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Does short-term volunteering abroad create global citizens?

Research study finds personal concerns like job preparedness are the main motivations for students going abroad to volunteer.


The assumption that young Canadians learn about the world and become better global citizens through short-term volunteer placements in developing countries is both popular and pervasive. But unfolding research based on a series of in-depth, qualitative interviews with overseas volunteers suggests that this assumption may not be an accurate reflection of the whole picture.

“Universities and colleges are somewhat blindly pushing short-term assignments in developing countries without truly understanding their efficacy as learning opportunities, the ethical implications, or their true impact,” said Rebecca Tiessen, associate professor of international development studies at Royal Military College and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Global Studies and Leadership.

Between 2007 and 2011, Dr. Tiessen and her research partner, Barbara Heron, associate professor and director of York University’s school of social work, conducted a series of interviews with 133 overseas student and intern volunteers. A smaller sample of 30 young people took part in a longitudinal study involving interviews at three stages: pre-departure, three to six months after their placements, and then two years after that. The five-year study received $242,000 in funding from the International Development Research Centre.

Their first-stage analysis, based on the interviews conducted three to six months after the volunteers’ return home, has shed light on the relationship between overseas volunteer placements and young Canadians’ sense of their global identity, said Drs. Tiessen and Heron. The returned volunteers report several positive shifts in their attitudes and behaviours, including a heightened understanding of their host community, a desire for cross-cultural understanding and a commitment to the idea of global citizenship. But the researchers found that “egoistic” motivations such as career development and job-seeking ultimately overshadowed altruism.

“The biggest surprise for me was that the desire to help others ranked really low,” said Dr. Tiessen. “It was probably one of the lowest ranked motivations compared to more personal development factors like skills-development, resumé-building, and adventure and travel.”

This was an “interesting element,” continued Dr. Tiessen, since many of the students are going overseas with funding from NGOs and the Canadian International Development Agency, whose mission is “to help people living in poverty.”

“The notion of ‘helping’ is a core feature” of most of the NGOs,” she said. But, the volunteers’ motivations don’t match the missions of the sending organizations, nor do they “reflect what the host organizations expect from Canadian volunteers. The host organizations in the South expect volunteers who come to address poverty and inequality.”

Dr. Heron noted that overseas volunteering is increasingly motivated more by the opportunity to learn than by the desire to help others.

“There’s been a whole shift in the discourse about short-term volunteering,” she explained. “The rationale is that we need to create global citizens so that we’ll be competitive in the global marketplace. I think young people are informed that it’s quite okay if the experience is about them.”

Dr. Tiessen said, “What’s positive is that [most] interviewees said that their understanding of their host community changed – they now have more of a sense of the complexity of culture, they make an effort not to generalize and try to breakdown stereotypes.”

But, she continued, a central finding is the lack of critical engagement volunteers seem to have with their experiences, suggesting a limited un-der-standing of the complexity of global inequality and how we perpetuate it on a day-to-day basis. For example, most volunteers considered themselves global citizens by virtue of having spent some time abroad. Yet, according to Dr. Tiessen, defining global citizenship in these restrictive terms raises a number of socioeconomic issues and suggests that only those with access to money for travelling can be global citizens.

Nearly two-thirds of returned volunteers made lifestyle changes when they arrived home such as recycling more, trying to eat more locally grown food and buying fair-trade items. But the majority of volunteers who identified such changes also said they noticed their commitment to these new behaviours waning as time passed.

“The potential implication of this is that people’s perceptions of their own global citizenship identities are tied up in short-sighted, superficial sets of actions … that don’t promote meaningful international relationships and do very little to address poverty and inequality,” said Dr. Tiessen. “But to give them credit, it’s a very complicated thing to reflect on. There’s so much nuance and depth of response that we’re trying to capture and make sense of in these interviews.”

Whether short-term overseas volunteering promotes global citizenship is a question that the researchers continue to grapple with as they begin their analysis of the longitudinal data. Their final report will be available on their study website in 2012.

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  1. Juliana Greiner / October 18, 2017 at 02:46

    Good to read!

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