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Why "Voluntourism" Matters

03/13/2014 08:26 EDT | Updated 05/13/2014 05:59 EDT

By John Julian

Over the past couple of weeks a remarkable thing happened in cyberspace. A blog post about international development (yes, international development!) went viral, generating more than two million hits. The piece was written by a young American named Pippa Biddle, and in it she expressed thoughtful criticism of "voluntourism" -- the phenomenon that sees westerners of all age groups, but particularly young people, travelling to the developing world to "help".

The piece is controversial, in part, because she addresses the issue through a lens of race and privilege, but her central thesis is a good one. It is hard to argue with her assessment that anyone who thinks that the best way to build a school in Ghana or to run an orphanage in Tanzania is to bring in a plane load of students from North America is sadly mistaken. Almost as sad are those young people who sincerely believe that they are changing lives and saving the world by sharing their meagre, inadequate skills.

Though I agree with much of what she says, I think Pippa Biddle is missing one essential point. The mature and thoughtful attitude she has developed on this topic is a direct result of the experiences she has had through her volunteer work overseas. Without her fumbling efforts overseas, she would never have gained the wisdom to support development in the south in a way that does not reinforce the systemic imbalance of power and privilege that is so much a part of our well-intentioned efforts to help. If there is fault to be found, it is the failure of the organizations that send young people abroad to properly define the objectives of those visits.

If young people understand that they are visiting the developing world to learn, not to teach; if they can approach their travels with humility, not arrogance; if they believe that the value of their visit is to make contact with and gain understanding of other cultures; and if they grasp the fact that they are able to make these visits because they come from an enormously privileged part of the world where it is possible for a young person to access a plane ticket and travel money, not because they have skills or knowledge that is not readily available in the country they are visiting; then visits or exchanges between young people can be really positive.

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CCA micro enterprise development intern Lisa Prince participates enthusiastically in a workshop teaching women to build their own fuel efficient stoves in Northern Uganda.

When it comes to international development, I am an old dog. I have been at it for nearly 30 years and I would like to believe that I have developed wisdom, patience, and a set of realistic expectations as a result of my experience. But those are not always good attributes in international development.

I fully believe that there is a powerful link between youth and our efforts to create a better world. Young people bring passion, creativity, willingness to sacrifice, and even a hopeful naiveté to this work. They bring open hearts, and if properly selected and prepared for international work -- open minds. I know this because I have been responsible for sending more than 175 young people to live and work in the developing world over the past two decades and the results often inspire me and make me proud.

Let's be clear. We do not send high school students on three-week junkets to build schools. Ours is an internship program for young professionals -- recent grads who are carefully selected for specific skills. About half of our participants have masters degrees -- in business, environmental studies, as well as international development -- and the majority already have some experience travelling or living in the developing world. But even with these impressive credentials we try to be clear that they are going overseas not to lead, but to follow -- to work for local supervisors to support the work of locally-owned and managed organizations -- co-operatives and credit unions for the most part.

For the intern, the experience involves a wild mix of triumph, frustration, epiphany and pain. After six months to a year working in the developing world, I have never seen an intern come home completely unchanged. And they take those changes into the next phase of their lives. For some there is a career in international development. Others go into teaching or law, or higher academia. But they take with them a respect for the people they have worked with overseas, and an understanding that we didn't earn the privileges we enjoy -- we just got lucky.

I know that the internship experience benefits the participants. The experience looks good on a resume and it helps them find jobs or get into graduate or professional school. I know it benefits our partners in the south to have extra sets of skilled hands at their disposal. But I also think it benefits all of us as a society to live and work with people who have this hard-won understanding of the tolerance and co-operation that we need to build a better world.

Sadly, our ability to continue to offer these experiences is in jeopardy. For the past 18 years the Canadian government has supported international internships through a program administered by the Canadian International Development Agency -- now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD). The funding for the program has dried up this year, and there is an ominous silence on the topic from the government side. There has been no official cancellation of the internship program, but neither has there been any action or sign that the program is still alive. As the months pass, it seems clear that we will not see very many young interns in the field next year.

Without this modest funding, we can still send interns abroad, but it could push us back towards the "voluntourism" that Pippa Biddle is so concerned about. Our program is based on merit and a careful match of skills to positions. We don't want to replace that with a system where the primary qualification is the ability to come up with the money.

So, Pippa Biddle, thank you for striking a chord or in some cases hitting a nerve. Done wrong, international work experiences can reinforce the imbalances of power and privilege that are the cause inequity around the world. But done right, they can push us toward a world where understanding breeds tolerance and co-operation.

John Julian is Director of International Communications and Policy at the Canadian Co-operative Association.

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