Combining Experiential Learning with Critical Global Citizenship Education

By Melissa Godin, a Masters student and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in the Department of International Development. She is the founder of Not a Savior, an advocacy campaign that aims to raise awareness about the potentially damaging effects of volunteer tourism on local development (click here for podcast).

It was your standard, run-of-the-mill, extra-curricular fair that was held in the high school lobby. The same thirty-odd students who had been organizing philanthropic initiatives since middle school sat behind their booths, trying to capture the attention of their classmates. Though some students were simply there to accumulate leadership experience for university applications, many others had invested their hearts and spirits into the cause they had adopted, making their unanswered pleas for action all the more tragic.

Whether it was local initiatives to collect litter from the beach, or initiatives to raise money for schools in Africa, the turn-out for each booth was predictable. Students stood around mainly to chat with their friend who sat behind the booth, while the occasional younger student would shyly approach to write their name on the sign-up sheet. For the most part, students were not interested in joining a club run by someone else; no one wanted to be an unrecognized worker for a project whose face belonged to another student.

There was one booth, though, that always got the largest turn-out—the service trip stand. Run by a teacher at the school, the table was filled with brochures that promised humanitarian adventures around the globe. Students—many of whom had never engaged with a social issue beyond the UNICEF penny box they had sported around their necks as children on Halloween—stood in the longest line at the fair to sign up for volunteer tourism trips abroad.

During spring and summer breaks, a select group of privileged students would travel to exotic locations around the world, that would be carefully documented on social media.  Photos of safari trips, museum visits, and pictures with starving African children, whose names most students did not know—in an album always unoriginally titled ‘Africa take me back’—would litter Facebook feeds long after the trips had ended. But upon returning home from their ‘noble’, two-week trips to the Global South, many students returned to their former states of passivity and disengagement.

At the school’s end-of-year award ceremony, every student who had participated in a volunteer trip was presented with a ‘Global Citizen Leadership Award’, an honour otherwise only attainable for students who made long-term commitments to leadership initiatives. Standing alongside the students whose booths they had ignored, the school’s volunteer tourists stood proudly as a crowd of parents and teachers applauded in recognition of their hard work.

What is ‘Global Citizenry’?

Since I started researching and writing on volunteer tourism, I have often encountered individuals who believe volunteer tourism is a valuable and important practice. Though some acknowledge that volunteer tourism can negatively affect local communities by disturbing labour markets, perpetuating cultural stereotypes, and harming child psychological development, many maintain that volunteer tourism is a redeemable practice because it turns individuals into ‘global citizens’.

Though the term ‘global citizen’ is constantly thrown around in conversations about service learning and change-making, its definition is ambiguous and ill-defined. Though global citizenship is frequently identified as a goal of education, there is little consensus about what the term truly entails (Lexier & Rathburn). This rings true in the context of volunteer and service learning, where ‘global citizenry’ is often a concept vaguely associated with travel, cultural exchange, and often, a visitation of poorer places.

The Canadian organization Me to We, for instance, promotes its trips on the basis that they “have a habit of creating global citizens” yet the organization fails to provide a meaningful definition or understanding of what constitutes a global citizen (Me to We, 2017). On their information page for parents and guardians, Me to We characterizes their global citizen forming trips as follows:

“Your child wants to embark on a journey to change the world. We promise that it will be much more than a stamp in their passport. It will be a one-of-a-kind, life-changing experience! Not only will your son or daughter meet new people and explore new cultures, it will also be a voyage of self-discovery, serving as a meaningful rite of passage on the path to adulthood. ME to WE Trips have a habit of creating global citizens (Me to We, 2017).”

The question remains, however, what characterizes this habit of creating global citizens? ‘Self-discovery’ through travel? Meeting new people and exploring new cultures? Is it the act of ‘embarking on a journey to change the world’?

