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The Great Debate: “Making a Difference”

Whether voluntourism makes a difference is an on-going, often heated debate. The debate centers on whether voluntourism is altruistic or selfish and whether it is helpful or harmful to the local community. Both critics and supporters of voluntourism believe passionately their respective viewpoints are correct.

Photo by art makes me smile

We hear two recurring criticisms from some traditional service groups of voluntourism:

1. That it’s a feel good trip. It’s true, not every volunteer is motivated by altruism, but almost everyone enjoys the satisfaction that comes from giving. We think it’s dangerous for anyone to presume to know other people’s travel intentions. Who has the ability or the authority to judge?

2. That it does more harm than good for the local community. This argument assumes that using transient voluntourists means projects lack consistency and faults voluntourists for taking away opportunities and resources from locals. But the dollars voluntourists spend and the money they donate to the projects may more than offset what they take away in temporary local work or income.

Perhaps the debate results from mismatched expectations. Traditional volunteer organizations expect commitment levels of a couple of months or longer and reject anything less as unproductive and damaging. Why would shorter-term and smaller accomplishments be unsatisfactory or harmful? Why do we underestimate the impact of small deeds? A volunteer shelving library books, holding and comforting a crying orphan baby who would otherwise never be touched or held, or playing sports with street kids… Seemingly small, short, non-eventful acts can have profound long-lasting effects on both the giver and the receiver.

David Clemmons of Voluntourism.org raised a few intriguing questions and hinted at a paradigm shift in volunteer travel in his thoughtful article on this topic.

1. Is it wrong for those who want to volunteer for a short duration to also want to experience the destination – its art & culture, history, geography, and recreation?

2. Will short-term engagements lead to longer-term engagements?

3. Is this debate generated by “the challenges they [voluntourists] pose to existing models that have, for the most part, avoided the incorporation of travel & tourism-related activities and the potential consequences flowing from said inclusion?”

Clemmons believes the truth in this debate still eludes us. Drawing a parallel from General Petraeus’ remark on the debate on the controversial use of counterinsurgency in Iraq that “the truth is not to be found in any one of these schools of thought, but rather in the debate among them,” Clemmons concluded, “Our only hope in discovering a ‘truth’ that works for all of us will be to remain patient in the process of ongoing debate amongst and between these various schools. What emerges may very well surpass compromise and ultimately approach multi-lateral cooperation.”

Voluntourism, like other immersion travels, is complex. Some believe there exists only “one truth.” We think different scenarios can co-exist. Perhaps a better system that match volunteers with local projects that takes into account trip duration, project continuity and project urgency. Meanwhile it’s important not to deter anyone from exploring volunteer opportunities while traveling. By getting people aware and involved, this would raise the overall social consciousness in travel!

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