What’s wrong with volunteer travel?: Daniela Papi at TEDxOxbridge

What’s wrong with volunteer travel?: Daniela Papi at TEDxOxbridge

Translator: kevin chan
Reviewer: Denise RQ “What’s wrong
with volunteer travel?”, you ask; well, I believe the growing practice of
sending young people abroad to volunteer is setting us up for failure. I’m going to tell you about my practices,
my experience volunteering, some of the trends that I’ve seen, and also some ideas I have
for how we might be able to improve this. There’s a Cambodian phrase that says, “If you plant papayas,
you can’t get mangoes.” I think that a lot
of volunteer travel right now is offering really short-term solutions
for complex problems, and yet, we’re really disappointed when we’re not getting
long-term development results, like when you get a papaya,
and you’re expecting a sweet, juicy mango. We’re not only failing
the youth that we’re sending abroad and the communities
that they aim to be serving, but we’re also harming
our collective futures because if the next generation
doesn’t have tools that we need for sustainable development in the future, we’re in trouble. Volunteer travel is one of the biggest
growth sectors in the tourism market, and millions of young people go abroad
to volunteer each year, I was one of them. I even set up an organization in Cambodia that’s taken hundreds
of people over to help. We started in 2005, when some friends
and I wanted to bike across Cambodia. We were going to teach children
about the environment, and health, while raising money for what we thought would be the best way
to improve education: to build a school. The thing is, we didn’t know much
about the environment, didn’t know much about health, and definitely knew nothing
about Cambodian education, yet we got pats on our back,
and we had funds in our pocket, and we were off to save the world. When I arrived in Cambodia,
I was so excited to see this building. I was picturing the next Prime Minister
or Nobel Laureate coming out of it. We had so many things to donate:
pens, pencils, books, teachers, and I arrived, and I realised something
I already should have known: schools don’t teach kids, people do. We were planting papayas. A Cambodian friend came up
to me later and said, “You know, you foreigners, you really like to put
your name on buildings, don’t you?” And he was right. (Laughter) Here’s an empty building
with my name on it next to an empty health center
with some Belgian guy’s name on it. You know in that movie “Field of Dreams”?
They got it wrong. If you build it,
they will not necessarily come. I spent the next six years
living in Cambodia, trying to figure out how to put
an investment of a school building to use and building a team
to make that possible. I thought it would take a few days,
and a nice building, and it’s taken a lot more than six years; yet, I’d volunteered
all over the world before that and every time I went home
thinking, “Job well done.” Cambodia was the first time
that I stuck around long enough to peek behind the curtain
after the few days or few months when a volunteer drops in,
and I didn’t like what I saw. I realised that a lot of the things
that I had been doing, that I had been encouraged to do
in past volunteer trips could sometimes cause more harm than good. I realised that giving things away
like shoes or water filters could sometimes destroy local markets, and that buying things from kids
who are selling stuff on the street could sometimes keep them there. I watched the orphanage
tourism sector grow. Now orphanage tourism is one of the most popular
among volunteer travelers, and it lets you and I,
and anyone off the street, walk in, and play with vulnerable kids,
and have those same kids do dance shows night after night, for visiting travelers. Actually, UNICEF
released a report last year that three out of four Cambodian
“orphans” in orphanages have one or both living parents. The volunteer tourism market
is part of a system that is fueling this separation
of kids and their parents, and that’s not something
that I signed up for. I’m sure most of you
who’ve volunteered abroad as well don’t want to be a part of that either, and we don’t want
to be setting our kids up for that same experience that I had, so what we need to teach our kids is the biggest lesson that I learned
in six years in Cambodia is that: we have to learn before we can help. We have to learn before we can help,
or else we’re causing more harm than good. I get e-mails from teachers
all the time that say, “We’d like our students to have
a volunteer experience for 1 or 2 days, not on a project that’s already started, we want them to have it
from start to finish so they can get a sense
of accomplishment.” What are we teaching our kids? We have to learn before we can help,
but we already know this. When we send young people abroad
to intern in a law firm, we tell them they’ll do menial tasks
file papers, sit, listen, and learn, they don’t expect to be lead prosecutor
in a court case the next week, and we know they’d mess up
if they tried, right? So we have this double standard
when we send them abroad to volunteer, we’re making it seem
like development work is easy, and anybody can just come do it. Even the word’s that we’re using
are setting our youths up to be superior, we’re “volunteering”
or we’re doing “service learning”, as we say in North America. If you’re there to serve someone
that you’re superior to, it’s sure hard to understand that you should be learning
from those same people. We’re fueling a system
of sympathy tourism. Sympathy, by definition,
means pitying someone else. We don’t need to be teaching
our kids sympathy but empathy. We need to teach our kids empathy because empathy requires
an understanding of others, and if you understand others,
you have to learn first. It means entering the world saying, “I’m here to learn from you,”
not, “I’m here to teach you.” It means being humble. We need to stop sympathy volunteering, and start empathy learning, and we can even use
the same vocabulary if you like. How about we take “service learning”
and we flip it around? If we take a learning service approach,
what we’re telling our youth is go abroad, and learn how to serve in the future. We’re saying go abroad and learn,
and get yourself the tools that you need to begin to understand
the complexity of development work. Get angry, get interested,
and then go home, and you have 355 other days
of the year, or the rest your life, to improve how you give,
improve how you travel, and improve how you live. I think we’re losing kids
from this long-term fight that we need to solve
our world’s problems in three ways. First, some people go abroad
and they get completely overwhelmed when they enter a place
that’s very different than their own. And if they don’t have someone there to help them digest
that experience, I know I did. When I went to India when I was 20, I thought leprosy
was made up in religious texts, and I swore I would never go back. We’re losing some people because they go abroad,
and they get a chance to be a hero, but they never engage
with the complexity of aid. So they go home with pictures,
and they show they’ve done their part. We’re fueling a guilt
offsetting programme. You can live however you like all year,
as long as every now and then, you go volunteer in an orphanage
and offset the rest. But we’re never engaging with sustainable
solutions to our world’s biggest problems. And sometimes, we lose people
because they go abroad, they volunteer, and they stick around
a little bit longer, and they say, “Wait, you told me this was easy, but this
is kind of hard and I might have messed up and you let me fundraise for my flights,
and all these people are behind me, and I didn’t succeed,” and they give up. So if we want to keep
these people in the system, and have them solve
our problems in the future, we need to offer learning first. So that organization
that I founded in Cambodia stopped offering volunteer trips, and we started offering
development education tours. We’re not offering simple answers anymore. Instead, students usually leave
with a lot more questions than they started with,
but that’s the point. Development is complex, so we need to arm our youth
with a context for that complexity. What does that look like? Debates and discussions,
reading articles at night, questions and answers sessions
with development professionals. A chance to exchange
ideas with local youths. There’s tons of educational travel
options out there for young people. But we need to start rewarding that,
and encouraging that, just as much if not more
than we do volunteer travel. We give volunteer time-off
and extra pats on the back to the people who go volunteer, we need to do the same or more
for those who are going to learn. Educational travel has so much potential,
for you and I, for everyone. Imagine an educational hotel chain
where professors and residents are curating learning content
for travelers who come through, we can create that. It’s up to you and I to create that, and it’s up to us to demand
what’s already there, so if you’re a parent
and you’re listening to this talk, tell your child, you’re not measuring
how many wells they build, or how orphanages they visit
on their first trip abroad. Tell them you want them
to tell you everything they learned. So you can set them up to be prepared for the responsibilities that come
with their global citizenship. And if you’re someone
who’s about to go abroad to a country or culture
that’s different than your own, choose a learning approach so you don’t have to make
the same mistakes that I did. And the next time a teacher e-mails me to design a feelgood spectacle
for their students, I’m going to e-mail them back,
send them this talk, and tell them to define success for their students
as learning first before serving, so that we can set them up
to succeed in the long-term. They will do the world-improving later, if we give them the right tools
and we plant the right seeds, and then we’ll start getting mangoes. Thank you. (Applause)

