Voluntourism as a Microcosm of a VUCA World

Volatility… Uncertainty… Complexity… Ambiguity… VUCA. From the U.S. Military to the ranks of the business world, VUCA has found a following amongst those who are focused on leadership development and the many leaders who are contending with guiding entities across this planet in decade 2.0 of the 21st Century. What may surprise some of the consultants, educators, and CEOs who are busily engaging with VUCA is that Voluntourism represents a microcosmic VUCA environment. Each of these challenges are inevitably dealt with by any of the stakeholders associated with voluntourism, especially those individuals who decide to embark on a journey to a foreign land to render service. Inevitably, any stakeholder will be confronted with these elements, either singularly, or more likely, in combination; there appears to be no escape.

A Closer Inspection of VUCA

Any review of business literature over the past several years will result in at least one discovery: the increasing use of the term “VUCA.” Academics, consultants, C-suite executives and business writers have adopted a military term to represent the business & leadership environment of the day. Global climate change, economic crises, geopolitical turmoil, just to name a few, point to the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) nature of the planet and everything on it.

So what do these terms mean?

The consensus on each of these terms is conveniently summarized across numerous publications; however, the following video from Foton Labs provides an excellent introduction:

Volatility refers to change being constant.

Uncertainty refers to the inability to know everything fully.

Complexity refers to inter-connectivity and interdependence and the absence of non-linear interactions.

Ambiguity refers to the quality of an event or object to be open to more than one interpretation.

Voluntourism – A VUCA Environment

Speak to someone who has been on a voluntourism trip or has hosted voluntourists in a local community and you will likely hear one of the VUCA terms. Uncertainty may top many lists, for if voluntourism experiences are consistently anything, they are demonstrations of an inability to know everything fully. The best-laid plans can be abruptly dissolved as a result of the volatile nature of political instability, natural disasters, failed delivery of supplies, or the inevitable missed flight or bus connection. Combine a few cultures from around the world, bring them into the context of another culture, and  we start to see the ambiguity, for their are numerous interpretations for the issues which any destination and its residents are confronting. And, these issues are nothing short of complex, yet complexity extends into the recognition of the interdependence and inter-connectivity of those engaged in a voluntourism experience – residents and fellow voluntourists alike.

The voluntourism experience is indeed a space for all participants to encounter a VUCA environment. Can this help us view voluntourism differently? To see it beyond merely a well-intentioned gesture to make good in the world?

Expanding Our Vision of Voluntourism by Addressing VUCA

Voluntourism appears to be measured by a traditional view of inputs and outcomes – skilled inputs, labor, experience, etc., infused into a community over an extended period of time, generates beneficial, meaningful, sustainable outputs. Looking at the VUCA nature of voluntourism can present us with an opportunity to reconsider our expectations of voluntourism. Instead of desired outcomes, we may want to have a “desired vision” for voluntourism that recognizes the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of it. What would this vision look like?

Multiple Intelligences

Multiple Intelligences, based on the work of Howard Gardner

To date, as but one example, we have conflated voluntourism with aid & development work, expecting voluntourism to deliver on the same level as long-term development projects. It is true that some voluntourism programs are supporting the longevity of cultural treasures like Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail through conservation & maintenance efforts, but this is more of the exception than the rule. A vision of voluntourism as a substitute for aid & development work demonstrates a lack of vision; essentially, we need to envision another future for voluntourism.

We have not explored other forms of development which could potentially be catalyzed by voluntourism, the development of the multiple intelligences of local residents and voluntourists, for example. To me, this is promising.

Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking work on Multiple Intelligences gives us something to think about in the context of voluntourism experiences. He wrote in the introduction to Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2011):

Taken together, the work on multiple intelligences and the work on the constraints of the mind yield a view of the human being significantly different from the one generally subscribed to a generation ago. In the heyday of the psychometric and behaviorist eras, it was generally believed that intelligence was a single entity that was inherited; and that human beings – initially a blank slate – could be trained to learn anything, provided that it was presented in an appropriate way. Nowadays an increasing number of researchers believe precisely the opposite; that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth; and that it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that go against early ‘naive’ theories or that challenge the natural lines of force within an intelligence and its matching domains.

SOURCE: Gardner, H. (2011) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

These words should inspire us to look at voluntourists and local residents very differently. For those who have frowned upon the naive teen or twenty-something heading out into the world to be of service, what we might consider is that we have done a poor job of finding the strong intelligence(s) of these individuals and therefore aligned them with projects that can truly benefit from those strengths. And, with this in mind, it seems that local residents could become similarly aware of their strengths and be more inclined to share those with visitors, making service truly reciprocal.

Final Thoughts…

It would appear that we have allowed the VUCA world to muddy the voluntourism space in terms of our view of its potential. Our vision of voluntourism has been shaped by our previous approaches to a linear world — No wonder we have been struggling with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of voluntourism!

By incorporating a greater awareness of VUCA and by exploring service in terms of, as an example, strengthening intelligences across cultures and individuals, we can begin to shape a new vision for voluntourism, one that is more aligned with its real potential.

This will take some time. What will be the first steps? What will we encounter along the way? There are many, many questions yet to be revealed. At least we can be certain of one thing: VUCA will have its influence, indeed.




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