A growing number of students—including President Obama’s older daughter, Malia—are deciding to take a year off, or a “gap year,” before they begin college. During this time, many will choose to engage in some form of international volunteering service.

This may seem a laudable pursuit—and in some cases, it is. But it’s important to realize that there are dangers. Anyone considering volunteering as part of a gap year (or otherwise) must understand how international service interacts with the structures of local development, or else risk inadvertently harming communities. There are often warning signs, and there are both organizations supporting young people’s desires to engage in ethical international service and several frameworks that support ethically grounded global partnerships. But to really address the pernicious patterns in international volunteering today, the education sector must embrace and foster a deeper understanding of global citizenship and the structures of development.

The Dark Side of Voluntourism

Unethical volunteering can expose vulnerable populations to real harm. A friend who’s now a nurse recalls delivering 17 babies when she participated in a month-long, undergraduate, service-learning course in Tanzania—before she had medical credentials. In nearby Kenya, a supervising doctor invited a visiting medical student to perform a spinal injection on a seven-year-old child before she was trained to do so. She made the attempt, and remembers the child screaming and defecating on himself. By failing in her first attempt, she not only inadvertently inflicted trauma, but also delayed patient access to treatment. The doctor wanted to help a young person gain experience, but both of these instances exposed patients to unnecessary risk. They failed to recognize that the volunteers were untrained and inexperienced, while qualified and experienced medical professionals were available nearby.  

Globally, volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is a $2 billion sector. Its offerings include alternative breaks, socially conscious vacations, gap years, and other combinations of volunteer service with cultural activities and travel. Given the sector’s value, volunteers are in effect development funders—at least to the tune of $2 billion per year. And businesses and nonprofits involved in volunteer tourism too frequently aim to create programs that satisfy people’s perception of what “doing good” should look like—rather than truly rooting their programming in thoughtful, community-driven development practices.

Voluntourists’ dollars have thus led to distortions in international development, such as the creation of orphanages to meet tourist demand rather than the needs of children. In the medical sector, several organizations that recruit students from US campuses assert that their volunteers are never permitted to offer un-credentialed clinical care, but researchers Noelle Sullivan and Judith Lasker have documented hundreds of cases like those profiled above.

It is unfortunately clear that real development experiences for vulnerable populations in lower-income countries are bound up with and influenced by young people’s perceptions of how global development works. As described above, many pre-medical students believe they can help implement a medical intervention thousands of miles from home without credentials. And, somewhat suddenly, medical professionals in low-resource contexts around the world are not only working to advance the ongoing development of their own health systems, but also attempting to police or partner with international youth.

This drives development professionals crazy, and they and others giddily disparage voluntourists’ naiveté. As a social change activist trained in international development, I can empathize, but as an educator, I have to turn the question inward: How is it that our society continues to produce young people who believe the way to make a difference is through isolated acts of volunteering, social enterprise, or “heropreneurship”?

Changing How Volunteers Perceive International Development

Two major campaigns—the Better Volunteering, Better Care Network (BVBCN) and the Working Group on Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels (GASP)—have formed to combat this issue. BVBCN encourages ethical alternatives to orphanage volunteering, building on decades of research demonstrating that foster families and extended family networks are better for children than institutional care. GASP, a coalition of global health professionals, has already made significant headway in shifting the “pull factors” that lead young people toward providing un-credentialed medical care. It is playing an important role in getting pre-med advisors to clarify that medical schools do not seek students who have participated in clinical care without credentials. And GASP members have carefully delineated the knowledge, skills, and capacities necessary for undergraduates interested in global health careers.

But to solve the problem, we need more than efforts like these. Based on two decades of work, critique, and research at the nexus of development, civic education, and global learning, I think the answer is fundamentally tied to our educational infrastructure, which:

  1. Emphasizes civic responsibility and participation to a greater extent than social justice while implying that volunteer service alone may be sufficient civic activity 
  2. Often ignores the concept of human rights and major rights policy instruments
  3. Promotes social entrepreneurialism as a civic solution

Nearly 90 percent of high school students take a civics class, but most civic education in the United States focuses on civic responsibility and participation within existing structures, rather than advancing a social justice approach that analyzes how social, economic, and political forces produce and reproduce patterns of injustice over time. In the context of hunger, for example, a responsible citizen would donate food, a participatory citizen might organize a food drive, and a social justice-oriented citizen would work to better understand and address the root causes of hunger.

When considering international ethics or global citizenship, the responsible and participatory approaches fall short; national civic identity hasn’t traditionally recognized the value of either beyond borders. Yet all of us are already part of a historic legacy that advances a theory of justice in the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes “inherent dignity and … equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” This kind of “human rights thinking” provides clear guidelines and frameworks of inquiry—clear suggestions for political-economic arrangements that could and should support the inherent dignity of all persons.

A human rights approach to civic learning begins with attention to the rights that should be guaranteed, along with inquiry into whether those rights are guaranteed. As necessary, it continues with investigation and advocacy intended to advance policy solutions that account for every rights-holder, with particular attention to the most vulnerable.

Students who wish to make a meaningful difference in the world would be well-served by educational systems that develop their capacities to understand what human rights are, how they are guaranteed, and how alternative policy environments are correlated with more and less success in respect to important rights measures. This is not high theory. Around the world and, indeed, across the United States, cultures value different habits and governments choose to spend money in different ways, yielding considerably different outcomes. In the United States, for example, differences in history and policy at the county level led to a 13-year gap in life expectancy between Marin County, California (83), and McDowell County, West Virginia (70). Internationally, Costa Rica manages to achieve the same average life expectancy as the United States, with $40,000 less per capita income. These extraordinarily different social experiences should move would-be philanthropists not to isolated acts of volunteering, but to the policy question of why individuals born in one place have such profoundly different outcomes than individuals born somewhere else.

Educators advancing a sense of volunteering-as-citizenship, while encouraging social entrepreneurial activity as the more advanced version of that impulse, are teaching students to “do good” in the world as it is, rather than recreate the world as it could be. Volunteering and social enterprise can be wonderful, but they don’t guarantee rights. And if volunteering is taken up without an understanding of the social structures in a host community, as in the case of orphanage volunteering, service activities can even undermine rights. If we are to advance the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration, we will need bolder and more imaginative civic spaces in schools and institutions of higher education.

Some of this work is underway, but we have a long way to go if our ethical and civic understandings are going to catch up with our interconnected global reality. We must build students’ understanding of structural realities and possibilities over the trajectory of their schooling careers—across all programs of study—so that they can understand their ethical roles in an interconnected world. Then they will be able to approach international opportunities from a cooperative, learning perspective, with an understanding that all countries have continuously developing systems and structures to support social welfare and health.

The American Gap Association, the Building Bridges Coalition, and many other organizations are doing excellent work to promote ethical practices in gap years, and will hopefully stem the tide of young people participating in programs like those involving orphanages and un-credentialed medical activities discussed above. But moving toward the development of truly thoughtful global civic activity will require deep cooperation from the educational system as a whole. Only then will we see significant, positive shifts in the ways young people approach global development, advocacy, inclusion, and justice.