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David Clemmons in Amman
The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 7 Issue 3 Highlights

Female Worker at Holy Land Designs

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'"

Hands Up Holidays Smiles from Thailand
"Smiles from Thailand" Copyright © Hands Up Holidays, All Rights Reserved

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:

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:

"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":

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?

Global Glimpse working with kids
"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.

Final Thoughts

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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