The first time I traveled on my own to a non-western country was in 2009 when I went to teach English in Tanzania. I was young (23 years old), and I had the naive notion that I was going there to do something brave and honorable; I wanted to help people. Sure, English was my first language, but I had just graduated with a degree in Sociology. What did I know about teaching? I especially knew nothing about teaching a language.
I spent a few months after graduation working and traveling, and then I set off to spend a few months “volunteering” (I paid for this, as young volunteers often do) as an English teacher in Tanzania. In the time that I was there, I developed a lot of questions about the ethical implications and impacts of my volunteer role, which gave me far more power and authority than it ever should have in such a situation.
There are a lot of people who teach abroad and are qualified to do so. There are people who teach ESL who are also TEFL certified. There are teachers in international schools who have teaching certification in their home country (btw, this is a great way to make bank if you’re a qualified teacher, especially in Asia). These individuals know about classroom pedagogy and effective methods and procedures for helping learners along. They know what to teach, when, and how. This isn’t the type of teaching abroad that I seek to address.
There are many other people — those just out of college, or even those still in college or even high school, or those simply looking for some kind of change/adventure — who look for opportunities to teach abroad just to have some way to be abroad for free and/or get paid, but have no qualification to do so, like I was. Or even worse, they’re there to “help” people. They hope to impart the “wisdom of the West”; though let’s be real, it’s not really wisdom if you have zero experience or expertise in the area. Not to mention that this notion of “helping” those in “underdeveloped” countries implies that those in the West somehow know better; that there is some sort of way, in which, unlike us should aspire to be like us. In my opinion, this is simply a form of neocolonialism or a replacement for the system of colonialism in which the West creates and reinforces the dependency of non-Western societies.
I know that those who go to “help” others are well-intentioned. But most often, in these cases, good intentions don’t lead to good results. This form of neocolonialism, and the effect of the “white savior complex” (and you don’t have to be white to have it), often causes harm to local communities. There are investments being made to build water wells in Africa, wells that often times go unused and are abandoned because they disrupt local ways of life and valued cultural traditions. Do you ask people what they need before you decide what is best for them? Companies like Toms appear to do good by providing shoes to those in need, but they are robbing locals of their jobs in the process. There is an entire industry around orphanage tourism in Cambodia because young volunteers keep traveling there to help “needy” children. The majority of children in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans; their parents send them there because this continued flow of volunteers has led to the creation of a profitable industry. The list of examples goes on and on.
I ended up in Asia working for a non-profit where I designed and facilitated leadership development programs for the top international schools in the world. Through this work, I became connected to some amazing people working on the concept of ‘Learning Service’ (more to come on this later). I spent two years, living in Asia with this job, and then went onto spend the next three years working at Florida State University, where I ran programs and taught classes to provide culturally immersive experiences for students there.
After many years of learning about these issues of aid and service abroad, and witnessing them for myself around the world, I wanted to engage in real, honest conversations about these topics with young people who intended to do what I did when I was 23 and went to Tanzania. Through my role at Florida State University, I started working with a student-run NGO that sent students on service trips abroad each summer. These negative impacts were being repeated, especially through their education-focused projects. They told me about one place they worked in Uganda where volunteers came from France for two weeks to “teach” and did nothing but play games with the children.
When one group like this comes after another, how are these kids receiving any education at all? And schools and organizations continue to seek out these volunteer because systems of dependency have been created. Why pay teachers when “teachers” will come for free? Some of the students I worked with were going to teach at a school in Cambodia. They would raise approximately $3,000+ via GoFundMe and other platforms in order to pay for their 2-month summer experience. That is the annual salary of a local teacher in Cambodia. An inexperienced, unqualified Westerner can make about $1,000/month teaching there. So for each volunteer this organization sends abroad to teach for two months, they could instead raise that money and pay for a local, qualified teacher to work for a whole year. And what you could make getting paid to teach there for one year with zero qualifications could give a local, trained and qualified person a job for four years.
As I attempted to work with these students to address all the issues resulting from their privilege in these communities abroad, I turned to the ‘Learning Service’ model I had come across during my time working in Asia. This model looks to re-conceptualize the overwhelmingly popular trend of Service-Learning.
Service-Learning is being praised by schools and organizations as this beautiful and responsible way for students to have a meaningful experience while also having a meaningful impact. But that’s not what’s happening. Service-Learning also carries with it neocolonialist practices and outcomes. Through Learning Service, however, the idea is that learning is no longer a byproduct of a service experience; rather, learning is the main goal/objective. First, you learn about the place you seek to go to; it’s history, the cultural context, the issues there, the people. While there, your role is not to “give” or to “help” anyone; the goal is to learn from locals about what they do in their fields, why they do things this way, and to integrate this learning and knowledge into who you are and into your community at home. As a volunteer, you are not the expert; rather, you are embarking on a journey to learn from locals who are actually experts in their communities.
We have seen what has happened to communities that were colonized; we have seen the ongoing harm the West has caused. We cannot continue to propagate these systems of inequality, not even under the guise of altruism. When we know better, we also have a responsibility to do better.
First, we need to be honest about who is really benefiting from these experiences, and we need to own that reality. If you want to have an experience abroad, acknowledge the privilege which allows you to do so. If you’re going to teach in Ghana or Thailand, ask yourself, would a local person have the opportunity to do the same in your own country? No. If you got sick in Kenya, would you go to the hospital to be treated by a twenty-year-old, unqualified medical intern simply because they were from Canada. No. Why would you expect a local Kenyan to do the same? You may think it’s selfish to admit that you are going somewhere to have an amazing experience, to travel, to do something “sexy.” Maybe it is, but it is far more selfish and egocentric to travel to a place to “help” people. It’s better to be honest about what you want/are doing, find ways to do it responsibly, and then use the opportunity to focus on growing and bettering yourself rather than someone else.
As I move about the world, I cannot ignore or deny the privilege of the passport and language I carry with me; an American passport, English as a first language — and my white skin. I cannot deny the inherent privilege that comes with that. These things all allow me to move about the world freely and relatively easily. They are no more than a product of the time and place to which I was born. I am no more worthy of these experiences than someone from Kenya or Vietnam or Venezuela or Afghanistan, and yet I get to do things and go places that people from these countries (and many others) only dream of. I am not the one who is in a position to teach them; I am in a position to be taught by those who have known and experienced far more than I could ever fathom…economic hardship, war, genocide, etc. What do I know that they do not? What can I teach them that life and unfair circumstances have not?
I have traveled to nearly 50 countries now, but I have done this on my own, with my money (not fundraised), not via a volunteer organization or program that places unqualified teachers in schools abroad. I have never again traveled with the intent of helping or giving or offering something. My greatest takeaway from my experience in Tanzania was that I had nothing to offer. I began to seek places to travel to that would allow me the opportunity to be with people whose lives were most unlike my own, not because I have something to give them, but because I have everything to gain from them; not because I can better their lives, but because they can better mine; not because I can teach them, but because I have everything to learn from them.
To learn more about the concept of Learning Service, and to gain access to incredibly useful resources, visit http://learningservice.info and sign up for the Resource Library
To learn about the harms of volunteering abroad and the White Savior Complex from the perspective of a local Ugandan (he kills it, y’all), visit this link.
To laugh at someone making fun of basic bitches volunteering abroad on Instagram, follow www.instagram.com/barbiesavior
To talk with me directly about this topic email me firstname.lastname@example.org
And to follow my journey as a digital nomad learning my way through the world, follow me on IG: @lenapapadopoulos