March 18, 2012
Learning Something New
I’ve never been a fan of voluntourism. Yes, I know it is a growth industry but I worry about who benefits. The definition from a comprehensive website suggests this kind of travel is all for the tourist:
The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination.
I have also heard the stories of people lured to foreign parts on a ‘do-good’ mission, only to find their time and energies exploited in tasks that do not match their skills and interests. Worse, in my view, is the easy come-and-go of the voluntraveller with limited contribution to the development needs of local communities or organisations. It convolutes the purpose of volunteering, and when a payment is required for the experience I have to ask if this is still ‘volunteering’. Of course many voluntour agencies take a responsible approach, offering ‘reality-check’ information and a placement process. Research studies find positive outcomes for the volunteers in terms of self and career development, but there is little recorded evidence of the impact of volunteering in communities where participants are placed. And that’s what should matter, specially when governments in developed nations promote or support international volunteering as part of their aid programmes.
As for micro-volunteering – I have yet to get my head around how it works and to add it to my lexicon of volunteering. Yes, I know it’s convenient for the volunteer and allows for innovative ways to support non-profit organisations. Yet, again, I wonder about the cost-benefit outcomes. Can the value of a short-term, bite-sized volunteer task really be worth the management input to make micro-volunteering happen? Volunteers do not come for free!
Well – I happened to do a spot of micro-volunteering, as a voluntourist, during recent travel in Laos.
I knew about Big Brother Mouse before I left New Zealand, and paying the office a visit was on my list of things to do. Big Brother Mouse (BBM) is a not-for-profit, Lao-owned project, with Lao staff. Its focus is literacy, publishing books and distributing them around the country, particularly to highland villages. There were BBM books to be found at night markets and other places round the country, and on one remote mountain road a van sporting the BBM logo went past.
In Luang Prabang I expressed interest in helping young adults with English conversation practice. That was going to be my micro-voluntourist effort: two hours chatting with a stranger from another culture. I was assigned to a young woman who wanted English skills so she could better communicate with tourist visitors at her workplace. We got on just fine, covered a lot of ground beyond the basic personal and family information, and two hours went by in a flash.
One small bit of experience does not answer my questions, but at least I have learned how it works, for one organisation in a developing country. What made it work in voluntourism terms is the explicit information on the website, all geared for visitors to Laos who could be prospective donors and/or volunteers. On site, staff were clear and firm about expectations. And I am sorry this meeting was a one-off, because it would be good to follow the young woman’s development. Extending volunteer commitment is one of the spin-offs of micro-volunteering, but it will not happen this time. I wonder too if there are any records of progress in language development – is the experience useful for the participant? As the volunteer I introduced myself to office staff and presented some relevant credentials but no details were recorded, nor references required. (This type of volunteering would surely be subject to some risk management back home.)
So – I have had a taste of two unfamiliar brands of volunteering. The task process (relationship- building) was familiar, and it was the context that was different. I will not be chasing further experience in either voluntourism or micro-volunteering, but I will be keeping an open mind and an eye on opportunities closer to home.