Saturday, February 22, 2014

In Defense of "Voluntourism" (Sorta)

Sometimes it takes me a while to gather my thoughts, and by the time I have figured out what I want to say, everyone on Facebook has already forgotten about whatever it is I was responding to.

Anyhow, try to think back, WAAAAY back, to a couple of days ago, when everyone was sharing this link, and nodding wisely, and saying, "How true!"

I kinda half agree. I get what she's saying. Short-term missions and volunteer trips have lots of problems. And, yeah, getting a bunch of high school kids to do skilled labor poorly is probably not the best allocation of resources. And the perpetuation of the "white savior" myth is dangerous. But look at what the author is doing now: She is using her skills to run a camp in the DR, recruiting and enabling native leaders to do work that is actually worthwhile. And she claims that her first trip to the DR was a flop, but if she had never gone on that first trip, do you think she would have that kind of passion for the Dominican people? It's one thing to see pictures on TV or in promotional materials, telling you that there is a hurting world outside of your comfort zone, but it's another thing entirely to actually GO there and LIVE amongst those hurting people for a little while.

I think the word "voluntourism" is meant to be derogatory, but I actually like it. When you travel as a tourist, your focus is on yourself, and on what you are getting out of the experience. You usually see a sanitized and commercialized version of the culture you are visiting, polished and packaged to make your experience enjoyable. When you travel as a volunteer, your focus is on the people you are going to help, their needs, their situation, their struggles. And, while you might come back from a vacation relaxed and refreshed, you almost always come back from a short-term mission trip CHANGED. And that is what makes the world a better place: Not the actual work that "voluntourists" do while they are abroad, but the changed people who come home from those trips, a little less selfish, and a little more aware that the world is much bigger than their first world problems.

As with so many things in life, I find myself wanting to find a nice, middle ground. Some way to encourage people to travel to third world countries and expand their worldview without doing more harm than good while they are there. But it's not like we can send them to just hide in the bushes and spy on orphans - we need to give them something to do while they are there, some way of engaging and interacting. I know that this is something that greater minds than mine are working on, so I'm not trying to solve this problem myself. I'm just suggesting that maybe we shouldn't look down on voluntourists quite so much. At least they care. And if their concern is genuine, it can be redirected more effectively.


Brian K. said...

Jule - I really enjoyed this. I couldn't agree with you more about 'volunteerism' type out-of-country travel. The largest magnitude useful result of such trips is the change that occurs the one traveling, not in the work they do while on the trip. There's an interesting parallels with education that I've been struggling with: the useful result of almost all school work is not the work itself, but the changes in the brain of the student. That school project I worked so hard in middle school? Almost completely pointless in and of itself. But the things that changed in my head while I was doing it? That's the entire reason for the educational apparatus.

jd said...

I also agree....the trip leaves one changed, but the other advantage is that the change in you affects those who supported your trip. Your new passion can only benefit those around you to be inspired to give or pray more, even if they don't go on the mission trip themselves.