Sustainability Series: Learning Series with co-author Claire Bennet

  1. What is Learning Service?


Learning Service is an approach to volunteer travel that is aimed at reducing the unintentional harm and increasing its positive benefits. The term is an inversion of “service-learning”, which is what volunteering is often called in academic settings – because we believe that for effective volunteering, “learning” needs to come first. This means not rushing into action as soon as you land in a country, but taking the time to explore and understand the complex issues facing that place and seeing where your skill set best fits. We wrote a book to guide people through this process calledLearning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.


  1. How important is responsible tourism and how can everybody incorporate this into their traveling?


Responsible tourism is fundamental for anyone who wishes to not inadvertently cause harm through their travels. The question of how to do it is obviously huge, but if I had to identify an underlying factor I would say that cultivating awareness is key. This means taking the time to understand the culture of the place you are visiting, spending time (and money) in local places with local people, and taking steps to minimize the social and environmental impacts of your visit.


  1. What are the most common issues you have come across with volunteering around the world?


Uncovering some of the issues with volunteering, of “good intentions gone awry”, was one of the main motivations behind writing the Learning Service book. We felt that it was important for people to know that volunteering can sometimes do damage and what they could do to avoid that.

The most shocking issues involve how volunteer travel can harm children. Short term volunteers have been known to cause more problems than they solve when interacting directly with vulnerable children overseas. Children need to form long-term attachments with stable caregivers, unqualified volunteers are not good replacements for that. Furthermore, there is now evidence from around the world that demand by tourists and volunteers to have experiences directly with children has fueled what is now known as “orphanage trafficking” – children that have parents being funneled into orphanages as tourist attractions.

While this is an extreme example, it is indicative of the issues that arise when there is a profit incentive in volunteering. People willing to pay for a certain type of volunteer experience means that unscrupulous individuals can set up opportunities that cater to the demand – fake animal sanctuaries, projects that paint the same wall over and over again, and medical volunteering for those with no health background – all fall into this category. This is why it is hugely important to take the time to ensure you are volunteering ethically.


  1. Tell us about your experience volunteering


I first volunteered abroad when I was 19 when I went to Nepal to teach English (hint: I was not and still am not a qualified teacher). What that experience did do however, was kick start an interest in how to “give back better”, that has involved me working in development, in travel and in education. Around 10 years later I went to Cambodia on a professional volunteer placement, where I worked with a rural livelihoods organization for 2.5 years, which was a very different experience. Although during all this time I have witnessed many of the problems with international volunteering, I still believe in its power to do good when done well, and I am still involved with regular volunteer work today.


  1. Where do you see the future of responsible tourism and volunteering heading?


What I hope for is that we will no longer have to use the term “responsible” when talking about volunteering because that will be automatically built in. At Learning Service we have been trying to build understanding of what responsible volunteering looks like through education, and influence both demand (from the travelers) and supply (the providers). There is slowly an awareness growing that I hope in the future will stamp out bad practice and lead to an era of more mindful and ethical engagement.

Claire Bennett is a co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, which is full of more advice and questions to ask about international volunteering. You can find out more about Learning Service from their website: or follow them on Facebook,Twitter or Instagram.

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