Is volunteering about saving the world or enhancing a resumé?
Sara Minogue went to Tanzania expecting to make a contribution. A journalist with several years’ experience, she was drawn to a government-funded opportunity to raise the profile of human rights issues. Journalists for Human Rights, the Toronto-based NGO offering the eight-month program, sent her to Dar es Salaam to teach reporters how to effectively report on abuses. But when Minogue, who was 28 at the time, arrived at her placement in the capital city in 2006, she was struck by “how ridiculous” it was for her to be in a position of authority. The week-long pre-departure training JHR had provided touched on culture shock, human rights theory and the West African media, but left her with “very little clue about where I was going,” she says. As it turned out, many of her colleagues at the Media Institute of Southern Africa had university degrees, and all of them knew more about the human rights abuses in Tanzania than she did, she says. “I felt extremely silly and embarrassed.” Within two months, Minogue had quit. Other than writing a report for JHR, she says she spent the rest of her time “hiking around and hanging out” on Canadian taxpayers’ dime.
Canadians have a long tradition of sending youth to developing countries to build schools, work in orphanages and fight AIDS. Since 1960, an estimated 65,000 have gone overseas through the country’s major volunteer-sending organizations, and countless others have participated in church and corporate projects or internships sponsored by government and universities. But evidence is emerging that raises serious concerns about what these opportunities have come to mean. In regions plagued by issues that decades of international aid have been unable to resolve, it is often difficult for unskilled volunteers and interns to be anything more than tourists. And experts worry that instead of fostering cross-cultural understanding, the experiences may, in some instances, have the opposite effect — reinforce negative stereotypes in young Canadians, and breed resentment in the communities that host them.
Spending a summer saving the world has never been easier for socially engaged youth, provided they (or their parents) can pay. Even if they don’t qualify for a funded placement, an Internet search for “volunteer abroad” reveals thousands of opportunities, which range from a few weeks to many months, and can easily cost more than a year’s university tuition. “Ironically, these types of opportunities are much more accessible to rich people than to poor people,” says Josh Ruxin, an assistant public health professor at Columbia University who runs three development projects in Rwanda. His interns, who must pay their own way, spend about $6,000 for a four- to six-month placement. The increasing demand to “make a difference” (or at least feel as if you are) has led to a proliferation of private operators selling volunteer opportunities in far-flung locations. African Impact, for instance, advertises a lengthy list of “exciting and rewarding” programs. For US$2,300, participants can spend a month coaching football in Zambia, working with HIV/AIDS orphans in Kenya, or teaching disadvantaged children in South Africa.
But what inspires idealistic twentysomethings to lend a hand often has less to do with philanthropy and more to do with “personal gain,” according to Rebecca Tiessen, a Dalhousie University professor examining the trend. Tiessen is one of two researchers conducting the study, “Creating Global Citizens? The Impact of Learning/Volunteer Programs Abroad.” Slated to wrap up in 2011, it is a first in its attempt to evaluate the implications of these programs through interviews with participants and host organizations in Malawi, South Africa, Peru, Guatemala, India and Jamaica. Though preliminary, the findings suggest these opportunities have become a “product” that can be purchased and cashed in for course credit or a line on a resumé. “There are fewer people saying, ‘I’m volunteering because it’s the right thing to do, it makes me feel good and I’m dedicated to social justice,’ ” says Tiessen. “There’s a more selfish or egotistical nature to the reasons.”
Before Kate Daley started her master’s degree last year, she shelled out $2,500 (not including airfare) to spend eight weeks in northern Ghana, helping out in an HIV/AIDS clinic and teaching at a school through Volunteer Abroad. Other than some small breakthroughs she made with the kids, the 25-year-old describes the opportunity as “more of an education for me.” It wasn’t Daley’s first time in a developing country. Similarly, the majority of the young people Tiessen interviewed had had more than one international volunteer experience. But even so, “the emphasis was still on how they could learn, how it would be useful for them,” says Tiessen. In the 30 pre-departure interviews she conducted with young Canadians about their motivations, “career” or “skills development” was mentioned 40 times — the most frequently cited response.