Problematizing Voluntourism

So today I went to an exhibition that connects youth who want to study, work, and volunteer abroad with organizations offering just those sort of opportunities. It should come as no suprise as to why I went. It was an interesting event, to say the least.

I walked around the fair scoping out all the different organizations offering internship and volunteer opportunities, picking up a few pamphlets. And then I attended this seminar by Projects Abroad on the different initiatives they have going on in so many countries around the world. I began to feel really weird as I walked around the conference center. Because everything there came with a price. Want to volunteer to build a school in Cambodia? No problem, just drop $5000, no big. Want to intern at a rural hospital in Ethiopia? You've got options! For one month, it's only $4000...add just an extra grand if you want to stay another month. Is this really all benevolence or just another form of consumerism? What I saw today, essentially, were a bunch of organizations literally selling an experience with the sales pitch of "doing good" and a lot of young people just eating it all up. And "voluntourism", as this industry is so cleverly called, has really become this booming billion dollar market (not an exaggeration).

Now I'm not actually as cynical as that last paragraph might have sounded. I think it is fantastic that more and more people are interested in learning about global cultures and making a difference in the world in some shape or form. I do not doubt people's intentions or their drive to do "good". I am one of them, after all. And I think this drive is something positive that we should be harnessing and tapping into. But my educational background forces me to look and think beyond the rhetoric of benevolence.

Today the everyday language of voluntourism accepts it simply as necessary and inherently good without looking deeper and recognizing the very many nuances that exist, the socio-political structures that underlie the different countries and communities that volunteers are so eager to be a part of.

I listened to the people at the booths who were "pitching" their projects overseas, my fellow youngin's asking their questions, and the speakers rah-rah-rah-ing everyone in the crowd. And I heard the same thing all across the board. There was this sort of glamour, romance, and novelty being attributed to working abroad in some rural community in the developing world. One young woman even asked if she could do two, two week projects back to back -- one in South America and the other in Asia. And I couldn't help but ask myself, what fruits could that possibly bear? Both for herself and for the communities that she would be working with? What could one possibly learn in two weeks about another country, city, or village? And how does volunteering in such a short time affect the people in these places?

Pico Iyer said, "travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology" -- in my own interpretation, of breaking down that distinguishing line between the Self and Other that has caused and continues to cause so much misunderstanding and strife today. But when we participate in these volunteer programs, many of which are really short term (weeks, sometimes even just days) do we really accomplish that? Or because of the shortness of time, do we only heighten the difference, painting an incomplete, more incomprehensible picture? Can a mere glimpse into another world really allow you to understand it?

And going back to the whole payment situation that was (is?) so bothersome to me. To take part in these programs is to be in a position of privilege. To be able to pay thousands of dollars to get involved in such initiatives presupposes privilege. And with that, there are some real power relations that need to be unpacked. What is the effect of having volunteers (mostly Westerners) come in and out of communities? What is the effect of this on the people of these communities? Is our "help" even needed? We need to ask the role of the self in all this. Why are we (as individuals) doing this? Why are we invested in volunteering and engaging? Is it a commitment to social change? Because if it is, two weeks caring for children in an orphanage or building a school will not usher change. To do so requires addressing the structural mechanisms that work to maintain and reproduce the current systems of injustice and inequality.

Now don't think I'm passing judgment on and criticizing everyone at this expo. It's as much a reflection on myself as it is on the whole industry of voluntourism and its relationship to development. I put myself through this same kind of scrutiny everyday too. I ask myself, why do I want to be in the nonprofit sector? Why am I so keen on studying international development? I interned at an NGO's head office for eight months without pay and continue to work there part-time at a not so glamorous rate because I can afford to do so. That is privilege. What are the implications of that? I live a more than comfortable life, am able to take time off to travel leisurely, and then safely come home to advocate against human rights abuses in post-conflict countries. What are the implications of that? Are there contradictions there? What is the role of my self in this broader political context?

