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Learning Service - What’s wrong with volunteer travel?

Daniela Papi discusses the importance of learning before helping in service-learning endeavors.

By Daniela Papi

Daniela Papi is the founder of PEPY, a youth leadership organization in Cambodia, and PEPY Tours, a development education travel company. After six years in Cambodia, she is now a Skoll Scholar at Oxford’s Said Business School and she frequently writes about the lessons she is learning on her blog, Lessons I Learned.

January 9, 2013

I didn’t always think that the volunteer travel sector was causing harm; in fact, I not only traveled the world volunteering but also founded a voluntourism company in Cambodia. It was only after I spent years watching the volunteer travel sector grow, tracked the impact of my donations and time, and watched countless young people repeat many of my mistakes that I changed my mind. I now believe that promoting volunteer service abroad isn’t always serving us well.

Sending young people off on volunteer trips, or as they are often referred to in North America, “service-learning” trips, places young people in a position of superiority. We are promoting the idea that they should go abroad and “help those less fortunate” or “give their time to those in need,” and so they go abroad, like I did, thinking it is their responsibility to “help.” The key message I took away from six years living in Cambodia is that we have to learn before we can help, and the problem with the current system is that we are telling young people to help before they learn.

We’re fostering a sympathy travel market. Sympathy, by definition, is “feeling pity for someone,” and if we are teaching young people to have pity on some “other” that they have yet to meet, it’s hard for them to realize that that “other” is someone they could be learning from instead. We need to be teaching empathy to young people as, by definition, empathy requires “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and therefore learning first. By taking an “empathy learning” rather than “sympathy tourism” approach, we’re telling travelers to ask questions, understand local power dynamics, gain a perspective on local priorities and needs before imposing outside “solutions” and preventing many of the problems that come from rushing into “helping” mode, like I did when I arrived in Cambodia.

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After realizing we were fostering this sense of moral imperialism through the tour company I founded in Cambodia, by bringing people over to “help” in places we all knew little about, we shifted from voluntourism to development education tours. We call our approach at PEPY Tours “Learning Service,” so rather than “saving the world in a week” we invite people to spend a week learning about the complexity of development, getting angry, getting interested, and gaining the tools to be better prepared to do any “world-changing” for the rest of their lives after they leave us. 

This TEDx talk highlights our journey from volunteer travel to learning service and the lessons we learned along the way:

PEPY Tours has released a “Learning Service Charter” and “Learning Service Guidelines” for people considering going abroad to volunteer. Please share them with a friend!