Having been involved in the volunteer industry for a while, the good, bad and downright ugly issues and discussions fascinate me. It is a controversial topic with people often focusing on either the positives or negatives of volunteering and voluntourism. Before I get into the topic, I am going to address the two terms that are often interlinked and used interchangeably. By definition;
Volunteers give up their time to support others less fortunate. Volunteering is usually done at, or at least close to, home.
Voluntourists combine volunteering and tourism. They act as global citizens, members of a global community, giving their time to support others less fortunate. In these cases, the volunteering involves travelling somewhere overseas.
I am going to use the term voluntouring as that is what the social enterprise I am involved in, Global Handprints, provides; a combination of helping out in a new community while traveling somewhere away from home. Despite it being one of today’s fastest growing trends, there is still a lot of negativity surrounding voluntourism. Tell someone you’re going to help out in a local shelter and chances are, they are interested. Tell them you’re jumping on a plane to spend time in a school in Africa, and negative comments are often thrown around.
Isn’t it better to send money? Why do you have to pay to give up your time? Why don’t you get involved in a local project? What skills do you have that trump those of local people? Are you really going to make a difference to someone’s life? What will you get from the experience? How will anyone else benefit? Aren’t you just highlighting the differences between cultures?
Over a series of blog posts, I will look at
- The pros and cons of voluntourism
- The concept of short term voluntouring and what it specifically means
- What you should look for when choosing a volunteer organisation
- How to know you and the organisation you’ve picked, are ‘doing it right’
- Why you should be a voluntourist.
There are some very varied opinions out there on whether voluntourism is a positive or negative thing. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as ‘all voluntoruism is good or bad’
Firstly, lets talk about the good, the concept of voluntourism; why there’s potentially nothing wrong with it and why it doesn’t deserve ALL the negative press it gets. As with everything, there is much to consider and, most importantly voluntourism is only beneficial when it is done right. And by right, I mean right for all parties. The communication between organisations, volunteers and community members must be multi directional and fluid. That way, all parties benefit from the time spent with each other while openly communicating exactly what it is that they need.
“The fight for justice has never been easy. But human history has always been shaped by the courageous actions taken by those with a vision of a better world…As Global Citizens, we stand against the greatest injustice of our time: extreme poverty. We’re fighting because we know that a world that deprives 1.2 billion people of their basic rights and opportunities is unjust, and unacceptable. We’re fighting because we know that we must be the ones to do something about it.” Global Citizen.
As part of today’s society we are all working towards globalisation. We are Global Citizens, we interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds on a daily basis. How can this happen if there are no shared experiences to learn from? If we have no way to learn from the lives of others or to share each other’s experiences and ideas on a global scale?
As I touched on, volunteering at home is not often seen as negative. So, if the benefits of volunteering can be combined with travel too, where’s the harm in that? Why does it suddenly become detrimental? Not only do you get all the ‘plusses’ of volunteering but you get them while in new places, surrounded by new people and immersed in a new culture. At the same time, you’re being exposed to all these fundamental life differences and, in situations like that, it’s hard not to look at our values and beliefs and compare and contrast them to others. Simultaneously, the people and communities you volunteer learn new skills and strategies they may not otherwise be exposed to. They have the chance to share their expertise with you, work loads are lightened and new friendships formed.
Travel has long since broken down barriers between countries and cultures, enabling us to see and feel more. Voluntourism goes that step further. It allows us to experience and become involved in other people’s lives, and them in ours. It takes us right into the communities and cultures we travel to find out more about. It stops us from being onlookers but turns us into active participants. Whether this is for a short time, long time or permanently, it changes us. It changes how we see the world, what we share with the world and breaks down the barriers. I challenge you to find someone who has volunteered overseas and who didn’t return home having changed, at least a little…
With social media being such a large part of most people’s daily lives, it’s so easy for us to read about, or see pictures from around the world. We are becoming more and more socially conscious. We are aware of what happens elsewhere and our moral compasses realise the injustice of the differences occurring between countries. Now that the world is accessible, we want to get involved. We don’t want to sit back and just be witnesses to what’s happening around the world.
We want to have opportunities to make a difference, coming home being able to say
“We collected data to enable food sharing programs to function well / helped a High School child perfect their essay writing skills / fixed and painted classroom benches so children don’t have to sit on the floor”.
Yes, that’s the selfish aspect, we want to feel better about ourselves but really, that’s human nature. Who doesn’t enjoy success and accomplishment? If that success comes in the form of helping others, why is that seen as wrong? It’s about both big and small things and the big changes don’t happen without the little steps that lead to them. We have the power to make the little steps happen, whether that’s at home or overseas. And yes, while doing that, we get something for ourselves too.
So, with the idea of effective voluntourism being so positive, why is there such a stigma attached across the board? Have you ever taken part in voluntourism? What are your thoughts, is it a good thing or detrimental? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.
This post first appeared on the Global Handprints blog which can be seen here and is reproduced with permission.
Global Handprints was established to provide opportunities for volunteering at a grass roots level within communities that receive little, or no, outside help. The focus is on what these people get from the projects and how they benefit from having volunteers being involved with what they are doing. The communities retain ownership over the projects Global Handprints works with. Volunteers help make various projects run more smoothly, operate well and have the biggest impact they can to meet the need(s) the community has identified. Volunteers identify their areas of skill and expertise and bring passion and enthusiasm with them, ready to get stuck in and lend a hand where it is needed. Global Handprints works hard to make sure their voluntour opportunities do exactly what they say they will for the people involved – both the volunteers and members of the communities.
Photos credits: Global Handprints.