Every summer students find their way around the world on unique volunteer opportunities in developing countries. From Ghana to Ecuador to India, Student Volunteer Abroad Programs (SVAPs) aim to bring development to impoverished countries through volunteering and student leadership. We commend our peers for their hard work in these faraway countries and assume that these programs present valuable and successful methods by which we bring aid to desperate communities that would be left in much worse conditions were it not for altruistic volunteer efforts. These programs, however noble in intent, are a new method of the imposition of Western values of development and progress through programs that offer better opportunities to the individuals volunteering abroad than they do for those they are supposed to be helping.
SVAPs present a new manifestation of the White Man’s Burden. We send our students across the world like the missionaries of old, to dirty impoverished places that lack those holy institutions of democracy and development. These are institutions that we have been raised to idealize, much the same as the missionaries of old idealized Christian values. Like those missionaries, we build schools and aim to improve the communities by imparting our own values and knowledge, which we promise to be of great global value.
These SVAPs are not necessarily motivated by the supposed altruism we imagine – in fact recent research actually suggests the opposite. In Rebecca Tiessen’s 2012 study on the motivations of Canadian student who volunteer abroad, “personal growth was the motivation most often indicated as very important” – as indicated by 55 out of the 68 participants in her sample. They also highlighted the “luck” they associated with being born in Canada and the developed world. As Tiessen herself notes, this suggests that these Canadian student volunteers see the developing world as “unlucky.” They assume that volunteering is a good way to reverse the fortunes of the unlucky, paying little regard to the global system they perpetuate and benefit from, which constitutes the real foundations of the “unluckiness” of the developing world.
These neo-colonial endeavors, however, are not merely perpetuated by students, but are empowered by foreign aid institutions at a higher level. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is a government organization that funds foreign development programs. A large portion of CIDA’s funds are actually directed towards various forms of SVAPs. This means that much of our foreign development money is being spent on sending Canadian students abroad for their own personal growth while keeping them safe and secure amongst the dangerous unlucky. Again these programs are reminiscent of the state-funded missionaries sent to bring Christianity to the heathen masses scattered around the globe.
This is not to condemn those students who do volunteer abroad or to suggest that the work they do is without any benefit whatsoever to the communities they aim to help. What is important here is to note our own selfish attitudes underlying some of the noblest looking programs we fund. Moreover, we should not simply abandon these enterprises and leave the developing world alone altogether. As the famous post-colonialist author Aimé Césaire said, “for civilizations, exchanges is oxygen.” The important question is whether the way that we exchange knowledge and goods with other nations is the most equitable and fair way of interaction and trade. To this end, the answer is simply no.
Whether we like it or not, we help to maintain a global system which perpetuates increasing disparities of power and wealth. Even when we aim to alleviate the symptoms of this systemic inequality, our efforts amount to little more than self-beneficial endeavors that perpetuate neo-colonial ideals of development.
Acadia Undergraduate Student Sarah Mitchell explores the problematic nature of SVAPs further in her Sociology Honours Thesis entitled, “Student Volunteer Abroad Programs—Imagined Political Identities: Imperial Capitalist Development and the Depoliticization of the Altruistic Fantasy.”
For more information on this also be sure to look at Rebecca Tiessen’s work:
Tiessen, Rebecca. 2012. “Motivations for Learn/Volunteer Abroad Programs: Research with Canadian Youth.” Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education Volume 2 (Number 1) Special Edition: Pp. 1-21.