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In Voluntourism It's What You Do With What You Do

Posted by Randy LeGrant | Jan 17, 2011 3:31:00 PM

Over at Social Edge, Saul Garlick wrote a Blog post entitled The Voluntourism Debate.  It's a great post.  And so are the comments, which I highly encourage you to read.  A couple of "super stars" in the world of volunteer abroad have commented there in fact.

Hands holding the worldThe question is framed about the length of time a volunteer spends on-site. The shorter the time spent on the project, the less good a volunteer can do...in a developing country.  There are other nuances, but over all this is the general point.

I have to ask, where do these voluntourists come from?  If they travel abroad with a reputable voluntourism sender, I'm not certain that they arrive in any country, developing or not, with the idea that they are changing the world.  I guess a bevy of receiving organizations are going to have to answer that for me.

A good sender is sending to a project abroad.  Is the premise of this debate that those voluntourists are showing up trying to save the world? Because my next question then has to be, "Where did they get that idea?"  Do voluntourists actually go out on their own and knock on doors asking to save people?  Or is this something writers like to assume?

My friend, Daniela Papi, had an interesting comment.  She said, "We went from offering people one-off voluntourism trips designed to "help people" to edu-tourism trips designed to change the way travelers give, travel, and live."  She also in her comments talked about "service learning" vs. "learning service" and I not only applaud those ideas but stand up applauding them.  And here's a whistle!

Conversation Corps logoWe have a seasoned traveler right now on one of our Homestay Tutor projects.  I just noticed a few days ago in her Blog that she wrote, "I would’ve have never found this place on my own. This is what travel is all about to me. More than ever my travel style is changing; it’s not about seeing a ton of places to tick off a list. It’s about slow travel; integrating into the culture and being local."

But I honestly think if people use a reputable sender, the sender has reputable projects on the other end.  The projects have been worked out in advance.  The time-table is set up in advance.  The voluntourist understands the limitations that will be placed upon him or her in advance.  It just seems unlikely that a mis-match is going to be made.  Showing up on your own, however, can be a local problem.

I see so many of these debates.  Non-profit vs. for-profit.  The longer you stay the more help you are locally.  And for me they all boil down to the fact that people equate "development" and "aid" to voluntourism.  But the "tourism" part of the word is the most important.  It isn't "aid-tourism" or "development-tourism."  And so it means the sender and the receiver have to be aligned to make sure expectations on all parts are met.

Here at GeoVisions we are busy creating unique experiences for people.  Making sure expectations are aligned with reality at the other end.  And staying in touch with voluntourists to help keep them aligned with the reality and the experiences they are having.  Lastly, we are more concerned about what they do with what they do, so the return for us is the most important aspect of the experience.

I suspect that last line was a charged powder keg, huh?

Written by Randy LeGrant

Randy is the Executive Director of the GeoVisions Foundation. He has spent the last 44 years managing organizations that send people abroad on cultural and educational exchanges.

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