What Is Ethical When It Comes To Voluntourism?

literary & debating societyThe voluntourism community worldwide is in the midst of an exploration into the ethical. Ethical dilemmas and challenges are arising in every context. Debates are flourishing online as we collectively grapple with the intersection of voluntary service, travel & tourism, and the realities of humanity as a whole. Even the Literary & Debating Society at NUI Galway is broaching the subject – the Voluntourism Debate – later this week (7pm GMT, on Thursday, 20 February 2014).

Researchers are raising many questions, but we want answers immediately (as this recent article in The Guardian illustrates). We seem to find it difficult to rest in the questions, to allow ourselves time to really feel into these questions and get a sense of what is truly at work here. We seem unwilling to reflect, to reflect more, and to keep reflecting on what we have gotten ourselves into on this planet. We seem perfectly willing to question the ethics of those who would, at least in our eyes, appear to be behaving unethically. Yet, are we as willing to point the spotlight on ourselves? Do we actually know what is ethical when it comes to voluntourism?

Pain as a Prod to Becoming?

You have heard of the researcher who thought it was a brilliant idea to assist the butterfly in exiting the chrysalis, yes? The butterfly exited, flapped its wings once or twice, and then keeled over, dead. This exercise was repeated; the result was the same. The butterfly, it was concluded, needs to undergo the throes of exiting the chrysalis in order to then be able to cope and assimilate into its new environment.

The same could be true within the context of the voluntourism space. Communities, voluntourists, in fact, all voluntourism stakeholders, may need to undergo the “pain” of birthing voluntourism into the world so that when it actually does reach maturity it will indeed have gone through the challenging process of breaking through the chrysalis of its own becoming.

If we spend our time striving to cut through the ethics chrysalis surrounding voluntourism, will we deprive voluntourism of the necessary effort that it needs to endure in order to manifest as the potential butterfly of voluntourism which it is meant to become?

Somehow this painful process of birthing into the world is necessary. Though we may be struggling with countless conundrums where voluntourism is concerned, do we not think that on the other side of this we will fail to learn, to grow, to expand as a planetary community?

The Ethics of Voluntourism Goes Well Beyond Voluntourism

One thing that I think will be tremendously helpful is to realize how much of a catalyzing agent voluntourism really is. Though we may be inclined to place voluntourism in a chrysalis of its own, voluntourism is, in essence, connected and integrated into many different systems across our world. If we really do give it serious inquiry, we will start to question more than just the ethics of voluntourism, we will begin to question the ethics of our own behaviors, our geopolitical systems, our means of addressing social and environmental issues of our day.

If voluntourism is truly serving as a catalyst, it is no wonder that we are diligently making efforts to stifle its catalyzing effect by burdening it with our ethics. Instead, we may discover that if we spend more of our time dealing with the discomfort and the tensions which are created by and through voluntourism, we will come into contact with issues and challenges which we have failed to admit were even present.

For example, does anyone wonder why voluntourism is the fastest growing trend in the travel & tourism sector? Could it be that our everyday working lives have become so misaligned with who we are as people and our planet that we need to feel that we are doing at least a “little bit” of good in the world? Is it possible that the very lives we lead are so “unethical” that we are engaging in a practice that is, at least in our current way of seeing it, “less unethical”? Do we tire of living in a world that reminds us constantly of the inequalities across humanity that we will do almost anything, even something that appears unethical, because it is the lesser of two evils? Has it become so difficult to “do good” in the developed world that we seek to do so elsewhere?

Final Thoughts…

It would be great if we could take a step back and instead of pushing so hard to realize the lack of ethics in voluntourism that we could, perhaps, begin to see the lack of ethics in the world around us as a causal force behind the development of voluntourism. Voluntourism, though we will burden it incessantly with its lack of ethics and strive to cut its chrysalis too soon, deserves more time, more inquiry, and we would do well to let our wings move about for an additional period within that chrysalis.

Voluntourism is doing us all a very big favor, if we will take the time to see it as such. This does not mean that we fail to search for ways to improve on it, of course, but we need to see it for what it is: voluntourism is a statement of something being out of alignment in our world – why else would we take our holidays to be of service? Wouldn’t we be doing this in our everyday lives? Wouldn’t we see our jobs in the world as providing that service? Have we given up on changing our own situations and that of those in our immediate sphere of influence? Do we think hubris is the only motivation behind taking a trip to a far-off destination to assist another human on this planet?

Let’s take some time to sit in the questions. Eventually, we may discover that voluntourism can assist us in raising questions about the ethics of our very lives in this world. And, wouldn’t that be something worthy of our time and effort and inquiry?


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