These are the questions that I ask myself all the time...questions that I struggle with and try to come to grips with. But I don't have the answers. I spent an entire semester in a community engagement class discussing, debating, and unpacking similar issues. In the end, we did not come up with any definitive answers either. It's tricky. But I think voluntourism is here to stay. And where we take it, how we approach it will determine if it will be a force for "good" (another concept that needs unpacking ;-)).

Matters of Consequence

Back on my side of the pond and slowly trying to adjust to this thing the grown ups call “real life”. It’s like I got on a plane, crossed an ocean and a few countries and suddenly I’ve been propelled into an entirely different world consumed with what the wise Little Prince likes to call, “matters of consequence”.  One day I’m carefree, exploring historic lands, experiencing local cultures, meeting and connecting with strangers from around the globe and the next day it’s job searching and awkwardly fumbling as I figure out the answer to everyone’s question: “so what are your plans?”. I haven’t got a clue. But fear not, grown ups, I will figure it out.

In the meantime, I will bask in the glory of the memory that was my European adventure, continuing to do what I do best – write…even if my words only make it to this humble little blog of mine.

I’ve learned so much in the short two months that I was gone…about the world, about people, about myself. Traveling has a funny way of taking you completely out of your comfort zone and having you confront things about yourself that you never knew, or at least, for a time, tried to ignore. And now I’ve got a billion questions whirling around in my brain, expecting to be slowly picked up and resolved. But how am I supposed to confront all of the things I’ve learned about myself? Answer all the questions I’ve asked myself? Are there answers? Do I look for them? Do they find me? Do we meet each other halfway? Or do I create the answers as I go along my way?  There you go…another 7 questions to add to the already growing heap collecting in my brain. 


"Think of the long trip home
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?"

gone baby gone

I know, I know...I'm about two years late on this! But basking in the few hours that's left of my summer, I decided to laze around and watch a movie (something I probably won't have time to do in a few weeks). Now I've been meaning to see Gone Baby Gone for quite sometime now so tadah! I finally did. I had absolutely no idea what this movie was about prior to watching it...just knew it was directed by Ben Affleck, that my mom loved it, andddd that's pretty much it. So about two hours later, I'm sitting on my couch completely blown away, trying to wrap my head around all the moral questions that were just presented to me. Holy hell, that was an AMAZING movie. So, so many hard questions that I (unfortunately) don't have the answer to...

What would I have done? Given the situation, whose side would I be on? It's so hard to answer...these aren't simple black and white questions of wrong or right. Now at first glance you'd think it'd be an easy decision. The kid's mom is a crackhead who leaves her alone while taking a hit. She clearly doesn't have a proper job to support a family and hangs around drug dealers, pimps, know, just the kind of people every child needs for a healthy, stable support system. So given that, I'd obviously leave the child with Morgan Freeman and his wife (can't remember character names, sorry)...a responsible, well-off, supportive couple who actually love and care for the child. Right?

Maybe. A part of me can't help but find some credence in Casey Affleck's point of view. You can't just steal someone else's child. Yes, you mean well and yes you are most definitely more well-equipped to take care of this child and she'll most probably have a 100% chance of succeeding in life...but does that make it right? Is it your life to give? Who are we to decide what's best? Would we be playing God by giving into something like this? I don't it idealism by youth to think that this would be the right thing to do? Naïveté to think that it's possible for Amy Ryan's character to change? Are we just deluding ourselves into thinking these things? Does the wear and tear of life and of age make this decision so much easier? Make us pessimistic or rather, more realistic? ...that there is no hope for the child if left in the hands of Amy's character. That this is better for Michelle Monaghan said, isn't it better to know that the child is in a safe place where she can have sleepovers and go to school and basically, have a shot at a normal life? I think these things and then again I go back all over again and ask, who gives you the right to make these decisions? I don't know, I don't know...

So I go back and forth, back and forth asking myself what I'd do. But clearly I don't have the answers...guess I'll have to keep mulling over it. Hopefully, I'll never have to make this kind of a decision...