So You May Know
What If VolunTourism Is Development For The "Developed" World?
Could it be that we are entering a new era in the world of development? In the Foreward to Dambisa Moyo's new book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working And How There Is A Better Way For Africa, Niall Ferguson quotes Moyo in the Foreward: "Despite the widespread Western belief that 'the rich should help the poor, and the form of this help should be aid,' the reality is that aid has helped make the poor poorer, and growth slower." Is it possible that VolunTourism can represent a transition from uni-directional support for the recipient to one in which the "development" focuses more on the participant?
Years ago I participated in what I would call a “daily voluntour.” From my (then) home in Pacific Beach, California, I would ride my motorcycle to a 400-unit complex in Lincoln Park, a community in Southeastern San Diego. I would spend the better part of four hours each afternoon tutoring and mentoring the younger siblings of rival gang members (Crips & Bloods).
Upon completion of each session, I would head to La Jolla, California, where I served, alongside my fellow bussers, waiters, line cooks, bartenders, hostesses, and cocktail servers, some of the wealthiest people in the world. Around eleven o’clock my friend Ted and I would grab a late night nosh, or I might venture for a run on the Mission Beach boardwalk, a cultural experience in its own right, to clear my mind and prepare for the next day with the kids.
One afternoon, Tesaj (pronounced Tee/sha) pulled me aside to share something that had happened over the weekend. She had been in LA (Los Angeles) at a picnic when a car with its windows down rolled by. She described a “bumble bee” that whizzed so close to her ear she could feel the air moving aside as it passed. Then it was over. Her family and friends collected themselves off the ground and from behind anything they had discovered as a useful barrier between them and the barrage of bullets.
Why do I share this story with you?
The world of VolunTourism has entered the critical assessment phase. The “bullets” of criticism that really started in the UK in August 2007, are whizzing through cyberspace in greater and greater number. Questions regarding sustainability, taking jobs from local residents, development – all are attacking this form of travel as saying it is something that it is not, nor was ever intended to be. Thus, the question I pose to you is this: What if VolunTourism is development for the “developed” world?
For too long, in my opinion, we have focused our attention on “developing” nations and peoples, who do not have the financial wherewithal – “they make less than X dollars per day," to be part of a global system and economy - to be able to participate in said world order. I question the efficacy of such a strategy; for in my “dualistic” daily voluntour experiences of violence and urban poverty on one side and wealth beyond measure on the other, I can tell you that the group who assisted me in my development process and taught me more about how to live, to trust, and to love was quite often the one with fewer financial resources.
But I digress.
I would like to suggest to those who have found, and are finding, the time and energy to be critical of VolunTourism as a development tool for “the poor,” to try shifting that effort and determine how to transform VolunTourism into a development tool for “the rich.” (‘Man muss immer umkehren’ – ‘invert, always invert’ is the phrase often attributed to the mathematician, Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, as a directive for addressing the most difficult problems.)
Dambisa Moyo writes in Chapter 1 of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working And How There Is A Better Way For Africa:
Perhaps, we can see and embrace VolunTourism by being completely transparent about its true development purposes with all stakeholders. In essence, it is a means to change the “developed” world’s approach to how we conduct ourselves, how we expand our capacity and understanding of concepts and core values with which we may have lost touch, and, in some instances, may have never been acquainted at all. Indirectly, and at best, this form of travel can assist development and charitable efforts already in progress; directly, and when designed well, this form of travel has a better chance of impacting local communities through economic benefits accruing from the purchases of resident-based products and services by visitors while simultaneously fostering people-to-people exchange.
The bullets of criticism fly because the vision is focused on developing only one side of the relationship – those who are “not developed.” If people could begin to look at VolunTourism as a 21st Century Mirror created for the developed world to better behold its own reflection, then the inflammatory remarks might reverse course from outwardly directed to inwardly piercing the bubbles of “societal” influence and egoistic self-sufficiency which we have been painstakingly advancing for decades in the West.
The days of individualism are numbered. Either the planet will be consumed or we will learn to embrace “communality” and cooperation. VolunTourism is a step in this direction, not a panacea. By taking the largest industry in the world and crossing it with the third sector, we may very well come to the realization that we are not so developed after all. But this is a good thing, a very good thing indeed!
So loosen up. Get out there and experience VolunTourism as it was originally intended. See the world; lend a hand; but don’t delude yourself and think you are changing anyone or anything else, just yourself. Then you will discover that what has developed is your world view – not because you altered the world but because you have removed some of the "gunk" from your perspective.
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