Learning Service; a constructive approach to volunteering

This article introduces Learning Service, an advocacy group aiming to rethink the way we volunteer abroad. It is currently launching a video campaign full of tips and tools, along with a contest with some great prizes, so go to http://learningservice.info/ to check it out!

Overseas volunteering has had its fair share of bad press.  Tales of orphanage tourism in particular make for depressing reading. Report after report touches on similar practices; children kept in poverty so that volunteers continue to donate, orphanages that ignore volunteers’ concerns about the children’s wellbeing and an unhealthy process of attachment between the volunteers and children. *

Even where orphanages aren’t involved there is many a pitfall for the well -meaning volunteer.  Yes, of course, helping to build a hospital or school in a developing country seems like a nice idea. But in practice there is little logic to shipping in unskilled Westerners to do local jobs, probably poorly.

So what then, if you are thinking of volunteering, if you do want to ‘do good’? Google it, and wonder at the plethora of ways you may accidentally join a process of exploitation. Or, indeed, find your own intentions and finances exploited.  Whilst these cautions are both worthy and necessary, we also have to find ways of encouraging people to help out. For as many warnings as we provide, the development community must also show prospective volunteers how they can genuinely contribute.

Pioneering a constructive approach to volunteer travel is Learning Service. The Learning Service project encourages fresh thinking on the topic in two key ways. Firstly, it turns a popular trend in volunteering, ‘Service Learning’, on its head. Secondly, it promotes the learning approach in a positive and constructive manner.

Service Learning focuses on the benefit to the ‘volunteer’ or ‘server’. It identifies the need to learn whilst, or as a result of, ‘service’ or ‘volunteering’. In this context volunteering might be used as an opportunity to practice skills taught on a particular course. However, in focusing on the benefit to the volunteer, the movement tends to neglect the question of how much the volunteering actually benefits the recipient. Yet it is misguided to prioritise the volunteer experience at the expense of the ‘other’ who receives assistance.

By contrast, the Learning Service movement identifies learning as a means to volunteering in a helpful manner.  So we strive to learn skills that are relevant to the needs of the ‘other’ we intend to assist. After all, how can we hope to help a community if we are not first prepared to learn something about its culture? How can we demand to serve on a worthwhile project if we’re unwilling to research the organisation that runs it?

What’s great about Learning Service is that they support prospective volunteers so that they can actually put learning first and volunteer responsibly.  Their volunteer charter includes 6 key points and makes for inspiring reading:

1)      Adopt a ‘learning attitude’

2)      Ensure that both you and the organization’s management have the same expectations

3)      Foster a culture of sharing and highlight a two way exchange

4)      Do the work that helps most not just the work that is most interesting

5)      Your attitude is contagious – bring a positive one!

6)      Remember ‘Learning Service’ is a life -long commitment

The team at Learning Service have also produced a series of six videos designed to inform people of the various issues in volunteering. A space where volunteer travel can be encouraged, debated and informed is vital.

Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement

Being a Valuable Volunteer

Returning from your Volunteer Experience

A look at Orphanage Tourism

How can I do good in the world?

Tips for responsible travel: Southeast Asia (launching February 11th)

With so much attention devoted to the choices volunteers make when picking a programme, it is easy to forget the role of the host organisations. We too have a responsibility to provide training in the relevant skills and cultural norms so that our volunteers are well prepared for their projects and can help to the best of their ability. At Conversations With Foreigners we try to apply a learning approach by running a two week orientation programme which includes teacher training, Khmer classes and lessons in Cambodian culture. We also organise a trip to the province for our volunteers to see the development work of our partner, the Cambodian Rural Development Team. We support our volunteers in their learning experience throughout the semester and value input from them on how we can improve this.

Whilst the development community needs to publicise the problems associated with volunteer travel we also need to welcome and encourage volunteers into our field. The desire to help should be valued and many volunteers have skills we could really use. The trick is to find a balance between warning against irresponsible behaviour and harnessing the enthusiasm of prospective volunteers. I believe the learning approach does just that.


*For more information on responsible travel and orphanage tourism please see the following articles and websites:

Orphanage volunteering ‘part of the problem’ http://fw.to/4QEK7lE

Orphanage tourism: help or hindrance? http://fw.to/CLft0jC

Cambodia: child protection workers call for end to ‘orphanage tourism’ http://gu.com/p/3yh2c/tw





By Eleanor Paton

Leave a Comment