Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rethink Voluntourism

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 "great presentation on a unique topic with a functional perspective on the consequences of these programs as they ripple through global cultures." So hopefully I get an A on that :)


Thoughts? Do you agree? Do you think we should just give freely without concern? Should we rethink charity or a donations system? Does this apply to any other industry (perhaps food banks? or clothing drives?)

6 comments:

David said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Sometimes our giving is more about ourselves, without enough consideration for the impact of the recipients. More people involved in Christian mission need to hear this message.

Mike said...

I have spent the last 18 years living as an international missionary. 11 years in Post- Soviet countries 3 years in DR Congo during a civil war and the remaining time in Europe. In that time I have hosted countless mission groups from all over the globe. One thing is sure, people want to help, but for different reasons. The whole “Voluntourism” concept is disturbing for me… “Holy Holidays” we call them. “See the world and be a blessing!” I almost printed a track entitled “Are you on a Missions Trip or an Acid Trip” (That turned out to be my flesh so I filed that idea…) 100 years ago people risked their life simply traveling across vast oceans to reach the lost. People died on those journeys, they knew they would not see loved ones for years… They counted the cost, which checked their motives before they even left. Today just hop on a plane, enjoy a few movies and you are there in no time!
In Missions less than noble motives will most often play out in a negative way. If you want to see the world, then buy a holiday package with your travel agent. If you want to appease your conscience then send a donation to those who know how to administer to real needs. (or better yet simply develop a nearness to the Lord and receive His peace of mind) If you want to expand your understanding of a need and assist, then take a missions trip with the attitude of a student. And if you know the Lord has called you to spend your life on the field then be willing to lay down preconceived ideas and go learn what the true needs are. Then throw our life behind your work with a finishing mentality that lays your life down for others no matter how tough it gets. And understand that you will receive more than you can give and you will learn more than you teach. It’s part of the blessing you receive from real missions.
Good post. Let’s do missions right.

Alissa:Adventurer said...

Hey guys, I appreciate your comments and first hand experiences!

Mike, I especially appreciate your comment:
"If you want to see the world, then buy a holiday package with your travel agent. If you want to appease your conscience then send a donation to those who know how to administer to real needs. (or better yet simply develop a nearness to the Lord and receive His peace of mind) If you want to expand your understanding of a need and assist, then take a missions trip with the attitude of a student. And if you know the Lord has called you to spend your life on the field then be willing to lay down preconceived ideas and go learn what the true needs are."


Though my post is specifically about the trend of voluntourism, some "mission trips" as we know them today are very clearly a part of this trend.

Randy said...

It really doesn't matter, does it, your motivations? Doing good is good being done. If you're so great as to evaluate a person's "motives" then you're certainly better than the rest of us. I can't do it. But I couldn't give a monkey's butt your motivation. If I need 5 pairs of hands and they are willing and able...I'll take them. I do my community little help by denying those who want and/or can help because I thought I might, in the meantime, judge the helpers. That's for them to do after they help me.

You can get very lost in being the human filter by which all volunteers must pass to be "worthy" to do a project here or abroad.

I don't hear you filtering the money piece. Do we judge the motivation of the money? No, we take it and we spend it. Do the same with the hands and feet. Use them to move your project or community ahead. Help those you serve. And leave the judgement to another day.

Anonymous said...

Naïve idealism increases in direct proportion to ones distance from the problem. Good reflective thinking Adventurer.

Alissa:Adventurer said...

Randy, my concern here isn't necessarily with motive, more like with reality. Obviously no one can be a judge of motive, but either way, if the person is going with good or bad motives, but they aren't being helpful, than its pointless and detrimental in some cases.

Good or bad motives, (ideally good of course), we need to have a realistic grasp of who or where we are trying to help.