Have you ever wondered about international volunteering, and whether it is right for you? Or maybe you are a returned volunteer that is a little disappointed by the experience? Or maybe you are desperate to make a change when you travel, and want to find out about voluntourism? If any of these things describes you, you need to read Learning Service, one of the best books about volunteering that I personally have ever come across, and an invaluable guide for anyone wanting to make a difference in the world.
Full disclosure: I received Learning Service for free from the publishers in return for this review. I am writing my uncensored opinion of the book, and I receive no remuneration should you buy the book.
Books about Volunteering: Do you know any?
Maybe you are a better and more educated traveller than me, but I can’t immediately bring to mind any book or resource that I’ve read about volunteering that has truly stuck with me. This is despite the fact that I know I have previously done a certain degree of research before and after my own forays into voluntary work abroad. And I am a total and unashamed book nerd.
What I think this speaks to is actually something addressed in the book, the idea that crises are happening all the time, and people are dying out there in Africa, so we think we just need to get our butts into gear and head out and help. We place the emphasis on volunteering itself, and not on taking the time to prepare, learn, or reflect before we do so. This is why you need to read Learning Service, and the reason why I am so happy I got asked to review the book, it flips the entire world of volunteering completely on its head.
What the books about volunteering don’t tell you.
“I saw that even those of us with the best intentions were fueling a system gone awry.” -Learning Service
My most recent interaction with the world of international development and volunteering, has been helping to bring attention to the case of Serving His Children. This NGO in Uganda is an example of the very worst of volunteering. Founded by an American named Renee Bach, who moved to Uganda when she was just 18 as a missionary. She has since founded an NGO that focuses on childhood malnutrition, and from all the Instagram photos and media packs, you would think that she heads a team of highly qualified doctors, battling malnourishment and bringing hope to children and families in impoverished Africa.
The problem is that Renee Bach has never had any formal medical training at all, even though she gets super hands on in the operating room. Hundreds of children have died at her facilities, and the NGO is still running. Although the NGO is reportedly no longer running, Renee is still in Uganda, and appears to still be involving herself in medical work. You can read more about Serving His Children on Medium.
I wanted to take the time to bring up this case, because this is the reality of so many of our best intentions. When we run head on into volunteering, we don’t take the time to reflect on ourselves and our reasons for what we are doing, blinded by the call to be a hero to people in need. This needs to stop.
What makes Learning Service one of the best books about volunteering?
I wrote an article a little while ago about travelling while white, and I spoke a little about the problem with voluntourism, and being the white savior. When the authors of Learning Service got in touch with me to write this, I was so hesitant, because I wasn’t sure if they were adequately going to deal with these ‘unpopular’ issues. I didn’t have to worry.
Learning Service is many things, but it is not a comfortable read. It is accessible, easy to understand, and comprehensive, but if you can read it without squirming, you’re not paying attention. Where other books about volunteering are trying to encourage as many people as possible to sign up with their program, Learning Service is not selling anything. In fact, I think the book will do the opposite, and discourage a fair number of people from getting into international volunteer work in the first place.
This is a great thing! So much of our white, patriarchal, society puts pressure on us to know more, be more useful, work hard, and set up mini Western communities wherever we can. Learning Service really challenges all of that, asking the reader to really reflect on why they want to volunteer, what they are hoping to give to the local people, and if that really is what the local people even need.
As a therapist, I really appreciated the focus on reflection that the book has. And importantly, this is not just about reflecting post-experience, but during and especially before you even decide to go. Again and again the book asks us to challenge what we think we know, what we think we want, why we want it, and if that is the best thing for everyone concerned.
It forces us to look deep into our hearts and find the shadow of our desires. When I talk about the shadow, I mean the parts of ourselves that we keep so tightly hidden we may not even be consciously aware of them. When I trained to be a therapist, I had to reveal and confront the shadow of my need to be a therapist, and that was the part of myself that wanted to save people, to be a hero, and even to heal myself through other people. If I hadn’t confronted those parts of myself, I could do really damaging work as a therapist, because I would always be putting my own needs first.
Now think of the shadow of your desire to be a volunteer. If you are white, there’s probably a part of white saviourism in there. If you are religious, could your shadow be wanting to be seen as good, and righteous, and noticed as a leader amongst your church? If you have money or are middle class, could you have a shadow that is about guilt and shame at being privileged, and wanting to make yourself feel comfortable with the life you are living by spending some time with the ‘under-privileged’? None of these feelings are wrong or terrible, but they can cause huge damage if you don’t unpack them before you run into a volunteer opportunity.