59 thoughts on “What’s wrong with volunteer travel?: Daniela Papi at TEDxOxbridge

  1. well, where do volunteers go without being supervised – e.g. at nph kids, there are always locals that instruct and supervise…and at other projects, building orphanages or so, there are always people who tell what to do, otherwise it would be not possible just because of language barrier…

  2. Thanks for the comment, khi590. Unfortunately, there are a LOT of places, especially in Cambodia, where volunteers are put in positions without supervision where they are able to, largely unknowingly, cause more harm than good. If you'd like to explore this more, search for "Cambodia's Orphan Business" on AlJazeera – a recent mini-documentary on orphanage tourism in Cambodia

  3. Very impressive, you are totally right! The issue is, that the big players on the "voluntourism-market" are not interessted in long-term-development-results, sustaible solutions etc. All they care about is how to maxamise their profit! the bigger and more effective their marketing-machine, the more volunteers you attract, and the more profit you finally make. that's all it really is about, unfortuntately

  4. Totally support what you are saying Daniela, voluntourism can be ugly and dangerous and a new form of colonialism.

  5. Hi Daniela, Thank you for a great talk. As a young student, I'm looking for some oversea experience as well. However, I dont know any good oversea learning development providers. It'd be great if you can recommend me some qualified organisations. Cheers 🙂

  6. Hi Daniela. Love your talk and your passion. Just want to add: You don't volunteer to save the world. You volunteer for yourself; because your world expands,because you make connections, because you get to meet the world's heart with your own heart. Anyone who spends any time immersed in overwhelming need will quickly realize their two-week volunteer vacation will not change the world. It's the world that will change them. That said, by all means: be humble, learn first and get inspired!

