This article was originally published by CampusProgress.
July 31, 2008
Rebekah Heacock graduated from the University of Kansas in 2006 with plans to volunteer abroad. She secured a service opportunity with a Ugandan orphanage to teach English. But once she arrived, she felt ill prepared. “I was a Russian major [with] no experience teaching and got there and all of the sudden 60 kids were dumped in my lap,” Heacock remembered. Her authority extended beyond the classroom, too.
“I was asked to be in charge of curriculum and recruiting volunteers,” Heacock recalled. As a white Westerner, Heacock was given seniority above certified Ugandan teachers at the orphanage to design a curriculum, despite her lack of education experience. “I think a lot of Americans go abroad thinking just by virtue of the fact that you are American and have a college education that you’ll know they’ll be some way for you to help out abroad, but that’s not necessarily true,” Heacock said. “I think a lot of development work takes highly trained professionals.” In places like post-colonial Africa, with a history of Western intervention, local populations tend to see volunteers as saviors regardless of their lack of technical experience. Volunteers like Heacock see an opportunity to make a difference in developing countries but often end up realizing the problematic legacy of the international service industry.
Heacock is among the growing number of international volunteers who go abroad to developing countries without proper training and lack of cultural knowledge. Between 50,000 and 60,000 Americans volunteer overseas every year, with 18- to 24-year-olds making up the largest age group, according to the International Volunteers Programs Association. The organization estimates that the number of volunteers will top 100,000 by 2010. The Brookings Institution, a moderate think tank, launched the Initiative on International Volunteering and Service on International Volunteer Day in 2006 to increase the quantity and quality of international service. Although the new emphasis on international service seems positive, the volunteer industry’s exponential growth is a reminder of some deeply entrenched problems.
The tradition of international service can largely be traced back to the creation of the Peace Corps, founded by President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cold War in 1961 to counter Soviet communist ideology and spread American policy. Today the Peace Corps coordinates over 8,000 volunteers in 74 countries with volunteers making 27-month commitments. The Peace Corps model sends predominately young people into the field with enormous expectations and little training to represent the United States and spread American ideology. This same model has also been reproduced in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector.