Volunteer tourism or voluntourism has come under a lot of criticism in recent years: the idea that untrained students or tourists go into a needy community to provide short term help. There are concerns with this model: it may perpetuate the notion of the “white savior”, it may lead to dependence on charity, and it may do little to address the root of socio-economic problems.
A core part of the Youth International experience is to engage in community service work. So how do we respond to these concerns? With Youth International, the volunteer work is a component of a larger program that explores the cultures of the places being visited. YI participants are not going into poor communities with the expectation of engaging in humanitarian relief. Rather, the community service work is seen as an opportunity to engage in a deep level of cultural exchange. Youth International has long-term relationships with community leaders, resulting in continuity in the volunteer projects from year to year. The projects we work on are conceived of and organized by local community leaders, based on their current or immediate needs. The foremen on the construction site are locals and YI participants are simply there to assist them. The organizers in the schools are the local principals, and YI participants learn from them how best to engage with the students.
The ultimate goal of the volunteer experience with Youth International is to build cross-cultural understanding and respect for other cultures. Our hope is that participants will make strides towards becoming thoughtful and informed global citizens in a time when cross-cultural skills are becoming ever more important.