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David Clemmons
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 9 Issue 1 Highlights

physical therapy

So You May Know

Without Inequality Would Voluntourism Even Exist?

The encounters between host communities and travelers, arguably, are made possible due to the inequality of the life circumstances of local residents and visitors by comparison. Much of the discussion and academic literature on voluntourism centers on the well-identified distinctions between the two participating groups – cultural, political, and wealth differences - to name a few. Cultural anthropologist Ellen Moodie, however, recently discussed the significance of this inequality in a piece for Missiology entitled “Inequality and Intimacy between Sister Cities in El Salvador and the United States.” Is inequality a prerequisite for the existence of voluntourism?

Introduction to Inequality

Ellen Moodie recently inked a noteworthy article -- "Inequality and Intimacy between Sister Cities in El Salvador and the United States" -- on the subject of short-term mission trips in which she relates an encounter with a Salvadoran man, 29 years of age, named Leopoldo. As a cultural anthropologist, Moodie was exploring the relationship between two sister cities, in particular, parishioners from Sacred Heart Parish in Illinois (USA) and local residents in La Cruz, El Salvador. What she discovers through her own interaction with Leopoldo is a direct, shared connection to 41st Street and Bergline Avenue in Union City, New Jersey, a place where he once lived and she held as part of her beat for the Jersey Journal. Eventually, the discussion with Leopoldo leads to money, and his request of money from her. It is this request that proves a sufficient catalyst for the remarks set forth by Moodie in the article entitled “Inequality and Intimacy between Sister Cities in El Salvador and the United States.”

Inequality has long been a topic of discussion among numerous researchers and authors when referencing volunteer tourism. Inequality comes in several forms. Certainly, there can be inequality in relation to freedom. Travelers often have more freedom than local residents to cross-borders, for example. They also have the freedom “to pay to work.” They have the freedom of discretionary time to travel, and the financial wherewithal to do so. They also have the freedom to leave the situation they encounter in the destination, unlike the local residents. Additionally, they have likely had more formal education, enabling them to perhaps speak the native language or tackle problems that require advance education, whereas local residents may not, in fact, be educated to a point of being able to do likewise. And what discussion of inequality is complete without reference to the “giver-receiver” dynamic.

animal care in Guatemala
However, rarely do we see mention of the inequality that can run in the opposite direction. Visitors are clearly at a “disadvantage” when it comes to knowing the destination – the culture, the history, the geography – of the space. They cannot possibly understand the nuances of the language that are easily mastered by locals. Their knowledge of, for example, native building practices will in no way meet the level of understanding embedded in the hands of a resident. And if the other side of voluntourism, the tourism part, is recognized, the residents can distinguish themselves in acting as guides for voluntourists – placing the voluntourists in a “receiving” position while the residents assume the role of “giver.”

Inequality: The Gap Is Necessary

Moodie offers two very important quotes on inequality from her article. The first appears on p. 158:

In the concluding paragraph of the article (p. 160), Moodie wraps the discussion with:

construction in Peru

It is important to note that Moodie’s discussion of inequality rises from the point-of-view of the traveler, as she herself is a participant in the trip from which these observations and conclusions are drawn. The prevailing assumption (among all authors with whom this author has had contact) is that those in the North are better off than those in the South – a necessary axiom for the rule of inequality, as it is currently presented, to apply. What may be far more interesting, and most assuredly relevant to Moodie’s story, is that inequality between Sister Cities has not truly been explored. One could argue that each individual traveling to another destination creates a natural “sister-city” inequality based on the differences between visitor/resident destinations and the individual life experience of the visitor/resident hailing, respectively, therefrom. In the host destination, the visitor has many inequalities to overcome. But this is not juxtaposed with the so oft-quoted mantra regarding the inequality of Northern visitors in comparison to Southern residents.

There is no question as to the relevance of the inequality in spawning the interaction; what is overtly conspicuous, however, is the lack of recognition that the inequality is naturally symbiotic. With deeper reflection, the differentiation exposed through inequality begins to resemble the inhalation and exhalation of breathing, rather than some cataclysmic, neo-colonial regression. In this way, voluntourism begins to appear as a necessary step in human evolution rather than a disastrous malfeasance perpetrated by a power-saturated North on a meek and humble South.

Concluding Thoughts

Inequality has been a major driving force in the movement of peoples across borders. In the case of voluntourism, those who perceive that the scales are dipping in their favor are candidates for movement. They will seek those places where they believe the scales tip grossly in the opposite direction in comparison to their own. This may or may not mean that the "gap is necessary," but it certainly adds an incentive.

Voluntourism is a direct response to perceived inequality. Arguably, however, this inequality is not so well-perceived when reflected on the voluntourist. Inequality as a catalyst is more than acceptable as long as voluntourists are fully aware of the inequality running in both directions. If this becomes the norm, however, voluntourism will look less and less like a "fix-the-wealth-imbalance" trip and more and more like an "expand-my-wealth-base" trip. When it is realized that local communities have wealth beyond the current understanding of voluntourists, we may change our thinking from the conclusion that the gap is necessary and begin expressing gratitude that the gap is a reminder.


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