Voluntourism and Confidence in Our Social Impact

2014-social-change-impact-report-1Walden University recently released its 2014 Social Change Impact Report. Citizens from eight countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Jordan, Mexico, and the United States), more than 9,000 individuals in all, were interviewed. The results of this study prove insightful for those in the voluntourism sector. Two items from the survey are particularly noteworthy: 1) Emphasis on Long-term change versus Immediate change, and 2) Perception of Our Influence on Systemic Change.

Emphasis on Long-Term Versus Immediate Change

According to the Press Release from Walden University regarding some of the results of the survey, “An average of 73% of adults who have ever engaged in positive social change say it is extremely or very important that a person’s involvement with positive social change today contributes to long-term changes that will improve people’s lives in the future. In contrast, an average of 61% of adults say it is extremely or very important to contribute to immediate changes that improve people’s lives now.”

In the context of voluntourism, this raises a number of questions. Why, for example, would so many individuals be drawn to orphanages to assist in the “immediate” care of children? Could it be that these individuals have previously not “engaged in positive social change”? Are there certain items that require immediate intervention? Does the amount of time one can dedicate have bearing on the sense of immediacy, i.e., if someone can dedicate more time to addressing a particular challenge does that, in fact, influence her/his sense of immediate change versus long-term change?

These are questions which could be explored more fully, of course. And it should be noted that the survey does not suggest that immediate change is unimportant to adults. So, we can infer that short-term voluntourism experiences, even if the results of those engagements with host communities prove to be immediate, would not necessarily be egregious errors in the eyes of 6 out of 10 adults.

Perception of Our Influence on Systemic Change

2014-social-change-impact-report-4Now, this is where the 2014 Social Change Impact Report truly gets interesting. Take a look at Figure 2 (right) from the survey. Note that in each country a drop occurs, in some cases quite a significant one, between 2013 and 2014 under the heading: “In the future, more people in my country will be involved in positive social change activities than are involved today.” This mirrors the responses under the column headed with “Engaging in positive social change is a waste of time.”

In fact the report shares the following [page #3]:

However, an area where people believe they are having less of an impact is on systemic changes. Fewer than half of adults (40%, on average) feel they are having a major or moderate impact on changing social structures and systems…

Adults in Germany (17%), U.S. (22%), Canada (23%) and China (26%) are the least likely to feel they are having this level of impact on changing social structures and systems. In fact, four in 10 adults in these countries feel they are having no impact in this area (U.S.: 44%; Canada: 41%; China: 40%; Germany: 38%).”

Germany, Canada, and the U.S. are major leaders in sending volunteers into the world. China is more likely to engage in domestic voluntourism, yet this may change in the future.

Questions: If we believe we cannot change social structures and systems, then is voluntourism likely to continue to increase in the years ahead? Is voluntourism the anti-establishment expression of delivering change outside of the systems which currently operate, say, for example the system of aid & development run by Mega-NGOs, multilateral financial institutions, and governments?

Final Thoughts…

The data from the 2014 Social Change Impact Report provides a thoughtful commentary on what may be motivating individuals to travel and volunteer across the planet. To suggest that any “one thing” is “the” motivation is far from the truth. The Report, however, does give us some things to consider, including some important questions.

For example, how many individuals who represent potential voluntourists are, in fact, individuals who feel that they have no impact on changing social structures and systems? Are these same individuals equally inclined to believe they can generate positive social change impact? Do we brim with confidence in our own capacity because we have so little faith in the capacity of our governments and other existing systems to change and, therefore, introduce positive social change impact?

Further study and research is undeniably important to improve our understanding of social change impact. This, in turn, will help to inform our approaches to voluntourism and volunteering abroad, particularly when we consider them to be harmful. If voluntourists believe they are capable of generating positive social change, and have a significant degree of confidence in there capacity to do so, then guiding them to address systemic change may take some tremendous coaxing. Nullifying their belief by telling them they are wrong is not going to change their behavior. They are confident, remember?

Changing the systems into which they deliver their energy and commitment would appear to be a far better course of action. Are we ready for such a shift?


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