Sciences Po, Beware the Voluntourism Trap

By September 11, 2018 No Comments

By Blythe Edwards

Illustration: Clara Pratelli


Sciences Po is a world-class university which prides itself on educating future global leaders. As a university with a strong social conscience, Sciences Po equips students with not only an academic grounding but also a drive for public service.  

Aspiring to stoke that drive for service, this year the administration rolled out the new Civic Learning Program which spans three years and is a mandatory component of the Bachelor of Arts degree program. In part, the Civic Learning Program requires a Civic Internship which students complete following their 1st undergraduate year. Students must work full time (35 hours per week) for four consecutive weeks for a “non-partisan, non-profit, or social interest organisation that benefits the community”.

The Civic Internship requirements are precise and non-negotiable. Work must be done in “direct” contact with the public concerned and cannot include “administrative and organisational tasks linked to the functioning of the host institution”.

While its goals are admirable, with an emphasis on “concrete engagements on the ground”, the Civic Internship mandates such a narrow scope of charitable action that it limits the ways in which students may actually be most helpful to struggling communities. In doing so, the Civic Learning Program promotes an outdated vision of community service which fails to take into account the worrying phenomenon of voluntourism.

With only one year of higher education in the social sciences, most Sciences Po students do not have the training necessary to engage in many aspects of direct fieldwork, which is often better left to trained professionals (teachers, doctors, carpenters, engineers), long term aid workers, or locals.

By only authorizing internships in which students interact directly with communities, Sciences Po handicaps students and the organizations they work for by not allowing the students to use their strongest skills—their writing, managerial and organizational skills which are often badly needed by those organizations. Sciences Po should encourage students to use their academic training to maximize their public service impact in areas such as fundraising, coordinating programs, and doing the back-office administrative work that forms the unglamorous but necessary backbone of most charitable organizations.

The Civic Learning Program recognises “transcending individual interest” as one of its objectives, and yet, having students dictate the terms of their engagement to host organisations is the height of privilege and individual interest. It assumes an entitlement to the frontlines of aid work for which many students are not trained or qualified.

The short duration of the internships means that many students will not be adequately trained to perform fieldwork beyond an unskilled level. And having students drop into projects for less than a month can also be problematic for the vulnerable communities they seek to serve. Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of short term intensive engagement with children who are at risk of suffering feelings of abandonment after forming bonds with a perpetual cycle of revolving-door volunteers.

Sciences Po’s pilot program appears to put greater emphasis on the student experience than on how students could assist the organizations and communities they serve. In doing so, the Civic Internship may sometimes inadvertently contribute to a condescending white saviour complex whereupon privileged individuals assume a “savior” role in relation to impoverished foreign communities they serve and, in doing so, disregard the institutional obstacles to prosperity which impede upward mobility (a particular grievance for students of political and economic science).

If the Civic Internship requirements are not reformed, Sciences Po risks contributing to the growing voluntourism industry which conflates volunteering with vacation. Voluntourist experiences are typically offered by companies which tellingly charge students to go on carefully curated volunteer trips. These companies, which often provide Instagram-perfect opportunities for students to interact with locals or engage in frontline work, are often ineffective and may even be detrimental to developing countries. Yet, when rushed to find an internship that will qualify under the current requirements of the Civic Learning Program, an expensive volunteering vacation in Bali where a student can teach English and Environmentalism to primary school students for a few weeks actually satisfies the requirements.

Living and working in other communities, whether in your home country or abroad, should be about learning, respecting the people you serve and ensuring that your service is valuable and actually benefits those communities. Sciences Po should accept a broader range of student initiatives and should emphasize the effectiveness and contribution of the internship to the organization and to the communities they serve, whether that is on the frontlines or in the back office.


Blythe Edwards is a second-year student at Sciences Po Campus de Reims. An American by birth, she is a Londoner at heart. She is the anglophone editor of the Sundial’s Travel section.

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