“Volunteering is offering short term solutions for complex problems and we are really disappointed that we’re not getting long term development results,” says Daniela Papi towards the beginning of her TEDxOxbridge talk. She founded an NGO called PEPY (Promoting Education, emPowering Youth) in Cambodia a few years back and has used her aptly title d blog “Lessons I Learned” to share her path of learning and understanding in international aid. Specifically she has come to understand that international volunteering projects do not provide the positive gains that supporters tout.
Cambodia a popular destination for orphanage tourism. Early on in her career, Papi even supported the short term travel that allowed people to come and teach at the PEPY school. When the volunteers go abroad they have the opportunity to play with kids, but also can take leadership roles that are above their level of training. That could mean standing in as a teacher for a class of students. Papi says this would not be the role of an intern because s/he does not have the skill set to take a major role. However, the rule seem to change when the same people go abroad.
“We are fueling a system of sympathy tourism,” she says. “We don’t need to be teaching our kids sympathy, but empathy because it requires an understanding of others.” To do that, she argues for a shift from volunteering to learning. It is a point of view that I largely agree with. My personal experiences have involved long term volunteering both in the US and abroad. However, it was an immersion experience in Mexico that focused heavily on learning rather than doing that has proven to be the most formative experience of my life so far. Volunteering or doing anything was not an option. Rather than feeling good about doing things or snapping pictures of orphans, I was thrust into an experience where I was exposed to community and religious leaders, politicians, human rights defenders, educators and academics. They provided context to the region and what existed that was perpetuating poverty, what was at play in Mexican politics and what people in the communities were doing to change their own lives.
Papi outlines a model at the end of her talk that is similar to what I experienced. While some are quick to condemn voluntourism entirely, Papi re-frames the discussion by saying that it should be about learning and not doing. People want to go to other places, have new experiences and make a difference. The most important place to start is through learning.