Volun-tourism

On occasion, people who hear about our travel plans ask if we intend to do any volunteer work on our round the world trip. I always feel a little uncomfortable when asked this question because the answer is no. Now that’s not saying we’re against it or we wouldn’t do it if the right opportunity arose, but that’s saying that we didn’t plan this trip around the idea of doing volunteer work and we aren’t actively seeking opportunities.

Volun-tourism is huge these days, but I’m going to go ahead and be honest here and say that I’m not a big fan of it. In most cases, I think it’s much more of a way for you to feel good about yourself than for any real difference to be made in the world. Oftentimes, little of the money you pay for your volunteer vacation actually goes into the community that you’re “helping.” Instead it goes to paying for your hotel, your food, your entertainment, your supplies, and the overhead of the company through which you’ve organized your trip (and very rarely are they a local organization with local staff).

Additionally, I don’t think most people have the type of skills or training that are really needed. I certainly don’t. Sure, I could help build a house but really what am I doing but taking a job away from someone who could use it? People all over the world can build, and they can probably do it much, much better than I can. They don’t need me to hammer nails or shingle a roof. What they might need me to do, however, is donate the money that will let them buy the hammer or the shingles or that will allow an organization to hire them on at a living wage. Though just sending money doesn’t make us feel as good as offering our time and sweat, sometimes it’s really the better option.

Finally, I think that really making an impact requires more than one week of your time. Ever wonder why the Peace Corp requires a two-year commitment? You have to get into a community, learn its needs, gain its trust, and help people help themselves. There are some fabulous organizations out there that have already laid this groundwork and allow you to contribute on a short term basis, but take a look around and you’ll see that the organizations that are really getting things done usually ask for a minimum commitment of at least one month. The time, money, and effort that goes into training you to do any work for a shorter period than that often means that the organization is on the losing end of the deal.

Now hold on, before you run off to comment on how wrong I am, let me continue. I’m really not anti-volunteer. I think much good is done in the world by people who don’t ask a dime in exchange for their hard work. And I believe that if you have a cause that you hold near and dear and you want to contribute to it, than you, by all means, should. Additionally, if you have a skill, talent, or profession that’s rare/in demand—if you’re in the medical field and can provide health care to those without it, if you’re a lawyer and can represent those who are voiceless, if you have accounting skills and can help someone start a business, if you’re an artist and can bring the joy of art to someone—than go out there and put your skills to work. But if you’re just a Joe-Schmo like me, take a moment to ask yourself whether it’s really helpful for you to build a school when A) you’ve never hammered anything more than a nail into the wall to mount a photo and B) the community you’re building a school for doesn’t have any teachers.

So am I just offering an excuse for people to say “Well, there’s nothing I can offer here” and go off and do whatever they want without a care for the world? No, of course not. There are plenty of ways to make the world a better place without going on a volunteer vacation. For starters, while you are traveling, do your best to buy local. Support local restaurants, local hotels, local outfitters. Put your money into the community you’re visiting rather than some international business that will take the money right out of the country. Second, if you come across an organization that inspires you, ask how you can help. If they say that they need volunteers, great. If they say what they really need is money, then consider making a donation. And finally, remember that charity begins at home. Look around your own neighborhood and see what needs to be done there. If you want to build a house, I bet Habitat for Humanity can put you to work. If you want to teach English, see if your library has an ESL tutoring program. If you want to inspire kids, become a Big Brother/Big Sister. A staggering amount and variety of opportunities are available, and usually they just want your time, which means you can then put your money to work to actually improve another corner of the world (rather than attack it with a hammer you don’t really know how to wield).

[Jeff will be returning to the topic of how much a round the world trip costs in an upcoming post (hopefully this week), so continue to register your thoughts in the straw poll below.]

7 Replies to “Volun-tourism”

  1. A friend of mine went to Kenya to volunteer for a month and ended up staying for three and co-founding a non-profit organization when she got back. The only reason she didn’t stay longer was that she was starting to run out of money. You’re right though, she couldn’t really have done much in just a week or a few days. Apparently she felt that she couldn’t even do enough in a month.

  2. I agree with some of the points you made in this post. However, I feel that oftentimes people read about an impoverished or war-torn area and feel sympathetic for the people there, but until they actually go to that place, maybe on a volunteer vacation, they won’t actually feel the magnitude of the situation.
    Much like what Laura said above, I’ve had friends who’ve gone on volunteer vacations or mission trips for a short period of time and have returned with a determination to help more. They’ve returned for longer periods, spoken about their experience to their friends and community, asked for and sent donations, built relationships with the locals, etc.
    I do think some people go on volunteer vacations just to get a sense that they’re good people and that they spent their time helping and they don’t really care that much about where they go or what they do. On the other hand, I think a lot of people truly want to make a difference and can’t commit to a long-term volunteer opportunity, so instead they opt for a shorter-term commitment which could subsequently turn into a life-long commitment.