This is what I love especially about Learning Service: it takes really deep and painful reflective exercises, and holds your hand through them. It offers so many first hand accounts from actual volunteers, that you can’t feel alone or become despondent. The aims of the book are clear: if we are going to fix a broken system, we need to start with reflection, education, and honesty.
This is the book I wish I had before spending two years as a youth volunteer missionary. It has taken me years of reflection to figure out what it was that made me so uncomfortable with my experience, and it was a very affirming thing to be able to read my thoughts written and spoken through a myriad of volunteer’s voices.
More than a list of opportunities
Learning Service is not going to give you a nice index filled with names of all the best volunteering agencies and NGOs. What you will find, is a resource list of further reading, and a comprehensive checklist to enable you to do your own research into what makes a volunteering opportunity helpful or potentially harmful. You will find hundreds of guided reflection questions for all stages of your pre-, and post volunteering preparation, as well as questions for when you are in the service itself.
Learning service is not a book about getting volunteering right. It is an honest look at the potential for impact both harmful and good that volunteering has, and how you can best navigate your way through it if you really feel that it is something that you are qualified and prepared to do. There are no free passes for people with good intentions in this book, because as Steve Arnold is quoted in the book: “[w]hen you work in development, you’re screwing around with someone else’s life. If you make a mistake, you can go home. The people you work with already are home, and they probably can’t just leave, so you better know what you are doing.”
What other books about volunteering leave out
Learning Service, I think, is unique in that it doesn’t leave you alone once your trip is over and you’re back at home. There is an entire section in the book dedicated to your life after volunteering. It covers really important and practical information about dealing with reverse culture shock, and how to integrate what you have learnt into your daily life. It also has great information about how you can use the incredible new knowledge you have gained to become an educated advocate, an activist for change, and really, a decent human being.
I think that we like quick fixes in today’s society, and I think it has a lot to do with our dislike of discomfort. We are more willing to travel halfway across the world and live in terrible conditions to paint someone’s school, then we are to sit with the discomfort of listening to POC call out our racism here at home.
Learning Service is tying to cultivate humility, and a tolerance for discomfort that turns into lifelong learning and advocacy. It asks us to challenge everything we think we know, so that we can actually learn something about ourselves and our society, and there isn’t a university degree in the world that will teach you something more useful than that.
Books about volunteering stop at volunteering
Learning Service also gives a variety of different options for you to consider before you settle on volunteering. And each of those options come with a balanced view of positives and negatives as well. Take for example, the section on teaching English, which doesn’t hesitate to point out that the world’s focus on English as the global language is putting indigenous languages at risk of extinction.
I would definitely recommend this book to any potential TEFL teachers out there, especially if you are looking at teaching English as a way to fund your travels. I have written before about TEFL in Korea, and how this wasn’t necessarily where I saw myself ending up, but I don’t think enough emphasis is put on how much harm we can actually cause as unqualified teachers. Especially if we look out into South East Asia, where the education system isn’t as developed as here in Korea where we are often teaching assistants. It is absolutely okay to want to travel the world, but it isn’t okay to blindly take space in the classroom in the name of your adventures.
I can give a few examples of people I have come into contact with that are potentially causing harm in their classrooms here in Korea. One TEFL teacher actually told me that he likes to hug the girls he teaches because some of the ugly ones won’t get boyfriends so he can be their pretend boyfriend. This is a man in his 20’s teaching elementary and middle schoolers. I don’t have to tell you how much it would help someone like that to reflect on why he is actually in Korea, and what his actual motives are as a teacher.
This is part of why I think Learning Service is actually not at all a book about volunteering, but about being a decent human being. If we could take the humility, self-reflection, dedication to learning, and cultural and historical awareness that the book is trying to teach us into our everyday lives, I honestly believe we would have far less reason to volunteer in the first place.
I was nervous to write a review on Learning Service, as I wasn’t sure if, like other books on volunteering, it would push for volunteering as the best option. But as you can hopefully tell by now, Learning Service isn’t like the other books on volunteering at all, not even a little bit. The authors are honest about their own experiences, about the checkered history of volunteering, and about the fact that volunteering actually almost always benefits the volunteer more than the local people. If you are even entertaining the possibility of volunteering or working abroad in some way, you need to read this book. And then keep reading it, and work hard to do better now that you know better.
Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad is written by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, and Daniela Papi-Thornton. It is published by Red Press and you can get your copy here.
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