Despite the evident ambiguity of ‘global citizenship’, people are increasingly identifying with the term particularly amongst the millennial generation who are often characterized as being socially conscious and globally minded (Fox, 2011)(Thompson, 2016). Because of this, participating in the fight against global poverty is undeniably inter-tangled with a vague notion of global citizenship. This is exemplified in a video published by the organization Global Citizen, in which global citizens are identified as “the path to ending extreme poverty”.

Volunteer tourists are likely labelled global citizens because of their engagement with poverty abroad.  The problem, however, is the false expectation that volunteering abroad leads to an understanding of poverty—There is an assumption that experience equals understanding. This conflation of seeing poverty and comprehending it, however, is misguided. By simply volunteering in Haiti, for instance, an individual will not necessarily grasp that malnourishment throughout the country can be largely attributed to unfair trade agreements that have led to the collapse of the Haitian agricultural system. By teaching English to a hungry child, a volunteer will not necessarily comprehend that food aid has run local Haitian farmers out of the market, who can no longer compete with subsidized or free food products from the US (Ritchie, 2016) (Weber, 2016).  In my research, I have found that if volunteers’ experiences are not connected to pedagogy and reflection, it is likely volunteers will not be exposed to how economic, historical, and political factors have led to that child’s hunger. They will simply see a hungry child.

A 21st century notion of ‘global citizenship’ thus cannot be ambiguous and vaguely related to ideas of travel, cultural exchange, and serving. For ‘global citizenship’ to truly be a kind of bridging between cultures—or a ‘path to ending extreme poverty’—its definition must be more nuanced and its practice, more critical.

Critical Global Citizenship

In Vanessa Andreotti’s “Soft Versus Critical Global Citizenship Education”, she aims to create a more precise definition of what global citizenship education should look like. She argues that “in order to understand global issues, a complex web of cultural and material local/global processes and contexts needs to be examined and unpacked” (Andreotti, 2006). She refers to this kind of education as ‘critical global citizenship’ education that differs from more mainstream ways of learning about social change which she labels ‘soft global citizenship education.’ Andreotti argues that this soft education is dangerous as it encourages people to believe that they can change the world simply by caring enough. Andreotti argues that if we fail to,

“Address the economic and cultural roots of the inequalities in power and wealth/labour distribution in a global complex and uncertain system…we may end up promoting a new ‘civilising mission’, as the slogan for a generation who take up the ‘burden’ of saving/educating/civilising the world” (Andreotti, 2006).

This ‘civilising mission’ is problematic because it can lead to cultural misunderstanding and the perpetuation of unequal power relations. In their article, “The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism,” Raymond and Hall similarly suggest that the current model for volunteer tourism—whereby the western volunteer plays the ‘saviour’—undermines the potential for genuine cross-cultural exchange (Raymond & Hall, 2008). They write:

“Existing literature has provided an optimistic view of volunteer tourism, suggesting that it represents a more reciprocal form of tourism and facilitates the development of cross-cultural understanding among participants. However, more recently, it has been argued that if volunteer tourism programs are not carefully managed, they may lead to cross-cultural misunderstanding and the reinforcement of cultural stereotypes” (Raymond & Hall, 2008).

When programs’ missions do not incorporate understanding of history, culture and structural inequality, they risk replicating notions of otherness when it comes to participants understanding people from different cultures. Perhaps more dangerously, these programs risk creating incomplete understanding of why inequality exists and how it can be solved.

Andreotti identifies in a chart (below) the fundamental differences between the outcomes of these two understandings of global citizenry (Andreotti, 2006).

As the table shows, while soft global critical education is predominantly concerned with inspiring individuals to act without critical analysis of poverty and inequality, critical global citizenship aims to craft thoughtful, mindful, and self-aware individuals who recognize their own individual, cultural, or national complicity in poverty and inequality. Critical global citizenship education thus inherently involves confronting power relations—the historical and structural inequalities that privileged students are often surprised to realize they have benefitted from.

