Unintended outcomes of service learning: Being on the right side of the tide

By Ann Straub, International Advisor, Council of International Schools


The Council of International Schools has at its core, global citizenship. A vital aspect of global citizenship is taking action to benefit humanity in order to create social sustainability. This action often manifests itself in the form of service learning. What better way to engage our students than with helping other children around the world? However, as stated by Emmanuel Werner from Friends-International, an NGO with programs in South-East Asia and Switzerland, “Service learning has to be done the right way. It is recognized that good intentions are not enough and volunteering may cause more harm than good if not well thought out.”

Emmanuelle goes on to state, “Volunteer tourism or ‘voluntourism’ is one of the fastest-growing tourism niches. An increasing number of volunteer agencies are offering short-term volunteer travel opportunities in Africa, Asia and South America. However, concern has grown in recent years about the impact of voluntourism on local communities, especially when unqualified volunteers are working with vulnerable children. For example, orphanage volunteering is probably the most obvious example of how good intentions can end up harming children. Why? First, children don’t always develop well in institutional care such as orphanages because they may not be getting the individual attention and care they need from a stable attachment figure.”

“Sadly, eighty years of research proves that raising children in orphanages harms their health and development and puts them at risk of abuse. The good news is that 80% of children living in orphanages worldwide are not orphans; they have families that could care for them if they were adequately supported. In some countries, orphanages are run as businesses using children as commodities to attract well-intentioned tourists and volunteers. Children in residential care are already at a higher risk of abuse and exploitation and are exposed to further risk of harm by unqualified and unsupervised international volunteers. While many volunteers have good intentions, their very presence normalises the practice of unqualified volunteers accessing children. And not all tourists and volunteers are well intentioned: significant overlap between international volunteering and child sex tourism has been noted in research due to the particular vulnerability of children in residential care centres, and children’s perceived accessibility. So it’s worth thinking about volunteering in community-based projects that are helping families to stay together instead of supporting orphanages.”

This presents a valuable learning opportunity for both students and teachers to focus on what constitutes an ethical service learning experience addressing the best interests of local communities benefitting directly or indirectly from their work, with no negative interference or consequences. An excellent source of information is the Better Care Network. Their statement on orphanage volunteering is a valuable article to read and discuss. An additional source of information is the ChildSafe website with campaigns and messages against orphanage tourism and orphanage visits. This site lists organizations in eight countries which focus on community development empowering families to be independent of charity organizations.

As well, ChildSafe offers interactive child protection training for students. Students from the New International School in Bangkok in Thailand, Ecole Française de Siem Reap in Cambodia, and the International School of Phnom Penh, in Cambodia participated in ChildSafe activities and are currently engaged in sustainable community development service learning activities. An example of advocacy for child protection is students from the Geneva International School spent a few days distributing 7 Tips for Travelers to travelers at the Geneva Airport, raising awareness about how to best protect children during their travels. 

Friends-International Switzerland has been working with the IB to create a new Teacher Support Material aiming to help students, teachers and CAS coordinators to make the right choices when it comes to planning service learning experiences or projects. The CAS Teacher Support Material is a first port of entry not only for new teachers but also for experienced IB coordinators thanks to its clear definitions, examples and easy planning strategies to engage students with questioning, research and critical thinking.

An essential service learning understanding is for students to realize that "saving-the-world" activities may have an extremely limited if not negative impact. Instead, they should shift their focus to learning from local communities and development models that empower people to be autonomous and not dependent on charity based models, and therefore have a positive impact on the lives of marginalized children. It is the right time to position our schools as leaders in this movement by placing ourselves on the “right side of the tide.”