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October 2005 - Wisdom & Insight

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Wisdom & Insight

Why Build A House, When You Can Build A Habitat?!?

This month's question is in answer to a growing query that finds its way into my inbox. "Why don't you offer programs that help people to build houses?"

Building houses is a worthy effort, if, and only if, it can be demonstrated that through the building of a house, you are not alienating other members of a community.


Why put your VolunTourists and your VolunTourism activities into a predicament that requires choosing one worthy family over another?

Instead, select a project that has a broader reach. No, at the end of the day you will not be able to say to your friends and fellow-VolunTourists, "Look at the house we built!" But you will be able to say to one another, "Look at the classroom that we built that will serve hundreds, if not thousands, of children over the next 10 years."

Here are several definitions for habitat, that I think, will support the idea of broadening the impact of VolunTourism beyond house-building:

1) The region where a race, species, or individual naturally or usually lives, or is found. (Funk & Wagnalls)

2) Natural environment (Collier's)

3) A housing for a controlled physical environment in which people can live under surrounding inhospitable conditions (as under the sea) (Webster's)


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The use of "region" in the first definition gives us a broader context in which to operate. This sounds much larger than a house. Likewise, "natural environment" (definition #2) gives us a larger landscape with which to operate. And the third definition talks about the "inhospitable conditions." Perhaps a school or community center better fits such a definition because it provides shelter for many folks living in challenging conditions.

(Any person with a background in development will tell you that the greatest way to alleviate poverty is to provide education - birth-rates decrease with education. Certainly, education can occur in a home, but the same resources that go into building a home could be put into the building of a classroom to serve more than one household's worth of children.)

The point really gets back to a question that was raised by another reader regarding, "For whom is VolunTourism really designed?"

If the need to "accomplish something" is the only criteria established, then VolunTourism is clearly serving only the participating VolunTourists. But if you determine that the priority is to serve the needs of the COMMUNITY - not one family, not one person - then you are not prepared to meet this condition if you are only building houses.

VolunTourism Operators must convince VolunTourists that the projects that may be only partially completed through their efforts are part of an ongoing process - a process that will come to fruition, but in due time.

It is more difficult for one group to build a community center, a road, or a school, because the resources necessary to undertake such a project are generally cost prohibitive for a small group. (And, to protect a community from being overwhelmed by a large group of folks, the number of participants must be kept at a level that makes it nearly impossible to complete large-scale projects.)

Thus, VolunTourism Operators have a real task, a dynamic public relations campaign, that they must implement. You must convince VolunTourists that large-scale projects are better suited to support a community, to ultimately change a habitat. You must deliver the message about the importance of "sharing" a project with other groups that have come before, and will arrive after, your current group departs. Each group makes a contribution to the completion of the entire project. By creating stages in the project, you will be able to appease your VolunTourists with the fulfillment of meeting the requirements of a segment of the project.

With this approach you will avoid the inevitable challenge of, "Why did you select that family for building a house, when, in fact, this family is just as worthy?"

You, as a VolunTourism Operator, have the power to shift the vision of those who are interested in making a difference in the world. Educate them on the value of supporting the community at large, as opposed to one individual family, or a small group of families. Initially, not everyone will be pleased with the approach, but, in time, you will be better serving the community and providing true understanding to your VolunTourists.

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