Volunteer tourism, on the other hand, is visiting the scene of historical and structural inequality’s crime; it’s about going to Haiti and speaking with that farmer who lost his job because of food aid or hearing about his family’s painful experience under colonialism. Witnessing this poverty, however, without a historical and economic understanding of the Western forces that have produced it, can lead to this poverty being fundamentally misinterpreted and misunderstood (Bruhn & Gallego, 2006).

Critical Global Citizenship Education in Action: A Case Study

While I was travelling in Guatemala, I researched the Canadian organization, Operation Groundswell (OG) which incorporates a kind of critical global citizenship into its volunteer tourism experience. Central to OG’s programs, is education on how foreign governments, enterprises, and NGOs have and continue to perpetuate problems of inequality. Rather than assuming development aid is always helpful, the OG programs aim to challenge participants “to think deeply and critically about what it means to make a difference” (Operation Groundswell, 2014).

Rather than make fake promises to its participants that they will be able to truly make a difference in a community, OG facilitates an ‘Impact Chat’ before the trip where all participants read Daniela Papi Thornton’s What Can Go Wrong When Trying to do Right? an essay about the potential for international volunteering to do more harm than good. The goal is to discuss the various issues associated with ‘ethical’ tourism and try to set reasonable expectations for what an unqualified individual can actually do in two, four, or even six weeks (Sanderson & Sampson, 2017). The critical global citizenship education begins before the trip has even started.

OG has a core curriculum that consists of four main pillars: power & privilege, cultural literacy, environmental sustainability, and solidarity.  OG tries to allow participants to realize how they themselves are complicit in systems of inequality. In Guatemala, in particular, OG tries to have its participants understand the ways in which the country continues to be suppressed by foreign powers. As program manager Ben Sampson said,

“Guatemala is not ‘less developed’ just because of its history, but because of an active process of discrimination that is playing itself out—community voices are being squashed in the face of foreign interests. It’s about realizing that to allow Guatemala to self-determine its development, we have to remove ourselves from this process” (Sanderson & Sampson, 2017).

OG does not simply discuss issues of foreign interests, but actually brings its participants to witness its impact on communities. For instance, participants are taken to San Marcos, a mineral-rich part of Guatemala that has been heavily exploited by some Canadian mining companies. Participants speak with locals about how their livelihood has been ruined by these companies, many of whom did not include locals in a conversation about their work in the region. Consequently, towns in San Marcos have been polluted and in some cases, destroyed (Working Group on Mining and Human Rights in Latin America). Participants are thus “introduced to the economic, social and environmental impacts of mining” and are faced with the harsh realities that companies from their home countries can perpetuate development problems abroad (Operation Groundswell, 2014). British political author Andrew Dobson argues that young people need to recognize a “causal responsibility” or complicity with inequality and poverty in other countries (Dobson , 2006). Dobson believes that this “causal responsibility” should inspire a feeling of political obligation that encourages engagement for justice (Dobson , 2006). Through activities like the mining visits, OG aims to help participants recognize this ‘causal responsibility.’

In order to understand a place, you have to understand its history and the kinds of power relations that have created or perpetuated inequality. As we see with OG, when critical global citizenship education is combined with experiential learning opportunities like volunteer tourism it can serve as a form of political education. This dual engagement helps participants understand that the poverty they are witnessing is a result of structural and historical inequality, while also allowing them to connect with the emotional hardships of economic suffering through cultural exchange opportunities.

Plugging in the Next Generation

Volunteer tourism programs that adopt ‘soft global citizenship education’ or unaccompanied experiential learning opportunities may promote the disillusioned idea that good intentions alone can bring about change.

The reality, however, is that becoming a real change-maker and critical global citizen is a continual journey. As Andreotti argues, it’s a long process of ‘learning to unlearn’; It’s about “learning to perceive that what one considers as neutral and objective is a perspective and is related to where one is coming from socially, historically and culturally “ (Andreotti & de Souza, Through Other Eyes: learning to read the world, 2007). It’s a process in which individuals will inevitably be disappointed and discouraged in their attempts to bring about change. But this process—this series of things that people go through to become politically conscious and civically engaged—is crucial. These stages are necessary in crafting thoughtful and nuanced understandings of political systems and development issues. Omitting critical global citizenship education is dangerous. As Andreotti states, “if educators are not ‘critically literate’ to engage with assumptions and implications/limitations of their approaches, they run the risk of (indirectly and unintentionally) reproducing the systems of belief and practices that harm those they want to support” (Andreotti, 2006).

