Rafia Zakaria, on Al Jazeera America, writes:
My friend Jack likes to tell his favorite story about a summer he spent volunteering in Colombia. He recounts that story anytime he’s handed the opportunity, at parties, lunch meetings and airports. He highlights varying facets of the story on different occasions — the snake he found in his tent, his camaraderie with the locals and his skills at haggling. The message to his audience is clear: I chose hardship and survived it.
If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, his story of a deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character. As summer looms, many Americans — college students, retirees and others who stand at the cusp of life changes — will make similar choices in search of transformational experiences. An industry exists to make these easier to make: the voluntourism business.
As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.
Zakaria rightly adds that:
Despite its flaws, the educational aspect of voluntourism’s cross-cultural exchange must be saved, made better instead of being rejected completely.
As a volunteer or an academic researcher this summer, here are a few things you can do out of respect for the people you work with (especially if you fit standard definitions of “expat”). These points might seem obvious, but even seasoned professionals need a reminder every now and then.
- Be respectful: I am often shocked at how some otherwise reasonable academics and college students acquire an aura of arrogant omnipotence the second they land in a developing country. Being accorded high status on account of foreignness can do real damage, it turns out. Do not feed off of this. Maintain a level head, and respect those that you deal with. It is for your own good. You will never be able to completely transform the societies you work in, or study. Be humble. Think incremental change. Remember that your presence is temporary. Do not exploit the goodwill of your hosts.
- Work with the grain: Do not seek to disrupt the way people do things. You can offer advice and introduce people in the villages you visit to new ideas. But do not imagine yourself to be the great change agent. Because you are not. Sustainable change must be anchored within local power dynamics. Do not create parallel systems. I reiterate, whatever change you introduce must be anchored in existing systems. That is the only way the change will be incentive-compatible with the interests of those who hold the power to completely sabotage everything you do. You will most certainly fail if you ignore this reality.
- Keep a diary: You will be in a lot of situations in which you can’t say exactly what you think (and shouldn’t). So keep a diary, and have it be the place where you jot down your
naive and disrespectfulrandom thoughts (we all have these thoughts). Review these diary entries once in a while. See if your entries change as you get to know your hosts better. If they don’t, find out what’s missing.
- Lastly, do not plaster your social media profile wall-to-wall with images of anonymous people in various states of desperation. Nothing says that you are a jerk like having images of anonymous kids with torn clothes milling around you on your Facebook page. Whatever images you post, the world will know whether these were your real friends or just props to advertise to the world that you went to Nicaragua or Namibia. Do not post pictures of people whose names you don’t know, or of children whose parents did not give you permission to do so. Please, do not be that person.
Also, do not forget to learn. Learn and learn some more. And share with your hosts as much as you can.