Q & A with Claire Bennett, co-author of Learning Service


Claire Bennett is a co-author of the new book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. We were lucky enough to chat with Claire about the writing process, her own volunteer experiences, and travel advice to her younger self, among other things. To order the book or find out more about Learning Service, visit their website: www.learningservice.info or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

What in your own experience made you interested in more effective, ethical volunteering abroad?

I volunteered abroad myself when I was a teenager, and slowly became aware of all the mistakes I was making as I went along. You can read about many of these in the Learning Service book - for example, there was a huge misunderstanding with a colleague who thought that I had agreed to marry him! But to be honest, none of these ideas really came into focus until about a decade later, when I was doing some long term professional volunteering in Cambodia. The biggest difference was simply that I stayed in Cambodia for long enough to see the impact of volunteer groups parachuting in and out - which was in the best cases minimal and in the worst cases (like in the situation of orphanage tourism) actually doing damage. It was frustrating that most of the volunteers themselves couldn’t see that, and I realised it was because they hadn’t started by asking the right questions or taken the time to put their work into context.

What travel/volunteer advice would you give to your younger self?

I would definitely have told myself to not be in such a rush to volunteer. At the time it felt like the noble way to travel, less selfish than to just take a vacation. Actually the nobler thing to have done would have been to admit that I didn’t know anything about the problems faced by people in other countries and travelled with an aim to learn about that all first.

There seems to be a lot of unnecessary pressure put on first-time, short-term volunteers, who are often still students. The message seems to be: “Go volunteer and make an impact!” But why should we be forced into making an impact in whatever days and weeks we can take off from normal life, instead of trying to make an impact in normal life itself? Trying to “make a difference” in a short period of time in a place you don’t know anything about seems a bit nutty to me, in retrospect, when there are known and effective ways we can use our privilege to make bigger changes.

What did you learn that surprised you while working on the Learning Service book?

I was surprised by how many of the people we spoke to and surveyed about this issue had come to similar conclusions to the ones we had about how to volunteer well. The vast majority had learned this through volunteering or hosting volunteers themselves. In the book we talk about how this term “service learning” is useful as it shows how much can be learned through doing service - but we don’t think it goes far enough. Collectively, enough people have learned these lessons experientially for us to stop making the same mistakes. We have to listen to this accumulated knowledge and do better. In other words, we need to put the “learning” before the “service”!

What’s your stance on the term voluntourism?

The term itself is an accurate portrayal of the phenomenon it describes, so in that sense it is a little more honest than the “volunteer and save the world” language that is sometimes used in its stead. I like that it recognises that even if we are motivated by different intentions, volunteers are still to some extent a tourist in another land. On the other hand, if our intention is to get involved in serious development work and contribute to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues, we have to recognise that we are not going to do that through an experience that is half dabbling and half tourism.

What was the writing process like? Were successful, ethical volunteer abroad programs easy to find?

The writing process was in some ways easy, as we had a lot of material to draw on from our own life stories and our research. But that also in some ways made it very challenging - we had so much material that we could have written several books! And in fact we did - we had to cut out so much for the final edit that we are publishing all the extra sections on our blog. We have enough content to last us quite a while.

In terms of finding successful and ethical volunteer programs, very early on we decided to duck out of trying to rate volunteer programs on how ethical they are. There is no way that us four authors would have had capacity to gain enough intimate knowledge of the thousands of volunteer program in the world - plus the landscape is always changing. In the book we have a whole section which describes why we think rating systems for volunteer organizations are flawed. This is why we believe it is more powerful and authentic to equip potential volunteers to do research themselves - to assess placements against their own values and priorities. Of course we have our own opinions about which organizations are doing it better than others. It is difficult to believe that there are still organizations offering orphanage volunteering, or other short term work with vulnerable children. We have a section in the book which lists the red flags to look for when assessing volunteer placements.

It is worth noting that some of the programs that we feel are doing the best work in terms of learning service are not offering volunteer experiences at all, but are learning trips aimed at exploring the root causes of issues and finding out about the local activists and changemakers working to address them.

I want to volunteer abroad but I’m not sure where to start. What are your tips for taking the first steps?

If anyone approaches us saying that they want to volunteer abroad we ask them to pause right there and unpack that a little bit. We ask - why do you want to volunteer abroad? What do you hope to achieve by doing that? What has informed and influenced your ideas about volunteering? Usually when people deconstruct their motivations they find that they have to some extent absorbed unrealistic narratives from fundraising campaigns or media, and maybe even have internalized a kind of “hero/savior” complex. We have found that once people really analyze their goals and intentions then they may not be best filled by volunteering abroad at all - maybe they are best served by changing careers, or going back to school to study international development, or by just taking a break and going on holiday. But for those that are sure that volunteering is the right step for them, then the rest of the book is a guide for how to do that mindfully and effectively.