Volunteer tourism models are problematic when they skip the steps of critical global citizenship education and political awakening necessary and instead jumps straight into action. Rather, volunteer tourism should focus on ‘unlearning’ assumptions about the world and learning about structural and historical inequalities. These kinds of volunteer tourism programs can be a part of the process of creating politically conscious individuals. One does not go from being a totally apolitical high schooler to leading movements like Occupy that require an intricate understanding of economic systems; they have to work their way up and educational volunteer tourism programs can facilitate that process.

Many OG participants whom I interviewed, were heavily involved in activism and civic engagement years after their trips. Some participants had become involved in local politics, while others were promoting sustainable business practices abroad. All of them were able to identify the ways in which their OG trips pushed them to be more self-aware leaders who recognized the power relations at play as well as their privilege and ‘causal responsibility’ in the issues they aim to alleviate.

If done right, volunteer tourism programs have the opportunity to plug the next generation into politics, activism, and development in a very different, critical, and nuanced way. And with over 10 million young, impressionable people going on these trips every year, volunteer tourism programs have a powerful opportunity to help raise a generation of critical global citizens  (Popham, 2015).


Works Cited

Andreotti, V. (2006). Soft Versus Critical Global Citizenship Education. Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review.

Andreotti, V., & de Souza, L. M. (2007, January). Through Other Eyes: learning to read the world. Global Education Derby.

Bruhn , M., & Gallego, F. A. (2006). Good, Bad, and Ugly Colonial Activities: Do They Matter for Economic Development? The World Bank.

Dobson , A. (2006, January 26). Thick Cosmopolitanism. Political Studies, 54(1), 165–184.

Fox, H. (2011). Their Highest Vocation: Social Justice and the Millennial Generation. Peter Lang Inc, International Academic Publishers; First printing edition.

Global Citizen. (2012, July 26). What is a global citizen? Retrieved from Global Citizen:

Grimley, N. (2016, April 28). Identity 2016: ‘Global citizenship’ rising, poll suggests. BBC.

Hartman, E. (n.d.). Why UNICEF and Save the Children are Against Your Short-Term Service in Orphanages. Globalsl.

Kushner, J. (2016, March 22). The Voluntourist’s Dilemma. The New York Times Magazine.

Lexier, R., & Rathburn, M. (n.d.). Global Citizenship In a Canadian Context.

Me to We. (2017). For Parents and Guardians. (WE Charity) Retrieved from Me to We:

Operation Groundswell. (2014). Backpacking with a Purpose. Retrieved from Operation Groundswell:

Papi, D. (2012, July 17). Voluntourism: What Could Go Wrong When Trying To Do Right? Huff Post.

Popham, G. (2015, June). Boom in ‘voluntourism’ sparks concerns over whether the industry is doing good. Reuters.

Raymond, E. M., & Hall, M. C. (2008). The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism. Journal of Sustainable tourism.

Ritchie, H. (2016, February 19). Beyond Good Intentions: Tweaking the Buy One, Give One Model. Retrieved from Sustainable Brands: The Bridge to Better Brands:

Sanderson, C., & Sampson, B. (2017, January 13). Operation Groundswell Guatemala Hub Interview. (M. Godin, Interviewer)

Thompson, D. (2016, February 29). The Liberal Millennial Revolution. The Atlantic.

Weber, M. R. (2016, May 27). An interview with a Haitian peanut butter entrepreneur. Retrieved from Poverty Inc:

Working Group on Mining and Human Rights in Latin America. (n.d.). The impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility.

Zane, D. (2016, May 1). Barbie challenges the ‘white saviour complex’. BBC.



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