Voluntourism As A Step Towards An Interdependent World?

Go GlobalAt present, we seem determined to unravel the integration of voluntary service and travel & tourism because it is causing too much harm in the world. But, is this really the case? Is voluntourism really creating harm in the world – immeasurable, irreparable harm?

Go Global’s Linked In Group for UW-Madison, posted a piece that caught my attention. Instead of pointing fingers at voluntourism, Mark Lilleleht, Online Presence Adviser, International Institute at the university asked questions, some good ones at that.

What do you think? Are there ways of “saving” the voluntourism industry so that it does more to serve the communities the organizations work in than the tourists? Is it more a question of “bad actors” than systemic flaws with the model? Is the very premise of the piece — that short-term volunteer opportunities coordinated by outside organizations are problematic — simply wrong?”

My Thoughts…

Thanks for asking these important questions. The questions, I think, give us much more room to explore the underlying issues and challenges of integrating travel & tourism and voluntary service, as well as the numerous stakeholders who are necessarily connected to the very complex web that functions as the canvas upon which we are currently weaving all of these elements.

When we move immediately to judgment, criticism, and, in some cases, vitriol, as it pertains to voluntourism, we really do miss the elaborate system that is at work here.

Voluntourism is not a cancer, nor is it a cure. It seems, at present, to be a symbol of the complexity of our world at this moment. We want to be of service. We do not want to perpetuate imperialism. We do not want to create dependency, yet we want to live in an interdependent world. We do not want to profit at the expense of the well-being of others and the environment, yet we need to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves in a world in which all three of these are becoming more and more expensive to realize.

So, we are confronted with the dilemma of how to integrate these. How to honor our values, whilst earning enough of a living to sustain ourselves in this world. We want to develop life practices that are in keeping with our values, are demonstrative of our values, because this will draw to us the “good karma” we seek, and the “good people” with whom we hope to interact.

But this is not the case for “everyone.” Some people want to earn “more” than is necessary, because it is their privilege to do so. When we find fault with this, we start running into problems. We can only set examples.

What might be helpful is to explore how we can begin to develop exemplary models of integrating voluntary service and travel & tourism. What does this look like? Can we learn from it? Can we benefit humanity by experimenting with it? Can host communities find a voice in such exchanges, where services are shared mutually and reciprocally?

I have been studying voluntourism for a long time. I still do not fully apprehend what is at work here. But, I think there is something significantly dynamic at work here. Voluntourism is on the cusp of our human integration experiment. We know that we cannot live in a world of independent nations and independent cultures and independent religions, and so forth, such an approach is unsustainable. We are destined to live in an interdependent world. This means that business must mix with pleasure must mix with community & environmental well-being, must mix with cultures & values, and on and on.

Somehow or another voluntourism has found itself at the forefront of this experimentation process, in part because it is a blending of two of the most impact-filled expressions of our humanity: 1) movement/travel, and 2) service – both of which seem to be essential elements for the unfoldment of each human being and our planet as a whole. We travel/move about this world to learn, explore, better understand our surroundings, to visit loved ones, other cultures, etc. We serve as an expression of gratitude for what we receive – sunshine, oxygen, food, shelter, life itself. Integrating these two essential components seems like a next step in our collective evolution.

The question, of course, is: how do we do this in a manner that honors all while recognizing just how truly essential this is to our very existence as a species, and the next iteration thereof? Certainly, we could argue the validity of such a point, but I am not so sure that it will get us anywhere.

Voluntourism has birthed on this planet for a reason, a significant reason. Getting to the heart of that reason is an important step for us. Rather than condemn voluntourism, let’s spend some time understanding why it is here – not as an answer to our problems, but as an expression of how we might become a more integrated and interdependent world.


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