Giving Back: Pulse: Voluntourism 101
In 2003, when David Clemmons launched Voluntourism.org (www.voluntourism.org), a Web site to educate about volunteer travel opportunities around the world, the term “voluntourim” was known mostly to intrepid do-gooders, Peace Corps volunteers and backpackers who wanted to get involved in the far-flung communities they were visiting. But interest has been steadily growing. One of the positive impacts of Hurricane Katrina: everyone from high school seniors on Spring Break to celebs like Brad Pitt signed up for a helping-hand holiday right here in the U.S. It is estimated that 4.8 million Americans volunteered more than 120 miles from their homes in 2007, and one million volunteered internationally. And this year, the site has seen its highest Web traffic numbers to date.
One could argue that volunteer tourism has gone mainstream, though, as Clemmons knows, the learning curve is still steep. More and more travelers know that they want to give back, but they are still figuring out the most effective ways of doing so. The deeper you delve into the topic, the more questions arise: are there “right” and “wrong” ways of giving back? Does a one-time donation stand in the way of sustainable development? Are there ways to measure commitment, i.e., is a village visit when you’re staying in five-star luxury down the road enough? Where is the line between “giving back” and the ugly reality of poverty tourism? To Clemmons, it’s all about education, and the more advance research and mental preparation a traveler does before embarking on a trip that entails volunteering, the more likely he/she is to approach the topic with the right amount of sensitivity. “Voluntourism is a relatively new approach to social responsibility,” he says. “Our ways of giving are changing along with us.”
Clemmons spoke to Indagare spoke about the difference between a volunteer vacation and voluntourism and how these trips can irrevocably change a person’s thinking and world-view—turning them into true journeys of self-discovery.
What is the difference between a volunteer vacation and voluntourism?
Typically a “volunteer vacation” is a vacation that is dedicated entirely to volunteering – with no emphasis on the tourist aspects of a destination. As you can imagine, there are individuals who are drawn to such experiences for numerous reasons, like the prospect of having a potential, fully tax-deductible trip. Others seek to differentiate themselves from being a traditional “tourist.” Still others want to have a mini-“Peace Corps” engagement.
Voluntourism, on the other hand, recognizes the importance of two key factors: balance and reciprocity. A balanced engagement alternating between voluntary service and tourism activities allows for a reciprocal relationship with communities. Residents who may be recipients of voluntary service are able to return that service by sharing their destination with visitors via exposure to the arts, culture, geography, history and recreation. The economic impact of tourism is blended with the social impact of volunteering: recipients become servers and servers become recipients.
Voluntourism and volunteer vacations are hot topics at the moment, but there is also a concern about so-called “poverty tourism.” Do you feel that there is a right and a wrong way to giving back while traveling?
I tend to shy away from the terms “right” and “wrong.” I like the terms “informed” and “less-informed” or “conscious” and “less-conscious.” If one took the time to interview every single provider of services that assist travelers in “giving back,” and you did so “off-the-record,” I would be willing to bet that most individuals would tell you that the way they “gave back” in the past is not the way they do so in the present. They have become more enlightened, more evolved in their approach over time through an increasing understanding that comes directly from trial and error. The challenge occurs when we collectively believe we have arrived at the pinnacle of perfection as it relates to “giving back.” Voluntourism is an example of a relatively new approach to social responsibility, which I hope will serve as an example that encourages exploration of different ways to provide resources to residents and/or the environment throughout the world.
Do you have strong feelings on whether it is more effective to volunteer and donate time to a cause or to simply give money from abroad?
To me, these are not interchangeable, nor should they be. The amount of vulnerability involved in writing a check versus putting yourself on the front line of volunteering and donating your time is incomparable. The extension of self is far greater in the latter case. But not everyone is ready for this type of vulnerability. The “rawthentic” nature of some of these personal engagements can turn you inside out, introducing you to emotions you never knew were hiding in a remote recess of your heart.
If by “effective” you are referencing an outcome, you will likely encounter some difficulty. And here is the “why.” Suppose an individual offers money to build a school, the school is built, kids begin to use it, they go on to become more productive citizens in their community – measurable outcome. But what if the same individual travels to the destination and volunteers, two things could occur. Statistically speaking, the individual is likely to give more money, than s/he would have by simply writing a check, following her/his voluntary service effort. Second, said individual may have also learned something from the interaction that causes her/him to change behavior. One organization that has anecdotally been tracking this for nearly two decades estimates that 1 out of every 3 individuals will change personal behaviors as a result of a voluntour.
We do not know, because no longitudinal studies on voluntourists’ behavioral changes have been undertaken, what the long-term outcomes might be, even from a single trip. Could, for example, an individual begin purchasing hand-crafted and locally grown products because s/he spent part of her/his time working alongside villagers in Sri Lanka?
What would be your advice for travelers who want to give back on one of their journeys?
Start slowly. For first-timers, I recommend connecting with environmental projects. Working with flora and/or fauna can be a gentle easing into voluntourism for novitiates. Remember, not everyone is truly ready for an engagement with some of the stark realities of the world in which we live.
By gradually integrating voluntary service into their traditional travel experiences, voluntourists can develop a level of awareness that is akin to cultural sensitivity; but the sensitivity to poverty, for example, comes in a manner similar to exercising a muscle or set of muscles. Though there are folks who may be able to run a marathon having never run a mile before, most physicians would not condone such behavior. Voluntourism is much the same way. It takes time to develop a level of acceptance and patience when coming into contact with situations that often scream out, “Fix this! Immediately!” One cannot fix what may be generations-in-the-making.
How would you recommend people begin to explore the options of voluntourism?
Take the time to conduct an honest assessment of YOU prior to selecting a type of service to which you will apply yourself. Remember that you will be in unfamiliar territory; stretch, but do not over-stretch. Go with friends and be prepared to process your journey with them as it unfolds. If you are a writer, take a notebook. If you are a runner, take your shoes. Give yourself the opportunity to let the emotion of the situation flow through you into something constructive and generative. Then, when the opportunity presents itself for you to voluntour in the future, you will likely embark on a journey that involves a little more stretching.
What was the most memorable trip you have gone on yourself?
Each of my voluntours has had more than one memorable element. What proves to be most memorable, however, are those in which I observe changes within those around me, not just myself. In February 2008, I traveled with a group of African-American and Arab-American high school students from Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan to Tennessee on a Pay it Forward Tour [organized by Students Today, Leaders Forever]. I wrote about the experience in the VolunTourist Newsletter (www.voluntourism.org/newsfeature).
One evening, the students had a chance to participate in a group discussion in which they were asked to identify terms used in pop culture and the media to describe African-Americans and Arab-Americans. What did they feel was the general consensus when portraying them? Here is a poem that Junior, one of the young lads on the trip wrote:
“We sit in an old school on stage. We join together go through the loveliest phase. We meet, greet, eat, sleep, and not forget make purple. Discrimination Never! We can jump over the biggest hurdle. Segregation forever? Whatever. We beat odds & stereotypes. They call us terrorists & trouble makers; we’re here to beat the hype. Even though we stay up all night past “lights out,” Emotions soar as we have group discussions, even when a few pout. But as the five days start to fly by, We will have all left friends as the last day goes awry. So to everyone I met, live and let lie, But as time goes memories will fly.”
To think that this young man was moved to the degree to actually write this poem, well…I think it speaks for itself.
Read about a member’s experience Doing Good in South Africa with Friends
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