  7. Please check them out: (voluntourism do less harm than good on other TEDs)

    Medical Voluntourism in 'Shangri-La'? David Citrin at TEDxVictoriaHarbour

    Volunteer your way around the world: John Marshall at TEDxDirigo

  8. Honestly, I can't say I was disappointed to hear all of this right before I go on a volunteering trip to Africa, but she makes a very valid point. 🙁

  9. It is unfair to lump all volunteer projects and NGOs into one basket. We should be really careful about this. There are many projects that are set up just as Daniela says as well as many people who seek validation or significance by waltzing in and splashing cash and ideas around BUT also many organisations that are set up to assist at the grassroots level where funds only trickle down, if at all. Those are the projects that need support from volunteer funds, labour and skills.

    For volunteers – Volunteering can be the most rewarding and life changing experience of your life. The opportunity to see places and interact with people, animals and cultures that would otherwise remain intangible to you is priceless.

    It's simple – buyer beware. Voluntourism is an industry, yes. Doesn't mean it's all a scam or has no value at all. So do your research before you book. Speak to past volunteers, research the project itself and the sending agency booking you (if you use one). Ask questions like:
    Are local people employed at the project?
    Does the project take away or divert resources from the locals to feed or house volunteers?
    Are the people, children or animals used to entertain tourists or in any commercial ventures?

  10. I have to agree .. not only volunteers waste their effort in these 1-2 weeks trips because it's not enough time to form any bond or give any sustainable contribution except in building volunteering but they also discourage the local habitants of doing their job .. why would a farmer go to his field if he has a student doing this for him ?

    In my opinion we need 2 things :
    1- give people in need the tools to do their job and be active contributers for a life time in building their community "learn a man how to fish "

    2- increase local volunteering awareness . There are many projects in your own country that needs your help search them and start contributing so you can keep doing it all year round

  11. You do make valid points but please try not to generalise when it comes to volunteering. If you go with the right company you will be making a difference because they ensure that each volunteer leaves something that will last in the community, whether it be some knowledge about Business plans or even some sheet music for the music department in a school. I do agree that some volunteers go abroad without knowing about the culture and what they should be aiming to achieve during their time, but the majority understand what the communities need and have researched before they go out there.

  12. Thank you for this Daniela.
    I run a volunteer project in Thailand. and I can say I have seen most of that you talk of.
    I think one answer is that these voluntourism outfits should be managed by qualified people. Then they can organise the project to give a meaningful, sustainable contribution.
    Of course I am whistling at the moon, but I do appreciate your views.

  13. Not all volunteer opportunities are created equal. Perhaps this girl hasn't been exposed to anything but corporate volunteer tours (about which she is correct.)

    There are now several different ways to volunteer in which the people in need ask for help directly, and you have an ongoing conversation about what needs to happen and when, and what exactly will be the outcome, as best as can be predicted.

    Workaway.info is one of these. Helpx is another. Wooffing is a popular one that's been around a while, and through living in places of need with any of these organizations you'll invariably meet people who aren't necessarily advertising their need but may benefit from your assistance.

    I wouldn't bash volunteering all at once like that.

  14. Please, do NOT volunteer in orphanages.  Look for community based organisations. Those who volunteer in orphanages give the institution credibility; perpetuate the orphanage industry in Cambodia and most importantly – they further traumatise children.

  15. This is only a problem for the children of very wealthy people who have the LUXURY of such an experience.  Secondly, why must people go abroad to learn to help? We have TONS of opportunities to help right here in our own countries. As I said, only the wealthy go abroad to "serve", the rest of us find ways to serve right where we are as we don't have the money to send our kids on a vacation disguised as a "volunteer service".

  16. So…you can't speak the language, have never visited this country before, and have no experience teaching or caring for fragile children? And YOU'RE going to make a difference? The most kids that age can do is some filler construction project, which would be better off done by locals who have the experience and could use some money.

  17. Do visit @voluntouristbarbie on Instagram. We are a group of geography students in university taking a module on responsibilities and ethics in tourism. Our account aims to raise awareness about issues with regard to volunteer tourism. Do follow us, like our posts and take part in our discussions. We appreciate every like, follower and your contribution to the discussions 🙂

  18. There are soooo many reasons why people volunteer. Some volunteer in order to get a perspective on how other people live in different cultures. Those who say volunteer in you own country. Even though that is true in some instances BUT diversity is so essential.

