For the whole trimester, I have been trying to come up with a topic to research for a large year end Sociology project. At first I had all these crazy ideas about topics that had nothing to do with anything. Then my wonderful mom said "Why don't you just do a topic that has to do with your major? You like that stuff." Shazaamwow, an idea was born.
"The Effects of Symbolism in Voluntourism." I don't really know how I came up with it, but the basic premise is that in voluntourism (volunteer tourism) there is a lot of incorrect symbolism, which negatively (and I am reluctant to say, but positively as well) affects other cultures.
Symbolism is a sociological term, and it is just what you think it is, when we see something and take it to represent a larger thing.
I started my project off by asking people what they thought of when they thought of Las Vegas. Obviously everyone thinks of gambling, sex, drugs, etc. Perfect, as that is the marketed symbol. They want you to think that. But did you know that Vegas has a growing homeless rate? That it has a large elderly population? That it has a unique historical heritage? Then I asked what people thought of when they thought "Africa." Safaris, poverty, hunger, orphans. -Wow, what symbols.
We often create symbols in voluntourism that benefit us, that assuage our guilt, that don't really encompass the reality of the situation, or provide long term sustainable growth for those we intend to "help." We think "I need to go build a church in Mexico." Or "I need to donate all these old clothes to poor naked African children."
I found this great example from Vagabondish that goes as follows:
"You would think that donating old clothing to poor African communities would be a good thing, right. You give the clothes to your church group, a local tailor makes any necessary repairs, and the duds are shipped off to the naked people of Africa. I mean – they’d be naked if they didn’t have our clothes, right? Wrong. Instead, local African tailors are put out of business, because people can get their clothes for free from donation shipments. Local economies suffer, the local tailors eventually die, and their skills die with them, since there is no need for a tailor in the community."
What if instead of wasting money traveling down to Mexico to build a church, you give that job to someone who needs it. Send money or building materials down there. Let a local man get paid to do his job and support his family. Unless you are a trained contractor, do not think that your American church building skills are any better than his, and don't think you are doing some grandiose heavenly favor.
In the rest of my project, I just discuss some other issues with how our interpretations of a voluntourism destination can be both hurtful, and sometimes helpful.
As a Christian, I am called to help others in need, and I think there are legitimate times when it is good to give freely, (you know- times of war, plague, disaster etc).
But in order for volunteer work to be helpful we have to think about the bigger, long term, sustainable picture. We want to not only give a man a fish, but we want to teach him how to fish. Maybe instead of throwing my crappy donations at the problem, or doing a job we are not trained to do- We can teach. We can empower. We can finance. We can provide resources.
Volunteering isn't bad. But we have to check out our motives, goals, and the reality of the situation.
My professor told me "