Voluntourism IS the Best Option
Posted on July 25, 2011 at 4:00 am
This week’s guest post is by Eric Hartman. Hartman is working on a book titled, Building a Better World: The Pedagogy and Practice of Global Service-Learning (with Kiely, R., Friedrichs, J., and Boettcher, C.). In the past several years he has served as a Lecturer in Global Studies at Arizona State University, Executive Director of Amizade Global Service-Learning, and adjunct faculty in political science, public administration, and history at West Virginia University. He recently took a position as a Change Management Consultant with Accenture and he continues to serve on the board at Amizade. He blogs semi-regularly at Journey toward Justice. The opinions expressed here are his own alone and derive primarily from working with communities and students through Amizade and its relationships with several universities.
Voluntourists are out – at least that’s how the blogosphere might have it, not to mention the academic sector, where numerous critiques (Crabtree 2008) of international service-learning, variations of ‘critical service-learning’ (Mitchell 2008), and outright dismissals of any kind of service-learning (Fish 2008) advance.
But if voluntourists are out – what’s in? I’m going to suggest that voluntourism is here to stay, should be embraced, and – of course- therefore must be done well. But this post doesn’t have time for how to ‘do it well’ – this is merely a defense of the concept. Saundra herself (#1, #2, #3, #4) and Daniela Papi (also multiple times, 3, 4, 5, and more) have already offered numerous thoughts on international volunteering done well.
Let’s first dispose of the false dichotomies: it’s not the case that everyone interested in international volunteerism should “just donate the same amount as their plane ticket and program fee.” Most international volunteers are not exclusively interested in funding development projects. They’re interested in supporting community goals, traveling to new places, meeting new people, connecting across cultures, and doing more good than harm while they learn and serve. They’re paying for that whole package and entire experience, not a development initiative alone, and by doing that they invest in:
- Growing civil society networks, global connections, and building peace by pieces.
- Respecting the autonomy and decision-making capabilities of local community organizations.
- Allocating resources that support local community businesses and development projects (that often functions to create jobs rather than ‘take jobs’).
- Building the capacity of individuals and organizations in communities around the world.
I defend each of these assertions in turn below.
We should accept international volunteering and advance it in the context of established best practices. There is a market demand for the experience that will be filled either by careful and conscientious community organizers and development professionals or wily business people. (“Service-learning” marketed by unreflective private sector companies and orphanage tourism with no strategic planning or concern for the long term interest of the children and communities involved are examples of bad effects of this market demand). By recognizing the strengths in international voluntourism we can move toward offering it responsibly and managing it well, something that Papi’s recent posts indicate as well.
Like so many in the aid and development blogosphere, I got involved in local and international service initiatives because of a genuine interest in being part of efforts to build a better world. I work to regularly subject myself and my organizations to critiques – if we are indeed hurting more than helping we must stop.
Yet this year I again took a group of undergraduate students to a small village in rural Tanzania where we were part of development service and learning through partnership with Amizade. Here’s why I continue to engage in such projects:
#1. Globalization is occurring; it is important for civil society networks and connections to grow at least as rapidly as market structures or state initiatives.
International volunteerism grows and nurtures the development of global civil society. Globalization will continue to occur in multiple ways, some deliberately exploitative and some (many bloggers would put international volunteers in this category) naively so. I do not stand behind harmful development projects but I do stand with the volunteers’ initial desire for human connection, for recognizing equal human dignity, for attempting to share time and/or resources in a way that could improve others’ lives. Economic globalization is undoubtedly underway. The question is – will we have an ethics of globalization too? International volunteers – often clumsily – are attempting to answer this question; to build a set of networks and connections that improve the human experience. We should not chastise this impulse, but recognize its importance in a world of extreme inequality and (often deliberately) constructed difference. When international volunteer projects are done well, they meet community goals, educate local people and visitors about one another’s perspectives and experiences, and build bridges across cultures. We cannot build a more peaceful world without these connections across cultures. The experience of knowing distant others is as important as any specified development project.
# 2. Respect the voices of local community members and community organizations; they indicate interest in and support for international volunteerism.
There are great potential perils in this assertion. Most specifically, the dynamic of wealth and privilege in international volunteering relationships frequently puts community members in a position where they may feel obligated to accept various impositions in order to keep any associated funds flowing (more on funds in #3). Though I have experience with several international and domestic volunteering efforts, my longest commitment has been with Amizade. Because Amizade chose from the beginning (1994) to embrace a community-driven approach to development AND because Amizade has chosen to retain commitments to specific communities, I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to learn from the great diversity in concerns specific communities articulate.
