naive volunteers unwittingly fuel corruption and exploitation through their demand for feel-good experiences with vulnerable children or animals. And I also saw how all of this was feeding dangerous “white saviour” narratives.
On the other hand, I felt that the energy that was propelling these (usually) young and privileged volunteers had to be seen as a positive force. In our interconnected but deeply fragmented world, the idealism, the compassion for others, and the commitment to social justice that these volunteers represent is something to be celebrated. Especially when the opposite is isolationism and apathy. But I felt frustrated that so much of this energy was being wasted or misdirected.
This paradox of emotions is what led to the birth of the philosophy we called “learning service.” Together with my inspirational colleague Daniela Papi-Thornton, we realised that what lay at the root of most of the mistakes and problems with volunteer travel was a lack of learning, and that conversely, learning was at the heart of how to do it right. This had already been long-recognised in academic circles – the term often used by schools and colleges in North America to describe volunteering with learning outcomes is “service learning.” But instead of putting learning last, we decided we needed to flip this term on its head, to put learning front and centre.
Learning service experiences can encompass a much broader range of activities than traditional volunteering. Rather than the focus being on what impact you can make during whatever short time you are overseas (an attitude that can lead to a lot of damage), the focus is on how much you can learn about an issue or problem and the solutions that are being offered. The learning you do and the information you gather from a trip abroad can be used to inform future travel and volunteering choices, as well as broader things like your career and your lifestyle when you get back home. “Service” is still just as important as “learning”, but what that looks like can be as different as someone campaigning about a political issue in their own country, to someone cutting out single use plastic in their home, to someone fundraising for an inspiring organisation or activist they met overseas.
Several organisations, including Ayana Journeys, have adopted the philosophy of learning service and design their trips in a way to maximise the learning potential on participants. This might look like visiting a local NGO and learning about the work they are doing, staying in home-stays to support an ecotourism project, eating dinner at a social enterprise cafe, or meeting and interviewing activists campaigning on a local issue. Instead of diving in with “helping” on a short trip abroad, participants focus on the learning. Then, especially during the last few days of the trip, the focus shifts to thinking about how the experience will inform and shape any “helping” they decide to do in the future.
In September of this year we launched a book, Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel. The book takes the aspiring volunteer traveller through the process of learning – about yourself, about the history, flaws and potential of volunteering, and about all the potential options. If readers decide that volunteering is for them, the book then guides them in how to volunteer mindfully, humbly, and with self-awareness. We hope that with more travellers following the learning service approach we will see a real shift in the way people choose to engage in “helping” – away from tokenistic and damaging forms of volunteering towards sustainable engagement and change.
Want to help? First you must be willing to learn. Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, is available to purchase online and in bookshops worldwide. You can also find out more about Learning Service from their website: www.learningservice.info or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.