I spent last week in the United Kingdom speaking with the Team at Complete Coherence in Romsey, England, and interacting with academics and practitioners at the first of a six-part seminar series funded by the Economic & Social Research Council held at the University of Brighton. Although the venues were quite different, the two discussions centered around one basic theme: Reconceptualising international volunteering.
Ironically, it wasn’t until later in the week when I was having dinner with my “Little Brother” and his friend who has been exposed to development in Latin America, that the conversation reinforced an insight that has been percolating in the background of my mind for some time. In essence, we concluded, that one of the best ideas for reconceptualising voluntourism would be to eliminate all projects which focus on basic human needs. By eliminating Maslow’s bottom row of the pyramid, we also eliminate a host of maddening challenges for the voluntourism space. [There is no need to get into the “development business,” as Dr. Anna Mdee (in her lecture at the University of Brighton seminar) pointed out the pitfalls of in its own right, and certainly not in the context of international volunteering and voluntourism.]
Moving Beyond Basic Needs…
The Voluntourism Space has spent the better part of a decade embroiled in the controversial, the debatable, the unskilled, the labor-replacing, the orphan-generating. Assuredly, some of this comes from a lack of understanding of the numerous projects and offerings around the world which have nothing to do with the bottom of the pyramid – assisting social entrepreneurs, refurbishing & reconstructing historic buildings, conducting environmental research – the list is endless!
If we simply move voluntourism beyond the reach of projects focused on meeting the basic needs of host communities, we can truly reconceptualise it. We can add dimensions that are rooted in the development of the individual. We can eliminate much of the sense of urgency around decoupling travel & tourism from voluntary service. And, everyone will be able to sleep better at night!
Once we extract Maslow’s lowest tier of the pyramid from voluntourism, we can focus on the 4 dimensions which bring us more in line with the uppermost tier: Self-Actualization. These dimensions are present in the context of a VolunTourism experience (pre-, during-, and post-trip), it simply depends on to what degree each is acknowledged and then consciously integrated into the overall awareness of participants.
The four dimensions are broadly represented by: 1) The “Open Hand,” 2) The “Open Heart,” 3) The “Open Mind,” and 4) The “Open Self.” Let’s go through these briefly.
VolunTourism 1.0: The “Open Hand” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes “serving,” e.g., doing, performing, a task in an effort to be of support to the local destination. Quite often, this dimension is the most sought after aspect of the journey, as participants are eager to accomplish and leave a lasting, positive impression on the community. In addition, there is a great deal of “doing” involved in the preparation for a trip, engaging in the trip (just think of the travel alone to some of the more remote locations), and, of course, all that surrounds one’s returning to the home environment upon completion of a journey. The “Open Hand” can be experienced over “short-term” or “long-term” engagements and brings us into contact with the physiological aspects of our own being – our bodies and how they respond to the demands of VolunTourism.
The Mantra for this dimension: “I serve others.”
VolunTourism 2.0: The “Open Heart” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the interpersonal connections, i.e., “relating,” to others. The “others” are represented by members of the host community/destination and, of course, one’s fellow volunteers. This dimension brings into our awareness emotions and feelings regarding our responses to others.
The Mantra for this dimension: “I relate to others.”
VolunTourism 3.0: The “Open Mind” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the “being” of internal dialogue and discovery that occurs through the process of participating in such a journey. The catalyzing environment of the experience provides the necessary energy to dive within one’s own values, beliefs, judgements, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the world.
The Mantra for this dimension: “I explore my own being.”
VolunTourism 4.0: The “Open Self” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the growth & development, or “becoming,” of the individual throughout the process of the entire footprint of the journey: pre-, during-, and post-trip. It will naturally unfold if from the initiation of even the first hint of a desire to participate in such a journey that an individual realizes there is more at work than merely going overseas to volunteer. These journeys are a metaphor for the unfolding of the individual. If consciously approached, the experience brings forth a new iteration of the individual, one which will prove of far more service to any and all whom s/he may meet.
The Mantra for this dimension: “The journey and I are one, continuous becoming.”
One might argue that directing our service t0 the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid may lead us to self-actualization. However, the degree to which we can be effectual in addressing those needs has, at least thus far, proven elusive. Trillions of dollars in aid and billions of hours of service have netted us little advancement in overcoming the deficit. Could it be, by coordinating service beyond the lowest tier, we will be able to render greater service and far more meaningful development for all stakeholders?
The “Open Hand” has been the default dimension of service itineraries for decades. Introducing the significance of the other dimensions through a coordinated effort – providing participants with tools and practices to better prepare them to “Open Heart,” “Open Mind,” and “Open Self” – seems like a reasonable launch-point for reconceptualizing volunteering. It is anticipated that by doing so, we may see an overall increase in the sustainability of projects and the longevity of results for communities and participants alike.
Under this scenario, we can see the value of travel, of exploration in the context of a destination. Encountering different aspects of the destination will allow these other dimensions to open more freely, perhaps further than could otherwise occur simply through service.
It would appear that we have an important question to address: Can we free VolunTourism from Maslow’s lowest tier in order to explore its developmental potential for participants?