Volunteering Abroad: Recognizing Risks and Moving Forward

In the summer before I came to Queen’s, I travelled to rural Kenya for two weeks to help build a school while learning about Maasai culture and local development issues. I spent months fundraising and preparing, and participated in a mandatory pre-departure course through my high school. When I returned, everyone congratulated me on what I had done – travelling literally half way across the globe to help the poor and needy is no small feat, after all.  I was proud and ready to share all that I had learned.
Then I came to university, and I began to look at development issues more in depth. One day in second year it came up, a term I’d never encountered before: voluntourism. I suddenly wasn’t so proud to tell people about my trip. Instead I felt a bit embarrassed, almost ashamed to admit that I in fact had been a voluntourist. These discussions of voluntourism were not confined to the classroom, either, but arose in casual conversations with friends and peers. It was as if everyone had read the same news article and came to the new conclusion: volunteering abroad is bad. 
The rise in popularity of international volunteer trips has been accompanied by increased criticisms, especially in the past decade. Many authors present very valid concerns about the practice: development and culture are simplified as they are marketed in static, subordinate, and exoticized terms; issues are naturalized and distanced, with problems such as poverty presented in terms of “us” versus “them”; volunteers benefit more, taking away local jobs while padding their own résumés in the process.  These are all serious risks associated with volunteer tourism, and certainly demand attention. 
However, in focusing on these risks the benefits of volunteer trips are often ignored. It would be ignorant to assert that all volunteer tourists are self-centred, completely uneducated, and only interested in furthering personal goals at the expense of host communities. In truth, volunteer tourism also offers a significant opportunity to deconstruct and challenge preconceived ideas of development, and foster greater cultural appreciation and global solidarity. Volunteers have the chance to humanize development issues, while cross-cultural interaction encourages mutual learning among volunteers and locals. 
So, is volunteer tourism good or bad? The numerous advantages and disadvantages certainly seem to complicate things. But maybe the answer isn’t as simple as good or bad. The risks cannot be denied, but do they really discredit the practice as a whole? After all, just because something is risky, does that mean it should be abandoned? Or should it be adapted, encouraged to evolve into a better version of itself? While volunteer tourism has been criticized for simplifying and distancing issues, my trip to Kenya was also a key factor in my decision to study Global Development, which has led me to critically reflect and challenge mainstream views of development. When it comes to volunteer tourism, I believe that an evolution is not only necessary but desirable (and I share this belief with most academics writing on the topic). By approaching volunteer tourism with the purpose of being self-reflexive, by actively seeking to breakdown uncritical views of development, and by constantly reassessing the impacts of volunteer trips, the practice offers great opportunity to dismantle stereotypes in favour of a deeper understanding of and continual learning about development issues and unfamiliar cultures. 

-Zoe Share

Understanding Poverty

This post is inspired by the TED talk: The Hidden Reason for Poverty the World Needs to Address Now. Watch it here

As university students we’ve been conditioned to think critically, to observe and analyze issues and conceptualize solutions. We forget that poverty isn’t a black and white issue. Poverty is a grey area that spans so many historical, intersectional factors, and it takes people from all backgrounds and specialties to brainstorm ways forward. It isn’t something that you can sit down one day and solve, and that concept can seem daunting to students who are taught to look for answers. It’s hard to make peace with not always having the answers when it comes to poverty. Global poverty isn’t something we’re faced with in our everyday lives as students, and it’s hard to critically approach something that doesn’t always feel real. We need to know, and we need to understand, and for that to happen we need to ask questions.  

The root causes of poverty are multilayered and complex, but a big part of learning how to interrupt and combat poverty stem from our attitudes.  This video addresses how failures of human compassion have worsened the factors that contribute to poverty, but it also emphasizes how the increased presence of compassion can be the key to effectively dealing with global inequality. 

Our generation is full of potential. Globalization has made international communication as easy as opening your Facebook app. We’ve been given the chance to use these new resources to innovate, to create, and most importantly, to understand. When we one day look back at what we’ve accomplished as a generation, I hope we can say that we had compassion, that we raised our voice, and as a generation, we were moved to make the violence stop.

So ask questions. We can’t always have the answers, but that’s not the point. Once you’ve asked the questions, take the time to listen to those who can help you find the answers. Being an understanding and compassionate individual will get you so much further in the battle against global poverty than thinking that you have the answers ever will.  

-Lauren Desouza

A Call to (Blogging) Action

Some say if you cannot find an alternative then one has no right to offer a critique. For me, this attitude in itself in an insight into the weaknesses of contemporary [development] because not only does it discourage the kind of debate that is essential to addressing complex challenges, it puts one in a mindset of favouring solutions over analysis. 
I offer more questions than answers, I provide more clues than solutions. I make no apology for this.

-Michael Blowfield

As students, what is our role? I think it is to ask questions. It is to use our naiveté to explore the boxes that haven't yet grown so high as to obstruct our vision. It is to consider the ideas of others, to create those of our own, to inquire about lenses and constructs and biases and truths…. Analysis within global development leaves little for the optimist’s play. It is deeply critical and often leaves you only more confounded by the complexities in the nature of human activity. The saying goes, If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Could the same be applied to development critique? If you don’t have any solutions to propose, don’t say anything at all. I say, questions form the foundation of my education and are the fuel to my globally-inquisitive fire.  

Writing for the sake of writing is important. Especially in an environment where literacy is only exercised when tied to marking schemes and scores. This blog is bound to be a flurry of questions. It is a collective project intended to use the written word to articulate intense curiosity and frustration. It is meant to be a place for those who share the itch for change to motivate each other to keep learning, keep growing, and foster individual understanding. Self-growth in its most pure form can only occur through collective effort. 

Let this be a space for anyone to offer more questions than answers, and provide no apology for this. 


-Kyela de Weerdt