‘Development education’ is the foundation of our work, but we understand it is a term that is often misconstrued. To us, ‘development education’ is the practice and process of supporting young travellers to explore critical global issues and inequalities. As the status quo comes under question, students reflect on their roles and responsibilities in the modern world.
But we also know that we live in a time of information overload, and our attention is constantly being dragged between 30-second video clips and 15 open browser tabs. We have all become accustomed to speed and convenience, but the big questions – the world’s big, messy, uncomfortable questions – can’t be answered, or even asked, in an instant.
Rather than being afraid to address these ‘messy ’ questions, we encourage young people to dive in and get their hands dirty. To dig deep into the real issues, dissect conflicting information, consider alternative options, and debate opposing arguments. They may well not find any neat answers, but they ’ll certainly learn to ask better questions.
The voluntourism debate
Taking part in a short-term volunteering trip is an increasingly popular way for young people to travel, especially as part of a school or university group. Unfortunately, our experience in Cambodia leads us to believe that many short-term volunteering programs have limited positive long-term impacts, and in many cases can even be harmful, albeit unintentionally. In addition, such trips can significantly oversimplify the complexities of development work for their participants, and propagate a false message that foreign volunteers are better placed to support a community ’s development than the community itself.
Learning before serving
Before young people – or anyone! – can effectively support any development efforts, it is crucial to understand the culture, history, needs, and intricacies of the community – or indeed country – involved. This can take a great deal of time and patience, and sometimes even the humility to admit that our skills and experience may not make us the best fit for providing support in this particular situation.
Therefore rather than offering short-term volunteering – or ‘Service Learning’ – opportunities, we are inspired by the ‘Learning Service’ approach. We believe that traditional ‘Service Learning’ too often places an unbalanced emphasis on students’ educational outcomes, without fully considering the long-term impacts on the communities that host these projects. Rather than learning through service projects, our experiences support participants in learning about the complex issues that continue to impact the development of this beautiful country. By interacting with a diverse range of NGOs, social entrepreneurs, community leaders, and change-makers, our young participants are able to explore different models of development work, discover their complexities, and learn about both challenges and stories of success.
From these experiences students are encouraged to ask questions, discuss ideas, and draw their own conclusions about both ‘development’ and ‘service’. In this way, they will be better equipped to make informed, ethical decisions about volunteering and/or supporting development initiatives should they wish to do so in the future.