Helping the world. And me

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.

According to Tiessen, helping out in an orphanage in Zimbabwe or in a rural village in Bolivia reflects a “desire to have an authentic experience.” Interviewees cited “experience” as a motivating factor 24 times, and more than half mentioned “travel.” No place carries more cultural capital than Africa, which “holds so much mysticism, romanticism [and] extreme poverty” that, for the most part, “people don’t even specify a country,” says Tiessen. In fact, more young people go to Africa to lend a hand than anywhere else. But no matter how good their intentions, even before they step off the plane this underlying quest for otherness “denotes a kind of tourism; gazing upon those less often gazed” — a notion, suspects Tiessen, that “a lot of people would be uncomfortable with.”

The motivation of young people who go abroad, and what they do when they get there, is something Canadian taxpayers should care about. In the past decade, the Canadian International Development Agency — which despite numerous requests from Maclean’s declined to comment for this story — has funded more than 4,500 internships abroad, at a cost of between $10,000 and $15,000 per placement, through the International Youth Internship Program (IYIP). (The program is now reportedly on the chopping block.) CIDA also provides other funding to organizations, among them the World University Service of Canada. There, executive director Paul Davidson says WUSC makes a concerted effort to “weed out those who are simply in it for a sense of adventure and a good time.” When selecting applicants to send to 14 projects in the developing world, he says the 60-year-old organization favours those with strong community service and academic records who will continue with social justice issues. According to Davidson, if the intention is to make a contribution, it’s “critically important” that it’s part of a larger effort rather than a “drive-by, drop-in volunteer experience.”

Ben Peterson, the co-founder and executive director of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), says prospective candidates are asked to explain their motivation, and “If they say, ‘because I want to travel,’ they’re off [the list].” Going to Africa, says Peterson, “either brings out the worst or the best” in people; he looks for journalists who are passionate about human rights and can function in a “cross-cultural environment.” Of the more than 200 people JHR has sent to Africa since 2002, he says only a handful “haven’t delivered on their work.” Peterson would not comment on the particulars of Minogue’s experience, but he did say her placement was funded through IYIP, and as such, was intended to be more “experiential” — a fact he says is stressed during pre-departure training. Unlike some of JHR’s other placements, where journalist trainers go to media outlets with which the organization has already established a relationship, he says IYIP participants are sent as “test cases” to determine if JHR should establish a presence in a particular country, and expecting to achieve significant development results is not realistic.

When Minogue returned from Tanzania, she wrote a scathing rebuke of the program in This Magazine, in which she blamed JHR for creating an unrealistic, uncomfortable power dynamic and providing inadequate resources. But Greg Crompton, who went to Sierra Leone with JHR under the IYIP scheme, says feeling frustrated is “just part of the process.” He put his technical skills to work, and was eventually able to build a meaningful relationship with his colleagues. During his time in Freetown, the reporters he worked with did stories on disease in slums, child miners and other human rights abuses. Success, he says, “really depends on the individual.”

As his experience illustrates, making a positive contribution can take time. Tiessen’s co-researcher, Barbara Heron, a professor at York University, says host organizations “overwhelmingly” prefer long-term placements (they are defined as six months or more, and include CIDA internships, CUSO and Volunteer Services Overseas placements) because they are less likely to be “glorified tourism.” Ruxin says he won’t even consider applicants who want to go for less than four months. “It’s very time-consuming to get people up to speed,” he says. Despite this sentiment, in 2002, Canadians went abroad on seven times more short-term placements than long-term ones, up from a ratio of 4:1 a decade earlier — a trend Heron says signals how “normal” these experiences have become. “You’ve done Europe. You want something more, and this is a very popular more,” she says. “But all of us don’t see the big picture.”

Gauging the mark young Canadians leave on people in the countries where they lend a hand is difficult. By and large, says Heron, the host organizations she is studying report positive interactions with foreigners, no matter how small their contribution — and the significant investment the host community must make. That investment seems worthwhile, says Heron, because “they’re hopeful that person will go home and work for political change.” For some, it can lead to a lifelong commitment to development work. Ruxin traces his inspiration back to his volunteer placement in Kenya and Ethiopia as a high-school student. For Kelsi Kriitmaa, a development internship was a step toward effecting positive change. Kriitmaa, 26, applied for a CIDA placement while she was finishing her master’s degree in public health. After completing an internship in Kenya in January, she got a job as an HIV research manager in Somalia, where, she says, “I’m truly making a difference.”

But there’s evidence that in other cases, the presence of young foreigners can serve to reinforce inequalities. In Malawi, Heron says, volunteers have been known to arrive with drinking problems, have difficulty adjusting, and “impose their agendas.” And, she says, “[some NGOs] actually talk about racism.” Even if volunteers are culturally sensitive, these middle-class Canadians are separated from locals by a financial gulf so expansive that a genuine interaction is often next to impossible. Aimee Carson, who spent a year in Tanzania, recalls one instance of someone wanting to buy her iPod, despite the fact that he didn’t have a power source. “He was fantasizing about this thing,” she says. According to Heron, uncomfortable financial transactions underscore so many of the exchanges volunteers have. “Our inability to understand that the differences do matter really becomes quite problematic,” says Heron. “What is a sojourn for us is relentless reality for them.”

The common face of volunteer programs abroad is pictures of young foreigners surrounded by smiling children in rural villages. But some of the pictures posted on Facebook offer another version of life as a volunteer. In bigger centres, bars and restaurants have sprung up to allow the visitors to act like college students. “There’s a party scene, and it’s strange,” says Carson. “Looking back, I felt terrible. It displays these false ideals — that [Westerners] just want to have fun.” Crompton’s take is less judgmental: “You still have the same urges as you do at home. You want to go dancing, you want to get tipsy.” The problem, he says, is that socializing in this context often means “staying within your own economic demographic.”

Last year, Megan Yarema, 29, toured a camp in Uganda for people who had been displaced by flood, famine and war. She was in Africa to do a six-month funded internship, the final component of her master’s program at Royal Roads University, and the school had arranged the tour as part of her training. But she realized with a sinking feeling that her presence had given the camp residents false hope. “They thought we had finally come to help them. They didn’t understand that we were there to learn,” she says. “It was just horrible.” Her frustration mounted when she arrived at the Business Coalition Against HIV and AIDS in Swaziland for her internship. “I sat in an office and felt I was in no way contributing,” she says. After a few months, she quit. She found fulfilment through her own initiative — working with local women to sell their handmade bags.

Carson experienced similar feelings of uselessness. She was supposed to develop an eco-tourism project in two rural villages — a $6,000, year-long opportunity offered through Visions in Action. But she didn’t speak Swahili or have the necessary resources. Despite what she describes as a “mind-blowing” personal experience, when it came to work, “I didn’t feel effective.” In fact, when young people go abroad to volunteer, says Tiessen, in many cases the reality is that they end up working for NGOs “in big cities, in high-rises,” even though the memories they share reflect more romantic stereotypes.

As part of their study, Tiessen and Heron are following young volunteers and interns over several years, to see what kind of contributions they make when they return to Canada. It’s a natural tendency to feel guilty about worldwide inequality, and endeavour to do something to bridge the gap. But according to Ruxin, the widespread belief that a short stint in a rural village is the best way to lift a community out of poverty is a “real failure of the development community” because it is often a “fabricated volunteer experience.” His advice? “If you’ve got two or three weeks and you want to make a difference, come to Rwanda, go on tours, go spend money, and don’t feel bad about it.”