  3. Good points, Laura and Amanda. I hadn’t quite thought of it like that, but I think you’re right. If people come away for a volunteer vacation inspired to really help, then it’s certainly a worthwhile investment by whatever organization arranged it. I guess my main issues with a lot of volunteer vacations are that A) it’s often a one-off, pat yourself on the back type of thing, and B) there’s often more attention put to finding a task that’s of interest to volunteers than a task that is really beneficial to the community. Of course, there are exceptions and there are some well run programs.

    Also, I’d like to recommend the book “Three Cups of Tea” if you haven’t read it. It’s about a man who goes to Pakistan on a climbing expedition and ends up getting a lot of aid from a local village. He then decides to thank them by building a school (he provides money and equipment, the village provides the labor). In the end what happens is that he begins a foundation that funds schools all over Pakistan and Afghanistan and also provides scholarships for villagers to go to university, become teachers, and return to teach in these schools. It’s a very inspirational book.

  4. Really your parents named you Anonymous? Weird.

    I think you can think whatever you want, but the point of this post wasn’t to defend why we aren’t doing volunteer work. Volunteering was never the point of our trip and will never be the point of our trip. We’re doing this to see the world, learn a few things, and have a good time. Period. No apologies.

    We feel plenty comfortable about the ways we give back in our everyday life—both through volunteering our time and giving our money. I hope you do too.

  5. Hmmm…I have a friend who often sends off one-line snarky emails that usually contain spelling errors. Could he be the “anonymous” from above? Theresa, you got a guess to whom I refer?

    This post and then the “Three Cups of Tea” example makes me think of an on-going debate in the field of academic scholarship. I’m not sure how wide the argument ranges, as I’m most familiar with it in regards to Rhetoric and Composition work. The debate is multi-faceted by mostly boils down to “what responsibility do we have to the people we are studying?” and “if there is a responsibility, what actions are appropriate?”

    Say a person is doing ethnographic studies of an indigienous community, as are a number of people I know. Many argue, and many agree with this argument(as I do), that to only study these people — in other words, to take, take, take — without giving something back is both irresponsible and unethical. The question becomes complicated not by the “so what do you give back” but the slippery question of “does the academic model allow for such give-back time?” This quandry is often faced, for the first time, but graduate students writing dissertations. As Jeff has demonstrated to us, such work is accomplished on a more-than-tight schedule, a schedule that would allow for zero of this “give-back” time.

    Seems that the current academic approach is to “plant a seed.” To try to give something back that you or someone else could return to later. In that sense, I agree with Amanda, in that I see you taking a slightly too cynical view on Volun-tourism. If the trip plants a seed, as opposed to providing a self-contained pat on the back, then good work has been done. On the other hand, I can see how someone else’s selfish intentions can lead to the cynical viewpoint you have arrived at.

    The other point worth mentioning – which you allude to in your post -is the overhead costs associated with such trips. The bigger point is all volunteer and no-profit work includes such overhead. When this becomes a problem is when different organizations are replicating each other’s work while multiplying the overhead costs. The common example of this occurs when an athlete/celebrity wants to start an organization with his/her name on the organization. Too often the result is a copycat organization that becomes weighed down by the large percentage of funds it cannot return to the communities it is trying to help. In terms of volun-tourism the “plant the seed” aspect of the trip could be increased if there was more an emphasis on the communities and less on pleasing the vacationer (the consumer), which, in turn, might cut down on the overhead costs.

  6. i completely understand & respect your point of view. you have both worked your butts off & deserve this trip as you’ve always dreamt’ it… but i’ve visited poor, third world countries & i don’t think i could do it without some volunteering. i agree with you that buying from the locals is doing a major part to support them, but during that month in honduras, what i remember most is playing with the children in the orphanage- not the nice day trip to the beach or the tourist town where i could finally find some decent gifts to bring home to my family. even if it’s not making a huge impact- i felt like my love for that short time was enough.

    granted- in cuba i didn’t do any volunteer work, nor think i had the time.

    i’m glad you don’t feel the need to apologize- you shouldn’t. but i do hope you find a couple cool causes worth spending a few days on. it’ll allow you to see & understand the cultures in a deeper way than just eating at local rest. & shopping at their markets.

    i’m sooooo jealous! hopefully we will get our butts to somewhere on your trip. did i mention bryan got his passport, i’m suddenly hopeful!

Leave a Reply