  19. A million egg cups to stop a sinking ship. Try addressing the problems direct instead of the symptoms. Instead of the issues, try the causes. Too scared ? But really, no one will because that means taking on those who causes poverty in those places. Volunteering is like patching the afflicted in a war but doing nothing to stop the war. By virtue of this fact, we compound the main issues that cause these problems just like her quote about buying from a poor kid is keeping them in that situation. She has that much insight yet can not look behind to the background of those issues? No one will ever end the cause but will instead opt to clean up the injuries and afflicted.

    Talk is cheap.


  21. I can only say that the problems that she's talking about don't apply to the volunteer trip I went on. Plus volunteer tourism is still mostly, to me, tourism. I volunteer travel for most of the same reasons that I just travel.

  22. That's exactly what I think. To be completely honest, our approach as Western people has always been – Now that I'm here I'm gonna tell you how to do things the "right" way-. I'm in Cambodia right now, I've seen a few of these fake orphanages that collect money from unknowing tourists coming from all over the world. It was the same in Nepal. In Malaysia you have to pay to be a short term volunteer for the baby orangutans whose forest and families have been destroyed to plant palm trees for the palm oil industry (an ecological disaster of gigantic proportions from what I have seen). You can also volunteer to help the little turtles go back to the sea once their eggs have hatched. The islands where they live are expanding their tourist business so the areas where marine turtles can go to lay their eggs is increasingly becoming smaller. We are not solving any problems by volunteering, we can only solve the problem by changing our lifestyle. If wealth was measured in terms of ethic values, the so called "developed" countries would be the poorest! We live in a profit-based society and most people do things for the sake of money rather than for the good of evolution. Each individual can change the world just by changing their lifestyle, no need to do volunteer travelling for that even if it is an eye opener for most of us.

  23. Wow, thats the best talk about the volunteering that I have ever heard. I just came back home after 1,5 year of workingvolunteering in Latin America and I had such a mixed feelings about the work that I was doing there. That's why I am coming back right after Christmas and will try again this time with some locals NGOs with different approach and ideas. Thanks Daniela, amazing talk!

  24. Just the right perspective I've been searching for volunteering.
    Empathy learning instead of sympathy volunteering.
    To be prepared for the responsibilities that come with the global citizenship.

  25. tell this to ever one . liberals , progressives anti freedom and then gt aggressive war monger people. lol.  most does the opposite .  same problems on america . rich help the poor by helping themselves not the poor. haha.

  26. Interesting take! It’s always good to give at home and abroad and every day ! Every time you come into contact with someone is a chance to give something valuable to them even just a smile!

  27. Remember folks she is this wise today because of the travels and mistakes of yesterday.. loved the talk .. great points .. still will travel but with these valid points in mind

  28. So she can volunteer abroad, but not us? It's like "I heard of that band first, so I am cooler… " I actually did volunteer abroad in 2008, so maybe I should have wrote an article to stop her from volunteering 🙂

  29. When i was 18 i volunteered in costa rica helping endangered turtles. It was an absolute joke. I provided no value as a volunteer. It was a bad experience. There was no work being done. It was a fake organization designed to take rich white peoples money.

  30. You work for 5 cent per hour but again when I volunteer. I make sure it's something that helps children or animals others wise nope. I used to volunteer in a hospital for 6 months . I love it . Nice team work . But I had to go

  31. Recently I am preparing things for being an international volunteer. This video lets me see the negative influence on the local brought by volunteer tourism. Emm, it's better to give up this volunteer travel.

  32. Hey ! I have learnt so much from this Video, I'm a founder of a volunteer Organization which is Called Volunteers Sierra Leone which make placements for Volunteers,interns, researchers and many more. to work with communities, Schools,Universities and local organizations in Sierra Leone West Africa.
    Daniela to me I see volunteering is a means of learning from both sides. and I will like to learn and share about voluntarism in this field

  33. Duh ! That's the reason you volunteer. It's a learning experience, you learn that not everything is as it seems. It's always a shock to learn the true reality of every situation. We have to stop fantasizing. Visualization and fantasy are not the same thing. It's best not to have too many expectations. or else your vision will be blocked. Do with your Truth and your heart, only then will you experience something truly beautiful.

  34. It’s called volunteering for a reason, you aren’t supposed to be an expert in the job.. you’re learning and and any little help does good even if it’s not professional. I don’t think it’s the volunteering that’s wrong maybe just the place you’re going to.

  35. This shouldn't be about how we shouldn't volunteer but how we should change the volunteering system this is more a user error than a system error

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