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Between volunteer trips abroad and consumer products that 'give back', there are seemingly plenty of ways for young people to promote change. The problem is, these avenues are often ineffective and risk confusing young people to believe that change can be made through ethical shopping and vacationing.
One of this biggest purveyors of this sort of ineffective consumption based activism, is the group WE Days, which is meeting this week in Los Angeles.
WE Days, are put on by Me to We, a Canadian for-profit social enterprise that that amongst many of its initiatives, sell 'consumer products that give back', and offer volunteer tourism trips where young people can participate in development projects abroad.
WE Days are concert-like events that bring together student leaders, activists and celebrities with the goal of mobilizing young people to take action against poverty and social injustice. The day consists of thousands of student leaders wearing WE Day paraphernalia, piling into stadiums and listening to inspirational speakers tell their stories about contributing to positive social change.
Through events like these, Me to We aims to shift from "ME thinking to WE acting".
Being a young person (college senior) who wants to make a positive impact, I have attended my share of WE Days over the years. I watched Demi Lovato speak about bullying and listened to Mikhail Gorbachev reflect about peace building and change making. I was initially seduced by the WE day story—I loved the idea that I, as a young person, could simply decide to change the world.
It goes without saying that WE days have inspired young people like myself. But the problem is, WE days promote the myth that caring and good intentions are enough to bring about real change.
For example, here is what Me to We says about its international travel: "on your me to we trip you will change the world" and "create lasting change in the communities you visit."
Really? That's a pretty big claim, almost too good to be true. But what does a high school student in Canada or the US know about construction work in India? What do they know about spurring economic growth in Kenya?
In reality, untrained students can actually create as many problems they hope to alleviate. Volunteer tourism, for example in the form of volunteering at Cambodian orphanages, has been shown to undermine local employment, increase family separation and create attachment disorders in orphaned children. In extreme cases, orphanage tourism can even increase the rate of child sexual exploitation.
The problem of misusing orphans and orphanages in the name of helping is so great that UNICEF is supporting Friends-International's campaign to end orphanage tourism in Cambodia.
That American and Canadian young people get caught up in these sorts of schemes is not all their fault. Seemingly respectable organizations like Me to We Days invest a lot in promoting orphanage trips.
In an article on voluntourism, specialist on foreign aid Jacob Kushner wrote, “Easing global poverty... requires hard, sustained work, and expertise. Even the experts sometimes get it wrong. Critics of the Red Cross’s post-earthquake work in Haiti argue that the half a billion dollars the organization raised for disaster relief was largely misspent. Multimillion-dollar projects undertaken by the U.S. government ultimately failed to help Haiti export its mangos or complete a new building for Haiti’s Parliament on time. If smart, dedicated professionals can fail to achieve lasting progress over a period of years, how then is an untrained vacationer supposed to do so in a matter of days?"
Don't get me wrong, I am all for empowering young people to believe that they can make change in the world. But the problem with WE days, is they skip the hard step of political education and instead, encourage young people to jump straight into action.
Education is necessary for building real change. But here a further problem arises. The complex structures of economic exploitation and social exclusion that lead to suffering very often implicate, alas, American and Canadian companies.
If we are serious about violence and poverty in the DRC we need to look at the oil and mining companies that operate there and how they contribute to these problems.
We need to show how Canada's large carbon footprint is contributing to rising sea levels in Bangladesh. We need to explain how unfair trade agreements with Haiti have undermined their agricultural sector.
If we hope to raise a generation capable of taking on the world's challenges, we need to explain why poverty exists. We must impress on young people that social justice is not a one-time pursuit or purchase, but rather a life-long struggle.
That’s how we make real change makers—not by congratulating them for attending a concert, buying bracelets made in Kenya, or taking selfies with orphans but by showing them how difficult progressive change can be and inspiring them to pursue it anyways. That's how we really move from 'me' to 'we'.Read More
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