Copyright: Martin Punaks 2019

  • Martin Punaks

Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad - A Book Review

Updated: Jan 8


My well thumbed copy of Learning Service.

Learning Service claims it is radically changing the assumptions and practices of international volunteering, and Noam Chomsky describes it as an “extraordinary contribution to… what effective volunteer service looks like”. These are bold statements indeed for a book about a subject matter which not so long ago was unquestionably accepted as a positive thing to do, but in recent years has come under scrutiny for its associations with ‘white saviourdom’ and the harm it can cause to local communities. Having worked at the interface of child protection and volunteering for many years I was eager to find out for myself whether the book lives up these claims, and indeed whether it lives up to my own expectations as an existing follower of Learning Service blogs and videos.


For those new to the learning service idea, it essentially flips the North American concept of ‘service learning’ to emphasise that volunteers need to learn before they can serve. Learning is embraced as a primary purpose of a trip overseas, rather than a by-product, and service consists of humble and thoughtful action designed to do no harm. Similar to an NGO designing a development programme, until a volunteer has learned about the context in which they are operating, how can they be sure which types of action will help? By re-framing volunteering in this way, Learning Service argues that this shifts the power dynamics and re-focusses what can be measured as success on to the volunteer as much as the community. It is a philosophy which emphasises the importance of a ‘learning mindset’ through which volunteers should approach all forms of social engagement.


In the first section of the book I was immediately drawn-in by the honest admission that a person’s motives for volunteering are usually a mixture of ‘selfish’ personal development and an ‘altruistic’ desire to contribute to international development. Very importantly, the book argues that these are both valid reasons to volunteer and that they need not be in opposition to each other. In fact, being honest about your motivations and using your emotional intelligence to influence your decision making is seen as a key ingredient to successful volunteering.


The book moves on to giving a detailed account of the negative effects that some volunteering projects can have on communities. The section on orphanage volunteering and how it incentivises child trafficking and harms children’s development is particularly sobering for any prospective volunteer with dreams of saving the world. But thankfully Learning Service doesn’t give in to a gloomy Escobarian view of international development, and instead lift its readers again with a chapter dedicated to the value of international volunteering, citing solidarity and cultural exchange amongst its many benefits.


At its heart, Learning Service is a practical toolkit with advice on the types of international volunteering that are available, and how to choose an ethical placement that is right for you. Its chapter on skills-matching covers both hard and soft skills – such as empathy, patience and humility – which are aptitudes often overlooked by more technocratic approaches to volunteer placement matching. Its section on what a volunteer will experience during their volunteering placement is spot on, and brought back slightly embarrassing memories for me of getting sucked in the ‘tourist vortex’ of pizza and chocolate cake at the end of my own gap year after six months of abstinence in a small town in India. Thankfully though the authors don’t come across as preachy, and instead they are self-effacing enough to admit their own mistakes during volunteering placements in their younger years.


The final section of Learning Service is arguably the most interesting and, possibly, most important in terms of its contribution to volunteer sector thinking. Entitled ‘Action Returning Home and the Rest of Your Life’, the book explores what happens to you after a life-changing volunteer experience, and how to make meaning out of this. Part of this process is about managing the emotional rollercoaster we experience upon returning home – at one moment enjoying the feeling of your own bed and your favourite foods again, whilst the next struggling with Western guilt over a high-consumption lifestyle. The book manages this well with practical advice on how to talk to others about your volunteering experience, how to stay connected with the people and communities you befriended, and how to embed the learning you gained into your lifestyle moving forwards. It frames the volunteering experience as just the beginning of a life of social action and continual reflective learning.


So in answer to my own question: yes, Learning Service more than lives up to the bold statements made about it. It is a roadmap for anyone travelling overseas to unfamiliar environments, for expats moving between international postings, as well as for those engaged in voluntary work at home or abroad. It navigates its readers through the bombardment of emotions, moral dilemmas and practical challenges we all experience when engaging in a culture or context that is new to us. It is a philosophy that on one level is deep and thoughtful, yet on another is blindingly obvious and simple:


“Once you have learned all you can about a problem at a given time, you can create meaning by putting that learning into action. Humble, mindful, self-reflective action is the best way to continue learning, to peel back the next layer of the onion, and find out what you want to learn next, which in turn will lead to more thoughtful action”.


Read it back-to-back, or dip into it on random pages to learn about the roots of international volunteering in the Philippines, the neurological basis of reverse culture shock, or the power dynamics of love, dating and sex on a volunteering placement – none of it is a dull read!


Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad by Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher and Daniella Papi-Thornton is published by Red Press Ltd and is available from all good bookshops and through the Learning Service website.