Amizade partners with Navajo Nation (intercultural or international volunteerism, depending on one’s reading of various treaties and definitions of sovereignty) communities that specifically indicate that their preferred service is for outsiders to learn about their culture, traditions, and history, while more conventional “service-as-labor” takes a definitive backseat. Partners in rural Tanzania, where English is the language of secondary school instruction, request English-language conversation and tutoring from native speakers. In Northern Ireland, groups working on reconciliation request U.S. volunteers at youth camps. According to group leaders, outsiders’ presence “opens a dialogue space” that otherwise doesn’t exist (or at the very least is quite hard to create).
# 3. Relationships central to international volunteerism enable various kinds of resource transfers, playing a very small part in global resource reallocation.
# 3a. Communities host volunteers and choose how to allocate the funds for volunteers’ food and lodging.
In rural Jamaica, Amizade partners with a dynamic community organization called The Association of Clubs (AOC). Early in its interactions with international volunteers and volunteerism, the AOC decided to take a community-based approach to village tourism, which for them meant ensuring that funds dedicated to volunteers’ food and lodging went to host families in the community. (An important aside here: all Amizade volunteers pay for their own food and housing. Several bloggers have taken issue with suggestions that communities should provide both of these things (Here’s a related post from Saundra). In this specific case, Amizade made a decision long ago to facilitate entry-level volunteer experiences where the cost burden would be primarily shouldered by the volunteer and the assignment or direction would come from community partners). Families that are members of the AOC set the rates for hosting volunteers. It is their decision.
# 3b. Communities have the opportunity to choose projects. Despite the substantial blogging about volunteers displacing local workers, communities often demonstrate savvy ability to allocate volunteers’ particular time, resources, and skill-sets in ways that work best for the communities themselves, freeing up scarce resources for allocation to other programs, projects, and infrastructure-building efforts.
The AOC conducts a deliberative democratic process within the community of Petersfield, Jamaica, in advance of every visiting volunteer group or individual. The process determines what project will be selected and evaluates whether local resources and local labor are available to complete the project before it is accepted. If local organizations or government agencies have funds to pay locals to complete the work, the project is not completed by visiting volunteers.
Here (3a and 3b) I’ve shared two extremely brief examples of what I feel are best practices: strong community voice in both financial and human resource allocation. Admittedly I’m dabbling in practice rather than sticking to broad principles of why international volunteerism is a better option (than stepping away from it, or only engaging in conventional tourism), but it is of course important to see these best practices to understand the important and deliberate, targeted placement of resource allocation. When tourists visit Jamaica, their funds tend not to get to local people in rural communities. The story is similar at Amizade’s site in Tanzania. Though Tanzania has a thriving tourist economy, it tends to concentrate resource exchange around Arusha and Zanzibar. Global partnerships with rural communities enable additional types of funds transfer: for food, lodging, and transportation – all supporting local employment across several different sectors.
# 4. Working with volunteers well builds capacity.
In Bolivia, a rural village matches volunteers’ financial donations and time with constructing more school classrooms. Donations from the volunteers’ program fees employ local masons. Those masons in turn supervise international volunteers and teach them how to play a role supporting the masons’ work. As anyone who has led projects of any kind knows, it is not simple to rapidly train and deploy un- or relatively un-skilled volunteers. Yet as anyone who has been part of starting a business, building a nonprofit, expanding a social movement, or running a political campaign also knows, key to success is doing more with less. There’s an interesting contradiction in the development blogosphere at the moment, where on the one hand there are numerous exasperated posts maligning the presence of unskilled or under-prepared development amateurs (see Tom Murphy @viewfromthecave, Tales from the Hood 1 & 2, or Dave Algoso in Foreign Policy , among many others) that somehow sit neatly alongside, sometimes even on the same sites as posts that extol the virtues of the searchers – the independent, hard-scrabble, keenly intuitive new social-sector-solution-makers: the entrepreneurs (See this guest post on Papi’s lessonsilearned blog: Learning as you go as the only way to grow or Rose Shuman on The Guardian UK’s Poverty Matters Blog).
Writing now particularly as a former nonprofit director and staff member, as someone who has supervised many volunteers of varying skill levels to help run and staff US-based and international community projects, I must say that developing my own capacity to identify and build upon whatever strengths volunteers could bring has been essential to success. At times, I’ve had to turn down volunteers when they’re not a good fit. I also trust community partners to do that. It has happened for specific projects – and yet Amizade continues to work well with community partners where the opportunities to work together are strong.
Thus I support international voluntourism – there is value in the global connections established; local community-based organizations themselves are savvy enough to know whether they wish to work with willing volunteers; the funds transferred support local businesses and the labor provided may be appropriated in the ways local organizations and community members believe most important; and the resource influx can – if appropriately targeted – build capacity for all involved.
Doing international volunteerism well is indeed extremely challenging – even book-worthy. That book is forthcoming, and so is Amizade’s articulation of Fair Trade Learning – a set of parameters that will help with Papi’s effort to establish standards across organizations supporting this kind of good work. But yes, it still is – or at the very least definitely can be – good work.