|"Female worker at Holy Land Designs" Copyright © Engaging Cultures, All Rights Reserved
So You May Know
What Can the VolunTourism Community Learn from the Experience of the U.S. Peace Corps in 2011?
For years now I have observed, along with most of you, an increasing number of mixed reviews and perspectives on voluntourism. Opinion pieces, blog posts, and radio call-in shows have dedicated time to emphasizing the "harm" and/or "hurt" that voluntourism creates in, for example, communities. In 2011, however, I must admit that I am becoming more optimistic that voluntourism will be able to weather these storms, particularly as I observe the unfolding of the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Peace Corps. In the same year that a milestone is being celebrated and life-changing stories are being exchanged, one of the dark secrets of the Peace Corps, sexual assault and violence perpetrated against Peace Corps volunteers, is also finding its way into the media, in part, via attempts to pass new legislation to address these challenges. Perhaps, the VolunTourism Community can learn some lessons from the Peace Corps' 2011.
"'Who Knows? We Shall See'"
ne day in late summer, an old farmer was working in his field with his old sick horse. The farmer felt compassion for the horse and desired to lift its burden. So he left his horse loose to go [to] the mountains and live out the rest of its life.
Soon after, neighbors from the nearby village visited, offering their condolences and said, "What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. How unfortunate you are!. You must be very sad. How will you live, work the land, and prosper?" The farmer replied: "Who knows? We shall see".
Two days later the old horse came back now rejuvenated after meandering in the mountainsides while eating the wild grasses. He came back with twelve new younger and healthy horses which followed the old horse into the corral.
|"In 2007, Kate Puzey, a valedictorian from Georgia, arrived in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach local children English. When she discovered that girls in her class were being sexually assaulted by another teacher, she notified Peace Corps staff in Benin’s capital. While Peace Corps decided to fire the predator, they never told Kate. Kate was now in serious danger. This man was dangerous, and Peace Corps knew that Kate specifically told them how to contact her in the event they took any disciplinary action because she feared retribution. Days later, Kate Puzey, at the tender age of 24, was found on her front porch with her throat slit. Her fear became an unfortunate reality." ("Time to Protect American Angels Abroad" - Rep. Ted Poe, The Hill's Congress Blog)
Word got out in the village of the old farmer's good fortune and it wasn't long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer on his good luck. "How fortunate you are!" they exclaimed. You must be very happy!" Again, the farmer softly said, "Who knows? We shall see."
At daybreak on the next morning, the farmer's only son set off to attempt to train the new wild horses, but the farmer's son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. One by one villagers arrived during the day to bemoan the farmer's latest misfortune. "Oh, what a tragedy! Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. You'll have to do all the work yourself, How will you survive? You must be very sad". they said. Calmly going about his usual business the farmer answered, "Who knows? We shall see"
Several days later a war broke out. The Emperor's men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor's army. As it happened the farmer's son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg. "What very good fortune you have!!" the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. "You must be very happy." "Who knows? We shall see!", replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.
As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. "Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you"! But the old farmer simply replied; "Who knows? We shall see."
As it turned out the other young village boys had died in the war and the old farmer and his son were the only able bodied men capable of working the village lands. The old farmer became wealthy and was very generous to the villagers. They said: "Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy", to which the old farmer replied, "Who knows? We shall see!" (The Farmer's Son: A Wisdom Tale)
There are numerous variations on this story - a Taoist tale, no less - and it is certainly one of my favorites. It has inspired me in moments of mental restlessness, particularly those brought on by critical remarks like the following:
Before You Pay to Volunteer Abroad, Think of the Harm You Might Do" The Guardian)
nce again, clumsy attempts to do good end up harming communities we want to help. We have seen it with foreign aid, corrosive in so many countries by propping up despots, fostering corruption and destroying local enterprises. We have seen it with the dumping of cheap food and clothes, devastating industries and encouraging a dependency culture. And now we see it with 'voluntourism', the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet.." ("
Such statements will only become more prevalent in the months and years ahead, especially if we continue on our current path. Wrestling with the cause or purpose behind them is not productive; transmuting that energy into something constructive and more consciously aware (see this issue's 3Qs column - Conscious Travel & VolunTourism), or simply recognizing the importance of having multiple opinons on a subject, can be helpful. Most helpful is finding an example and observing the back-and-forth swings of the pendulum as experienced by that example. For this, we turn our attention to the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Peace Corps.
