Comment Editor Esther Purves praises the newly founded charity Learning By Heart, commending the non-profit for the way that it subverts problematic volunteering trends
The culture of volunteering, particularly volunteering with organisations that work overseas, has, in the last five years, come under increasing amounts of scrutiny. And rightfully so; the industry of volunteering with overseas organisations has, in many cases, skillfully combined tourism and volunteering, now coined as ‘voluntourism,’ to market overseas volunteering experiences to young adults looking to expand their horizons and gain some perspective. The ethical implications of this have long since been discussed on a variety of media platforms, with the overarching conclusion being that voluntourism ‘focuses more on feeling good, than doing good.’
While most people like to complain and point out the flaws of the voluntourism industry, myself included, there are few suggestions as to how the international volunteering industry can be improved, particularly if it is to continue encouraging the same demographic (young adults) to volunteer. It was, then, to my delight that I was asked to write a piece on the newly founded charity Learning By Heart, which presents itself as a model non-profit that works against the harmful practices of typical international volunteering organisations.
Founded in 2020 by Naomi Green, a student at Durham University, Learning By Heart certainly offers a fresh take on volunteering with charities who work overseas. The non-profit offers a tutoring service, where volunteer tutors will give up their time in order to tutor students on a variety of subjects. Students can donate to Learning By Heart on a ‘pay as you feel basis,’ and 100% of the proceeds go to CAMFED. Those who volunteer and those who are tutored remain in the UK while CAMFED uses the profits from Learning By Heart to work on the ground in pan-African countries.
CAMFED, the campaign for female education, is a pan-African movement aiming to revolutionise the way that female education is delivered. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 52.2 million girls are out of education. CAMFED believes that ‘education changes everything’, acting as a springboard out of poverty. As Nicholas Kristof observes, ‘girls’ education may be the highest-return investment available in the world today.’ Learning By Heart offers a safe, sustainable and innovative way for British people to get involved with CAMFED’s movement, without perpetuating the typical harmful practices associated with international volunteering.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Learning By Heart is the emphasis of a dialogue between British education needs and pan-African education needs. On their website, Learning By Heart outlines their two principle goals – ‘to foster the continuation of learning for children and adults in the UK and elsewhere during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in turn help widen access to education for girls and young women in Sub-Saharan Africa.’ In this, Learning By Heart recognises flaws exist within our education system, such as the attainment gap between students from more and less affluent backgrounds, and it strives to help students affected by these issues. In recognising an issue with the British education system, Learning By Heart does something that is practically unheard of from other volunteering organisations; it chooses not to play into saviour complexes of ‘we’re so developed and perfect, so let’s go and help people in need.’ Where some organisations choose to play into this idea of ‘giving back’ from a privileged standpoint in order to sell saviourism to volunteers, Learning By Heart chooses to work against this by finding common ground between Britain and pan-Africa.
And, indeed, the structure of Learning By Heart points further to the way that the charity provides a new model for volunteering with overseas organisations. In its emphasis on virtual volunteering, Learning By Heart not only makes the charity suitable for those who wish to volunteer during the pandemic but also demonstrates that volunteers do not need to be abroad in order to volunteer productively. This provides a direct threat to the voluntourism industry which, alongside its selling of saviourism, markets its projects based on fantastic locations. Critics of international volunteering should welcome this virtual structure provided by Learning By Heart, after it has been long proven that short-term volunteers being physically present within communities can increase community dependency and exacerbate the breaking up of families. Where voluntourism companies would argue the need for volunteers to travel abroad to volunteer, Learning By Heart shows otherwise.
In its emphasis on a ‘pay as you feel’ payment, by which students pay for the tutoring they receive from the Learning By Heart tutors, the charity further sets itself apart from many of its non-profit counterparts. Where volunteers can pay upwards of £2000 to volunteer overseas, Learning By Heart offers a platform where students can engage with and support CAMFED for less than £10 and tutors can volunteer for free. Although the students and volunteer tutors are not physically volunteering overseas, Learning By Heart presents the opportunity for students and volunteers to engage and volunteer remotely with CAMFED, which does work overseas. In this, Learning By Heart sets itself apart from those organisations that synonymise ‘volunteer’ with a huge price tag. This charity shows that volunteers can make an impact overseas for a small cost, elegantly threatening the voluntourism companies that ‘sell’ poverty to ‘volunteers’ for thousands of pounds.
For all those who wonder ‘how can volunteering for an overseas country ever be ethical?’, Learning By Heart has some answers. The charity not only provides the perfect way to have an impact overseas in the pandemic, but it presents itself as a charity that refuses to perpetuate saviourism, dependency, family divides, and poverty selling that have long been prominent features of the industry that encourages overseas volunteering. For those wanting to ensure they volunteer ethically, they need not look further than Learning By Heart.
If you wish to get involved with Learning By Heart, please visit their website here to find out more.
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