In honor of the signing of the bill that authorized the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy on September 22nd, 1961, WorldTeach Executive Director Dr. Mitra Shavarini has penned the following op-ed regarding the importance of international service.  We welcome you to share your thoughts below in the comments!

International Service is More Important than Ever

On September 22, 1961, President Kennedy signed legislation that helped create the Peace Corps. It aimed to promote a better understanding of Americans abroad; and conversely, a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. In essence, his mandate engaged Americans in global citizenship and civic engagement. This relational diplomacy is increasingly critical in our globalized world. And an endeavor especially needed for our younger generation.

Global challenges such as terrorism, poverty, and HIV/AIDS call for mutual understanding and cooperation with the citizens of other countries.

The Brookings Institute, a public policy think tank, has found that there are remarkable and long-term effects for those who spend time volunteering overseas.  “Volunteers bring home to the U.S. an understanding of foreign cultures that enriches our country and informs our policy choices. Volunteers also contribute to institutional capacity building, social capital, democratic governance, and a respect for human rights, all of which help to make the world a safer place for Americans both at home and abroad.”

With this administrations increasingly use of “hard power” to deal with other nations, the benefits of “soft power,” as demonstrated through our efforts of volunteering in other countries, becomes all the more crucial.

This need for “soft power” provides an opportunity for younger generation of Americans to engage in international volunteering. Millennials, in particular, have been found to be the “new generous generation.” A relatively recent survey found that among those who travel, millennials are far more generous with both their money and time, and that travel has become their form of philanthropy. For instance, 64% of millennial travelers tend to volunteer while abroad.

Volunteering seems like an admirable way to spend a vacation; a perfect blend of skills and dollars to help support local economies. It’s become so popular as a mode of travel that it’s now dubbed as “voluntoursim” Countless online vendors offer such travel schemes.

But we have to be wary of this path for international service. Addressing issues facing struggling nations around the globe is a complicated task. Sustained impact requires commitment, hard work, and expertise. Untrained vacationers are simply not equipped to achieve lasting progress in a matter of days. In fact, they can even cause harm, as many articles of late have begun to feature. For example, research in South Africa has found that orphanages intentionally subject children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money. Equally concerning is that the constant arrivals and departures of volunteers is being linked to attachment disorders among orphan children. In these voluntourism schemes we seem to have lost perspective of how to be effective in helping communities overseas.

To reap the benefits of volunteering, the experience needs to be immersive. One has to be able to gain intimate knowledge of the country and its people. The role of training, preparation, and support that the volunteers need in-country is equally important. But perhaps most importantly, the opportunity has to be bi-directional. That is, the volunteer has as much to learn from the local community as the community does from the volunteer. And not only in terms of being culturally sensitive but also in familiarizing oneself with societal problems plaguing the host country. If we truly want to have local impact, we should give pause and re-orient international service towards its original mandate.  

Without a doubt, our world today needs the “army” of civilian volunteers that John F. Kennedy envisioned. But let’s do it through avenues that help, not damage, the contexts to which we proffer our time.

Dr. Mitra K. Shavarini

Executive Director, WorldTeach