Voluntourism: Ahh, the Joys of Being a Catalyst!

Scroll through the internet these days with an intent on finding information on voluntourism and you will soon discover that it is wading in controversy, debate, and disdain, to say the least. Seems that the world has gotten itself into a tizzy trying to find the flaws in the intersection of voluntary service and travel. And we couldn’t be happier about that, now could we. Because it means more and more folks are talking about it. And that is what you want when your real purpose is that of “catalytic agent.”

TMS Ruge, of the Diaspora Project, even got into the act this week by offering a “tongue-in-cheek” response to voluntourism – – “How to be an effective ‘voluntourist’ in 5 steps.” While HuffPo continued its vivisection of the subject with a post from Rudayna Bahubeshi – “What You Don’t Know About Voluntourism,” the CBC tackled the links to neo-colonialism, imbalanced power relations, and “othering” with an academic in a brief interview – “A Critical Look at Voluntourism.”

With the abundance of criticism, however, we are also starting to see some thoughtful rebuttal. Nicole Roughton caught my attention this week, and even got a comment out of me, with her post entitled “The Public Shaming of Voluntourism.” Short, sweet, and to the point, Ms. Roughton summed it up in this neat little paragraph:

I’ve greeted most of the subsequent commentary on the subject with a sense of unease. Whilst all the points raised in the debate are no doubt valid, and I agree that having this discussion is entirely necessary, there seems to be a certain tone of superiority underlying much of what is being said. Despite it being a problem that persists in much of the voluntary/NGO sector, there are some who appear to place the blame solely on the volunteers. In several of the comments there is a strong air of ‘one-upmanship’- of who can seem the most reflexive and self-aware in their experience- which all seems rather pointless when you realise you are an experienced development worker choosing to belittle an idealistic, perhaps overly naïve teen.”

If these teens are following Gandhi’s advice: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” then it might behoove those of us who are structuring the intersection of these teens, voluntary service, travel, destinations, and residents to do so in a way that honors the dignity of the catalyzing energy being put forth. If it takes a village to raise a child, why not a world to raise a village and a village to raise a world?

Take note that development, human development to be more precise, is no longer a luxury to be engendered solely on the “poor,” “the needy,” the “less advanced.” Are we not discovering that in comparison to the problems the world faces today that we are all, every single human on the planet, equally “under-developed” to take on these challenges “alone”? Though participation in voluntourism is not a guarantee of development for either participant or recipient, we can at least venture to say that it is increasing our capacity to interact with our fellow human beings. And if that doesn’t prove to be an invaluable development in our world today, I ask you, what will?


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