I spent a few days this week doing reconnaissance in China for a school camp that will be held in November. A service orientated trip, it will allow students an opportunity to have some fun while doing some good work with the go2serve foundation in southern China. In setting up some of the activities we needed to keep in mind the power of service – both positive and negative. Despite the best intentions, at times what is framed as service by international school students can actually create harm. When service does not involve the community that it is intended to benefit in the planning or the process, when visitors fly in, do some ‘work’ and then leave feeling good about themselves, more harm than good can be created. This can develop a mentality of seeing those in need as hopeless by those doing the ‘service’, where members of these communities can be blamed for their condition. Service on trips, especially international ones, must be well planned, and must involve the target communities in all stages of the process. It must be a ‘working together’ relationship, rather than a ‘working for’ one.
Related to this, here is an excerpt from an article I read recently that nicely sums up my position:
Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.