Daniela Papi discusses the importance of learning before helping in service-learning endeavors.

January 9, 2013
By Daniela Papi
Original Article from – startempathy.org

I didn’t always think that the volunteer travel sector was causing harm; in fact, I not only traveled the world volunteering but also founded a voluntourism company in Cambodia. It was only after I spent years watching the volunteer travel sector grow, tracked the impact of my donations and time, and watched countless young people repeat many of my mistakes that I changed my mind. I now believe that promoting volunteer service abroad isn’t always serving us well.

Sending young people off on volunteer trips, or as they are often referred to in North America, “service-learning” trips, places young people in a position of superiority. We are promoting the idea that they should go abroad and “help those less fortunate” or “give their time to those in need,” and so they go abroad, like I did, thinking it is their responsibility to “help.” The key message I took away from six years living in Cambodia is that we have to learn before we can help, and the problem with the current system is that we are telling young people to help before they learn.

We’re fostering a sympathy travel market. Sympathy, by definition, is “feeling pity for someone,” and if we are teaching young people to have pity on some “other” that they have yet to meet, it’s hard for them to realize that that “other” is someone they could be learning from instead. We need to be teaching empathy to young people as, by definition, empathy requires “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and therefore learning first. By taking an “empathy learning” rather than “sympathy tourism” approach, we’re telling travelers to ask questions, understand local power dynamics, gain a perspective on local priorities and needs before imposing outside “solutions” and preventing many of the problems that come from rushing into “helping” mode, like I did when I arrived in Cambodia.

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