"You can't buy a ticket to We Day. You have to earn it!"
That was the phrase that was repeated over and over to a screaming audience of 12,000 teenagers and pre-teens who were all crammed into Wembley Stadium last week for the UK's first ever We Day.
We Day is an annual "youth empowerment" event organised by international charity Free The Children held across cities in Canada and the US since 2007. Founded by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger, the day aims to "empower, educate, and above all, inspire." The day is supposed to mark the start of a year-long educational initiative for students to participate in Free the Children's campaigns, which raise awareness and funds for local and international projects.
This year, for the first time, the Kielburger brothers decided to enlighten and empower the UK's children. Young people were treated to empowering speech after speech from the likes of Jamal Edwards, Malala Yousafazi, Richard Branson, Al Gore and countless other CEOs of We Day's corporate partners who sold the crowd inspiration while also selling their own brands.
While the day was meant to be an opportunity to inspire a generation to become global and active citizens, the message that the day purported revealed a dark side to our desire to help those in the developing world.
The narrative of We Day was summed up by the tools used to promote their two-week Me to We educational trips. On the day young people were offered a 'once in a life time trip' to see India, 'a chance to see Bollywood in real life,' a chance to 'be overwhelmed with the aroma of samosas cooking in street stalls' and last and certainly least, to build a school, all for the low price of £3,000. The videos used to promote the trip showed a pretty white teenager going to a developing country and being embraced by nature. She carries a few bricks to build a school, plays with some local children, laughs with the elders of the community and "finds herself" after being thanked by the locals. "It's a life changing experience," the audience is told. But only for you.
The trip offers the naively romantic idea of doing good alongside experiencing a different culture, all while staying in westernised accommodation. It's sole purpose is to make those traveling feel good about themselves and does nothing for the communities they seek to help. In every sense it is poverty tourism and does more damage than good.
The hard truth that short-term volunteer projects actually do more harm than good has been brought to light in recent years with many reports highlighting the damage that these projects can have on the local community. Wealthy western tourists who pay to go to developing countries to build schools and work in orphanages prevent local workers from much-needed jobs; waste the time and efforts of the institutions they travel with as they are constantly having to upgrade facilities and security; and vulnerable children who have often been abused or abandoned become attached to these tourists, who add to their trauma when they up and go home.
The disturbing world of voluntourism has been criticised by many development charities such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a charity that offers professionals the chance to utilise their skills abroad, who denounce that this growing industry is a new form of colonialism. Other charities such as Progressio question the right that unqualified and untrained British teenagers have to teach at schools in developing countries, and in their programme that they deliver as part of the International Citizen Service, they encourage young people who travel not to teach as it is "unsustainable," and fails to empower local communities.
Going back to We Day, while Free the Children claimed to value community and collective action, there was no mention of it on the day. Instead impressionable young minds were bombarded with the idea that they can make a real difference to development just by spending a few weeks at a school or an orphanage.
We Day can be commended for its call to action. The desire to change and engage with the world through volunteering is honourable. However, the message being delivered needs to be examined more carefully. Unless young people have the transferable skills needed to aid development, it may be better off for them simply to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries.