Ethics and efficacy of summer abroad volunteers

Opinion by Neil Chaudhary
Aug. 5, 2014, 7:30 p.m.

Summer abroad programs are a mixed bag: On one hand, they can create transformative change for both the volunteer and the community; on the other, the efficacy of their implementation can be questionable. Likewise, my own summer abroad experience is a mixed tale of personal growth but uncertain impact– a tale that provides perspective on an array of short-term service abroad initiatives in general.

Learning Enterprises (LE) placed me in a poor, rural Panamanian village called Las Cruces in order to teach English in the local K-5 public elementary school. During my time in Panama, most days were a struggle: trying to impart knowledge to classrooms full of energetic, playful and often rambunctious youth; constantly playing catch-up with my Spanish; and attempting to fit into a community where I was the only foreigner, or gringo. I was thrown into a completely different world; one where I had to adjust, to adapt and to constantly push myself.

But the challenging lifestyle and unfamiliarity with my surroundings were a necessary part of a formative journey that has made me into the person I am today. As cliché as it sounds, experiencing rural Panamanian culture – from the strange, exotic foods, to killing for one’s own meat, to the enthusiastic vibrancy of local festivals and dances for patron saints – taught me the importance of open-mindedness in cross-cultural communication. Furthermore, living under scarce conditions with intermittent water, electricity and meager provisions helped me realize the extent of my own privilege and the sense of fulfillment that relationships, family and community can provide over material goods.

And, while I can ramble on and on about how I’ve become a better person, how I’ve been enlightened and how I will carry my lessons in education and cultural competency to “positions of power,” I am still doubtful whether or not my service summer abroad actually helped Las Cruces.

Did my presence actually make a difference to the lives of my students? Did I improve conditions in Las Cruces in any tangible way? Did I inhibit cause harm or inhibit progress in the educational arena?

In general, Panama’s education system has been improving, with a primary school attendance rate of about 97 percent and a secondary school attendance rate of around 70 percent. Government support in the form of scholarship and universal primary education have been mostly responsible for this success in school attendance. However, at the same time, educational quality (i.e., school supplies, textbooks, quality teachers) rapidly decreases in rural Panama, where roughly 500,000 residents (60 percent of the rural population) live in poverty.

While NGOs can contribute to educational quality by providing young, energetic teachers, the short duration of summer programs like LE make it difficult for pupils and volunteers to connect on a meaningful level. Since LE volunteers only stay within a community for six weeks out of a year, children are just starting to emotionally connect to their volunteer teachers when, all of a sudden, the teacher is yanked away from their lives. After many iterations of this annual routine, students come to view LE volunteers as pleasant but transient and temporary — basically, not something permanent or serious to incorporate into their lives.

Educationally as well, each new student volunteer has to re-invent an English curriculum for the classroom every summer, often disrupting the continuity in English teaching. Not only is six weeks an extremely short period of time to significantly improve a class’ foreign language skills, but LE volunteers often also have little to no prior teaching experience and only moderate expertise of the local language. In these cases, children become the guinea pigs of volunteers’ first foray into teaching. Often, they learn little beyond the fact that “the gringo lets us play games.”

Even if we assume that an intervention like LE doesn’t make things worse, there is still always an opportunity cost. Instead of using the resources and money to send a volunteer like me to teach abroad, organizations like LE could in fact hire local staff or invest in local institutions (i.e., teacher training programs) to provide services in a fashion that is sustainable and that bolsters the local economy.

There are many organizations that already do this, such as Barefoot College, which helps train local community members in rural India as teachers, solar power engineers and specialists in other fields. Or Room to Read, which employs local authors in various countries in Africa and Asia to write children’s books in the mother tongue to build literacy.

Even further, outsourcing important state services such as education to an international NGO like LE may, in the long run, prop up an ineffectual and corrupt government incapable of providing for its most vulnerable populations. By creating dependencies, NGOs like LE may actually delay long-term structural change within the political and cultural institutions of a community.

While I have focused on LE in this article, it is not the only volunteer abroad program that does this. There is a whole laundry list of programs that send university and high school students abroad for the summer as teachers, nurses and manual volunteer labor. In fact, the industry has been dubbed “voluntourism” given its emphasis on turning poverty and institutional failure in developing nations into a summer attraction for well-intentioned Westerners.

When considering the ethics of “voluntourism,” we should consider whether we would accept the same standard of care when applied to our own communities. Take, for example, this thought experiment: ESOL university students from France with little to no prior teaching experience or relevant cultural knowledge come to the United States to teach students French in our under-performing inner-city schools. Would we consider this a useful and worthwhile endeavor? Would we make a spectacle of our impoverished communities in order to promote cross-cultural exchange? Would we accept interventions that focus more on the experience of the volunteer rather than the needs of our communities?

If we answer “no” to these questions, then we really must question the ethical basis for short-term service abroad programs regardless of the personal benefits that volunteers like me accrue from them.


Contact Neil Chaudhary at [email protected].

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