The U.S. Peace Corps 2011: The Good and Not-Good
Throughout 2011, there have been numerous celebrations of the U.S. Peace Corps. We have seen statistics and heard tributes to an institution that has shaped the lives of thousands upon thousands of U.S. citizens. A recent report - A Call To Peace - has provided testimonials, documentation from returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), and statistics on the perceived overall value of the Peace Corps. Here is an example:
Bob Taft, former Republican Governer of Ohio (A Call To Peace, September 2011)
eaching in Tanzania gave me a lifelong interest in education, one of my primary points of focus as governor, and is certainly one of the reasons why I am enjoying my work here at the University of Dayton. It’s remarkable the Peace Corps continues to thrive in its 50th year, providing life-changing volunteer opportunities for Americans while presenting an authentic, down to earth view of our country to people around the world. Living and working in a developing country helped me appreciate what we enjoy in the U.S., especially our democracy and fundamental freedoms. I also gained an awareness of the needs of people in Africa and our responsibility to be of assistance where we can."
|"The sunsets and the potatoes are easy to talk about. Then there are the things that are really hard to fit into a story. How I had to stop working with certain schools because the teachers regularly did not show up for class. How I came to realize there was nothing I could do to save some children’s education. How I had to leave my first host family the night before my 23rd birthday because the father beat up his two daughters for talking to boys on the porch when he wasn’t home. Or how a month before I finished my service, I was sexually assaulted by someone I trusted. How nothing was ever really done about it because after telling my Peace Corps doctors, I was too exhausted to do anything else." (Who Is the Peace Corps For: American Volunteers Or Communities Abroad? - Gracy Obuchowicz, The Good Blog)
Despite all of the accolades and congratulatory remarks, the Peace Corps has had its own challenges over the last five decades. The one that has been quite visible in the media in 2011 is safety and security for Peace Corps volunteers in the field. Two bills passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 21 September 2011, the day before the official date of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps:
1) Peace Corps Volunteer Service Improvement Act of 2011, and
2) the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011.
The Kate Puzey story is a dramatic one. It was recenlty summed up by Representative Ted Poe (Republican-Texas) in a post on The Hill's Congress Blog entitled "Time to Protect American Angels Abroad":
n 2007, Kate Puzey, a valedictorian from Georgia, arrived in Benin as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach local children English. When she discovered that girls in her class were being sexually assaulted by another teacher, she notified Peace Corps staff in Benin’s capital. While Peace Corps decided to fire the predator, they never told Kate. Kate was now in serious danger. This man was dangerous, and Peace Corps knew that Kate specifically told them how to contact her in the event they took any disciplinary action because she feared retribution. Days later, Kate Puzey, at the tender age of 24, was found on her front porch with her throat slit. Her fear became an unfortunate reality."
Imagine being in the midst of your 50th Anniversary and having to address such challenges. Yet, the Peace Corps seems to be handling them deftly and without any tarnishing of its brand. Can we learn something from all of this?
What Can the VolunTourism Community Do?
When I look at the present situation for voluntourism, there are some points worth mentioning as it relates to the Peace Corps. First, voluntourism is starting to mature. As it does, there are more and more "returned voluntourists." These individuals have had varying degrees of success and/or failure and as such are building a base of testimonials springing from their experiences. They have access to social media and can spread their experiences. But unlike the Peace Corps, there are none of the "loyalties" or sense of purpose in connection with a 'greater good' - - for example, spreading the ideals of democracy or sharing American values abroad, as is the case with the Peace Corps - - other than the ideal of service. Is there a way to create an alumni base of returned voluntourists, not merely for specific entities, but for ALL returning voluntourists?
Second, voluntourism has had its share of tragedies, this number will continue to grow. Voluntourists have died and have been injured. Sexual harrassment amongst voluntourists and between voluntourists and community residents has been discussed, and, one day, we must be prepared for sexual assualt and violence to be perpetrated against and/or by voluntourists, if such has not been the case already. However, voluntourism providers do not have the deep pockets of the U.S. Government nor do they have the network of individuals around the world addressing safety & security concerns. Should the VolunTourism Community have a network of support similar to that of the Peace Corps? An in-country representative and/or set of representatives, who serve all entities equally?
|"Omar Apodaca teaches students to read at a mobile school in the city dump in Matagalpa, Nicaragua" Copyright © Global Glimpse, All Rights Reserved
Finally, the Peace Corps keeps track of what it does on an annual basis, not that some voluntourism providers fail to do likewise, yet at present there is no annual report on the entire sector - what does voluntourism accomplish on an annual basis, for example? It seems that the VolunTourism Community could benefit from a means of tracking itself and publishing these results for the review of those who are preparing blog posts and/or articles on the subject, not to mention other stakeholders, such as voluntourists, who would be interested to learn more.
Praise and persecution are points on the horizon, guiding the ship of activity on its tack-and-gibe journey toward perfection. Such wisdom is helpful in the context of the ongoing unfoldment of voluntourism.
Wisdom also comes from experience - and the Peace Corps has this in abundance. Looking for ways to include this knowledge and experience within the VolunTourism Community seems to be a worthy endeavor. Simultaneously, we must be aware that regardless of the efforts made to improve on cooperation and collaboration amongst those who move voluntourists across the planet, the critiques will not abate.
There will always be reason to find success and failure equally in voluntourism. What we can do is consider our vision of what voluntourism will be in the years to come, knowing full well that praise and persecution will flow, uninterruptedly, throughout. Perchance we will remember the wisdom of the farmer along the way: "Who knows? We shall see."
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