Short-term group visits overseas: Playgrounds for the rich or a real chance to learn?

27th January 2015 - by James Trewby

Find out more about our work on:

During a recent session with a confirmation group, one young lady told me that in the future she hopes to take part in a sixth-form trip “to a country like Africa and help, by building a school”.


While her desire to serve others should be celebrated, statements like this set my alarm bells ringing. There are various things which need critical exploration – Africa being a continent not a country, the chance to consider the roles of justice and charity, the assumption that her building skills are required. In this article I’d like to concentrate on the growing phenomenon of groups from the UK travelling to developing countries to ‘do’ things.

These are getting more and more popular – many schools, colleges, church groups and universities organise groups to take part in activities such as building, working with children or ecological projects. The government has invested in a similar approach through its International Citizenship Service. Generally speaking, such groups are made up of people aged between 16 and 20-something and last for two to four weeks.

Criticisms and questions

These trips, while undoubtedly rooted in good intentions, have received criticism. There are a variety of questions about the cost. If the intention is to ‘help’, couldn’t the money simply be given and do more good? What about the environmental cost of all the flying involved? What cost is there for the communities who host the visiting groups – do they benefit enough from the experience to make it worthwhile to them?

The argument in favour is that visits like this offer an incredible learning opportunity. Participants get a first-hand experience of another culture, opening their eyes to the world outside of their usual experience. This might include learning about poverty and injustice, widening their understanding of faith in action or about other cultures and religions. But such high quality learning cannot be assumed. Research has suggested that some visits do nothing but reconfirm preconceptions. Some young people return feeling that they have now ‘done their bit’ – and there’s therefore no reason to let their experience overseas influence their life at home. Others just use the developing world as a chance to stretch their wings, have some fun and develop their CVs, perhaps while ‘playing’ at being a missionary or development worker.

Encouraging real learning

For me, as a Justice and Peace Education Worker, these trips are only justifiable if there’s real learning leading to an ongoing commitment. I’m not saying that every returnee needs to become a Columban Missionary or work for an
NGO, but I want to encourage well-planned educational experiences. Previously, coordinating the Salesians’ overseas volunteering organisation (, I saw that visits can be valuable ingredients for learning – so many returned volunteers are now engaged with justice and peace issues.

So what can leaders do to ensure learning takes place? We in the Columbans are looking at this from two angles. In the near future we will be leading our own short term mission exposure trips to visit Columban works around the world. But we also want to help existing groups, supporting them in planning a wider ‘scheme of work’ which incorporates preparation, the time overseas and follow-up.


  • Exploration of motivations for participation, including misconceptions about who the main beneficiaries of the experience will be.
  • Thinking about where and how participants have developed their perceptions of poverty, charity and injustice, and critically engaging with these.
  • Considering how they will tell others about their experience, including the images and language.
  • Helping participants see themselves as learners – and understanding what this commitment entails before, during and after the experience.

While away:

  • Activities which frame participants as learners (rather than teachers or ‘doers’), such as through cooking or language lessons.
  • Time for reflection.
  • Exposure to multiple perspectives, for example visiting an expensive hotel as well as a project for orphans – and
    listening to a range of voices and opinions at both.
  • Encouraging personal encounters, being particularly careful to give participants chances to relate to people outside of their home-nation group. Possible ways to do this include home stays and spending time with a similarly-aged local group.

After return:

  • Time for individual and group reflection.
  • Helping participants to identify what they have learned through the experience (about themselves, about their own culture, about another culture, about poverty, etc.).
  • Explicitly challenging participants to make commitments in response to their trip (which may include but should not be limited to fundraising).
  • Animating, supporting and celebrating participants’ ongoing engagement with related issues.

Recently I have been piloting preparation materials with a group of young people at Loreto College in Manchester who are soon to visit communities in India. Feedback from staff and students suggests that they have found our time together useful. I’m keen to do more along these lines, particularly supporting leaders in planning and preparing visits, and helping returnees to reflect on their experiences. If you would like any more information about this please contact me at