The rise in millenial volunteering programs has been rapid in recent years, as has the profile of international development as a discipline. Many young people are becoming more aware of the impact they can help to drive change - for the lives of others, for the environment and for wildlife. Mainstream media and social media are both vehicles for drawing attention to communities in crisis, or perhaps areas under environmental threat. These factors have contributed to create a robust volunteer travel industry, with many options ranging from short tours helping specific regions, to broader educational programs that teach methodologies around sustainable practice, management and logistics crucial to drive progression and economic growth.
The question of how these visitors from more developed nations should engage with the less developed world is an incredibly complex one. One that requires perspective from both sides.
If you are scrolling the web looking for a constructive experience - both for yourself and for a community - what things should you be aware of when considering an overseas ‘service learning’ tour?
Make sure it’s a two-way street
Too often we focus on the material concerns in a community project. What we will give or what we will build. The focus of a constructive tour should be to ensure participants improve their knowledge of the world through a shared experience with a community. A a participant you should be encouraged to learn new skills from your hosts as well as sharing some of your home culture. Adventure education is a two-way street.
Respect the locals
You want to make sure that the local communities you are visiting are treated well, and that the project will benefit them in the long term. Some volunteer organisations run repetitive tours to villages or orphanages where their presence - and coming and going - can be very unsettling and confusing for young local children. It is important that the organisation you travel with have multi-year plans in place to provide support, that local community leaders have been involved in the creation of these, and that constant dialogue is in place to assess effectiveness and any negative impacts that might arise. At the end of the day this type of travel is about helping first and foremost.
Gain key skills to make you a more valuable contributor
Even though as a participant you may lack the skills of tradesmen, you can help on projects of the communities with whom you work. Keep an eye out for programs that offer a range of skill based learning within the program itself - this can range from basic building skills such as laying foundations and concrete, to needs assessment of local communities, logistics training in developing world situations, and other such essential experience that will stand you in good stead to not only complete your tour with great effectiveness but also have gained key skills for the future.
Learn about the place you are going to
Through your ‘service learning’ program, you should be encouraged to learn about particular issues faced by the countries to which you travel. Many programs such as the International Educator Program from Pure Exploration incorporate and introduction to each region as the tour progresses, so you have an understanding of what local people are dealing with on a daily basis, what cultural nuances affect how they live, what the economic or political environment is like. The more you learn the more you can understand of the developing world, as well as (hopefully) breaking down assumptions or prejudices about the people these issues affect. This will in turn affect how you communicate with locals and hopefully become more effective at helping them.
There’s no such thing as a short term project
Participants visit for only a short time so the work you do must be driven by the community to ensure it will be beneficial in the long term. Working hand in hand with local development organisations should be high priority for the program you choose, this relationship will help ensure any projects completed are worthwhile and future focused.
Making a difference
As a participant in a service program, you should feel proud of your input into these enduring developmental projects, a key cog in the wheel to drive change. Always keep this in mind when choosing your program - is this organisation looking to drive long-term change in a region, and would I be proud to be part of that?
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Along with numerous other global adventure travel programs, Pure Exploration have a fantastic 12 week global International Expeditions Program that helps participants build confidence in their global travelling skills, their ability to plan, develop and execute effective community engagement projects, environmental service and volunteer programs, and ready to tackle any new venture they may be planning.
If you'd like to check out the detailed trip itinerary for the International Educator Program, pop in your details below!