A panel hosted by the Centre for International Studies (CIS) and Mount Allison’s chapter of Global Brigades sparked a passionate discussion about the problems with international volunteer trips. After a brief period of opening remarks, the panel answered questions from an audience of more than 150 people for the remaining time.
“I thought it was really good,” said Tim Reiffenstein, a Mt. A geography professor who sat in the audience. “It’s rare you get this many students out. It’s rare you have this much audience participation, and most of it was given to audience participation.”
Many of the people in the audience were members of Global Brigades who were required by the organization to attend the event. An estimated 60 Global Brigades students showed up, including Chris Arsenault, a third-year biochemistry student.
“For me it was really useful,” he said. “I got to hear a lot of things that I hadn’t heard first-hand, and it was also just a really great discussion from a lot of different perspectives.”
The rest of the audience members were other students and professors from a variety of faculties.
“Geography and environment, commerce, IR all sort of have stakes in it,” said Zoe Walker, a fourth-year geography student who is writing her thesis on voluntourism. “I was really interested to see so many students have such a passionate interest in it. The questions were by no means neutral.”
The questions and the discussion focused largely on the limitations of international volunteering, and that of Global Brigades in particular, an organization that claims to provide sustainable development. Students and professors voiced their concerns to experts on and proponents of volunteer trips.
“I thought that it was a very important conversation to have at Mount Allison,” said Zoe Luba, a CIS coordinator. “The only way we are going to change the system that I do believe is detrimental to a lot of people in this world is if we keep talking about it.”
One of the four panelists was Robert Huish, a professor of international development studies at Dalhousie University. He said that the because of the priorities of volunteer trips, they do to not target larger problems impoverished communities face.
“The way that these trips are constructed now, they are entirely focused on learning experience for students,” Huish said. “The material needs of the communities come second. The political needs come third.”
Huish and members of the audience stressed the importance of recognizing socio-political and economic contexts.
Maritza Fariña, a Spanish professor at Mt. A who participates in Global Brigades, spoke passionately during the discussion.
“The guys and the girls work hard, and all my respect to that, all my respect. But you need to know more,” she said.
Proponents and members of Global Brigades welcomed the criticism including Alex Whynot, a board member of Global Brigades Canada and a Mt. A alumnus.
“We try to be our biggest critics, and we can only be as critical as we can be,” said Whynot, who sat on the panel. “So having the opportunity to speak to other people who are critical is wonderful.”
Tess Robart, the president of Mt. A’s chapter of Global Brigades, said that more time to discuss the issues would have been helpful.
“I think sometimes we can be even more critical of the things we are doing than maybe was covered tonight,” she said. “I think we could have gone even more in depth.”
Even though the panel was meant to discuss volunteer trips in general, the discussion tended to focus on Global Brigades.
“It would have been interesting to see how the conversation would have been different if it had been voluntourism as a whole instead of so much focus on GB,” Walker said, “but I think it was a really important conversation.”
But audience members and panelists did not just question the methods of volunteer organizations like Global Brigades. They challenged the entire model of volunteer trips. Some suggested activism as a better alternative to travel.
“There is an enormous potential for students to find the ability to get politicized and to become active, to address these systemic levels,” Huish said. “I don’t think that a three-week trip to a developing country is going to be that mechanism.”