The True Value of Voluntourists – Creating New Histories?

Chris Christensen 2380The work that is being undertaken in the arena of gross national happiness (a replacement for gross domestic product) in Bhutan is certainly inspiring and worthy of discovery if you have not ventured into that arena. Consideration of the overall psychological wellness of a society, as but one indicator of gross national happiness, speaks to the importance of such activities as volunteering. If volunteers are happier and healthier people, as has been detailed in academic literature over the past several years, then we might want to consider a different concept of the valuation of the volunteering tourist. In striving to discover the measurable value of voluntourists have we been essentially undervaluing their real contribution?

Under 25 = “No Value”

If you are under the age of 25, and you pay attention to the Media, you will likely be sitting in your room right now wondering whether you will ever amount to anything, particularly if you are considering becoming a voluntourist. You have no skills, you are virtually worthless when it comes to professional experience, and doubtless you will be more interested in drinking and partying when you arrive in a destination than lending a hand. Well, that at least seems to be the general consensus of who you are and what you represent to the media.

So, is there another way of measuring your value?

In the October 2013 issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we will take a look at a Master’s Thesis written by Ms. Kimberly Ann Tranel, a student at the University of Iowa. She discusses her experiences volunteering with her sister on two farms in Brazil. She writes:

My personal experiences as a volunteer tourist indicate that while the volunteer work I performed was subpar in comparison with the work performed by the salaried farm workers in Terra Nova, the work contributed to the farm’s progress and success through sharing laughter and stories. Such contributions show that the findings from the study on WWOOF Canada by Ord and Amer (nd) can be applied to the benefits that volunteers bring to host farms in Brazil. The other volunteers and I shared a piece of the world with the farm workers, with the community, and learned irreplaceable knowledge and techniques associated with coffee harvesting in Brazil… I went to Brazil hoping to learn about coffee production, which I did. I learned the importance of the coffee workers and I gained a great respect for the men who labor all day in the field to harvest the beans that I grind and drink each morning. But I also learned the importance of that human connection. The honesty of the farm manager and the compassionate traits of his wife helped my sister and me to feel at home in Brazil.”

It seems that Ms. Tranel has introduced a new valuation schema for voluntourists – the contribution that is made via “sharing laughter and stories” and who one is as a person in the context of your voluntourism experience. Is there a chance, then, that voluntourists actually contribute to the Gross National Happiness of a country outside of their own? Do those Under 25 have a value that is not currently being considered or measured?

Stories, Laughter, and Life Experience = Interaction – the REAL Value of Voluntourists

For those who spend their waking hours trying to measure the voluntary contribution of voluntourists to communities – whether it is sustainable, makes a long-term, measurable difference, what have you – perhaps you would be better off measuring the contribution that voluntourists make to the overall psychological well-being, happiness, and joy of a place and its people. No academic research has been conducted to measure how voluntourists contribute to the Gross National Happiness of either their home country or their host country; such intangible measurements, alas, have thus far escaped the realm of academic inquiry. But Ms. Tranel introduces us to this notion that the value of the voluntourist, and what they value from the anticipated promise of participating in these experiences (their motivations) is far from understood.

Further to this point, Ms. Tranel alludes to, in the description of her participation and experience, the fact that the interactive nature of voluntourism allows for demonstrations of “compassion,” “honesty” and “humor” as natural occurrences brought on by the simple placement of human beings in one, common setting. Is the potential for such demonstrations magnified because of the differences between the voluntourists and the local people? Does that very difference amplify the value of these qualities in the minds of the actors? Does it help them to appreciate these qualities to a greater degree? And does this help to galvanize in their minds the experiences they have in common, i.e., their shared experiences?

The True Value of Voluntourists: Creating New Histories

When talking about the value of voluntourists to communities and the interactions and occurrences that naturally flow from the introduction of voluntourists to the space, my colleague Fernando and I have hypothesized that the “New Histories” that are created from these interactions could, in fact, be the most important contributions that voluntourists can make to communities. The “Voluntourist Legends” that will be shared amongst the people of the community have never been valued, and yet, they contribute to these communities. These Legends may be positive or negative; regardless, they become part of the Living History of the community, and, therefore, may be the most sustainable contribution that voluntourists can ever offer.

Final Thoughts…

To date, voluntourists have been valued solely on the direct, voluntary-based contribution that they make, or fail to make, to communities. No research has made an effort to realize the value of the “voluntourist legends & histories” that spring from the interactions between voluntourists and the local people and the surrounding environment. I have been part of some of those stories, so I know. I remember them, and, when I see members of those communities again, we have a good laugh, or a sober moment. I have been there, for example, when a community honored the death of a voluntourist who had come to the community two years in a row, and had planned to come the third time, but had died in advance of his trip.

These stories, these experiences, have immeasurable value. They come from interaction, especially interaction that is grounded in an affirmation of wanting to contribute. The well-intentioned may be more likely to generate these stories, because they will often go further, try harder, and, as a result, create the circumstances that will manifest such legends and the physical and/or emotional responses which may be catalyzed therefrom.

Voluntourists and communities are making community legends & histories everyday. Start measuring these, and we may actually discover the true value of voluntourists.

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