WBUR Boston covered voluntourism on its here & Now broadcast today (4 December 2013). On the heels of #GivingTuesday, the conversation with Leila de Bruyne, of Flying Kites, and Taylor Andrews, of STRIVE Trips, appeared to be a gentle segue to the season of giving and travel that lies ahead, with one catch – voluntourism done well is not so easy after all.
It was refreshing to listen in on a couple of young people talk about voluntourism. Having had the experience at a young age and having taken different approaches as a result – Leila has launched an NGO to encourage “ambassador” voluntourists to support orphans in Kenya and elsewhere, and Taylor has launched his own business to bring student athlete voluntourists to South America – it was interesting to hear the different perspectives.
Leila has taken a stance that echoes the critiques of others who have perhaps participated in voluntourism as young, naive teens or twenty-somethings and have since taken a look in the mirror and in one fashion or another basically said – “you were an idiot to believe this was about anything other than yourself.”
Taylor, on the other hand, is unflappable. He appears to have a perspective that voluntourism is just that, voluntourism. It is not meant to “save the world” but to change it, to alter it, even if by a little bit, through the exposure of student athletes to unique experiences and the reciprocal interaction that occurs for community residents. Voluntourism is a medium through which little bits can be collected over time, like bricks that are collected next to a one-story home, until there are enough to build the second story. In and of themselves, the bricks are useless if we attempt to equate them to a second story on a house. In combination, however, they are indeed formidable.
Why The Two Perspectives On Voluntourism?
Some people just absolutely loathe the term voluntourism (as a catalyzing agent, you really cannot ask for a better term, it is why I have continued to use it over the past 13 years). It speaks to everything that volunteering is NOT. Volunteering is NOT about me. Volunteering is NOT about having a good time, seeing the world, experiencing the culture, history, geography, art, and recreation of a destination. Volunteering is NOT about making an economic investment in a community. Is this really true? Must volunteering be completely altruistic?
For Taylor, it appears that voluntourism is exactly what he wants student athletes to experience. He wants them to volunteer; he wants them to contribute to the local economy; he wants them to travel in and around the local community, to see the wealth of the destination, not merely the lack. And, he keeps a pretty sound perspective – an individual will not make the difference but a difference. For Leila, the following quote provides some of her thoughts on making a difference, or not:
“Sometimes I think that the expectations have to be there. So, as long as the people who are coming to, quote-unquote, ‘volunteer’ understand that it is more about them and the experience that they’re having. And you’re not – unless you’re a surgeon or a billionaire, you’re not going to have a meaningful, transformative impact on the communities that you’re working with. But they might have an impact on you, and that’s where the opportunity comes to actually make something of it.”
Making Difference = Skills, Time, and Money ≠ Voluntourism
Talking about voluntourism can be downright frustrating. As soon as one puts pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or mouth to microphone, it is inevitable that what comes out will be judged. “Voluntourism is an ugly word” – I hear that a lot. (But, “beautiful” can be an ugly word if you are 8 years old standing in front of your class trying to spell it so your entire team can move to the next round and get ice cream after recess and you spell it “b-u-t-i-f-u-l-l.”) And, when it comes to making a difference, many people see voluntourism as something that simply doesn’t.
With skills, with time, with money – one can definitely make a difference. But, being a short-term volunteer, interested in touring the local destination, “you are a damn fool if you think you can make a difference.” This is where most people turn away from voluntourism.
Ugly duckling though it may be, voluntourism, at least in my eyes, is the most “b-u-t-i-f-u-l-l” contrivance to be formulated on the global scale in many a moon. By its very existence, voluntourism is changing the landscape of how we travel, what travel companies and NGOs are considering in terms of product & service offerings in the future, and the timeline for destination recovery in the wake of a natural disaster. What we are struggling with, of course, is the language. We want it to be prettier, more elegant, more refined. Voluntourism will never be that, it’s integrity would be lost if we attempted to clean it up.
What we can do, though, is improve it and improve our perspective on its potential. If the ugliest dog in the world can gain our sympathy and support, perhaps voluntourism can, too!