Wisdom & Insight
Mother Teresa And VolunTourism: A Correspondence With Benjamin Arnoldy of The Christian Science Monitor
Some of you may have heard about, or read, the article posted by The Christian Science Monitor in late August 2010. Benjamin Arnoldy, the publication's South Asia Bureau Chief, wrote a piece entitled "How Mother Teresa's Work Spurred Growth Of 'Voluntourism.'" Prior to the article being published, Mr. Arnoldy sent me an email with some opening remarks and a series of questions that I think many of you will find of interest. I have also included my responses to his questions to further detail the nature of our correspondence and offer you an opportunity to see what was, and was not, incorporated into his final piece.
Original Email From Benjamin Arnoldy
To my recollection, this is the first such email that I have received connecting the work of Mother Teresa to VolunTourism; so, certainly, it got my attention. I also liked the questions as it struck me that Mr. Arnoldy had put some thought into the direction he wanted to take the article. In addition, I was aware that The Christian Science Monitor had covered the subject of voluntourism almost exactly one year ago to the day. The angle for that story - - "Volunteer Travel: Get Away From It All And Help Others, Too? 'Voluntourism Grows As A Travel Option" - - was very, very different.
I was intrigued to say the least.
Q1: What Year Did The Voluntourism Trend Really Take Off?
A: "I would say that late 2005/early 2006 is when we saw a dramatic shift in voluntourism. Hurricane Katrina was most likely the 'tipping point,' however, we cannot underestimate the power of the internet and social media. Voluntourism is clearly a 'word-of-mouth' phenomenon, benefiting tremendously from testimonials of friends and family members and the ripple effects of 'story-telling' by former voluntourists. (If you would like to read more of my thoughts on Hurricane Katrina, here is a link: http://blog.voluntourism.org/?p=347 )"
"Where opponents of VolunTourism cast challenge at the idea is in relationship to 'sustainable' initiatives. We know from past experience, there are more non-sustainable voluntary service projects in the world than there are sustainable ones. Yet, many arguments against VolunTourism use 'sustainability' as the justification to oppose its expansion and adoption around the world. Mother Teresa's approach makes a strong case in support of the types of VolunTourism programs that are being developed at the present time."
Q2: Are You Seeing Any Dropoff In Voluntourism Abroad With The Recession?
A: "In terms of the recession, I think what is most evident is a growing desire of would-be voluntourists to find placements that are much reduced in cost, or virtually free, at least in terms of fees being paid to a coordinating organization. Airfares, therefore, have become the biggest expense for would-be voluntourists and this is not unlike any other trip one would take. Also, more and more programs are being developed within destinations instead of being organized and coordinated by groups outside of destinations. Capacity development in countries like India and South Africa is leading to lower, more affordable prices. This is one of the reasons that voluntourism has maintained its share of participants even during the recession.
What you will discover, if you are able to interview some of the voluntourism 'operators', is that a number of voluntourism operators that exist within the CANUU (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States) countries have lost market share during the recession. Some entities have experienced 20 - 30% declines, yet, with so many new voluntourism operators coming into existence in host-countries (India, South Africa, Peru, and elsewhere), as well as tour companies developing their own voluntourism experiences, the participation level has actually been steady throughout the recession because would-be voluntourists have access to selecting programs that are far less expensive."
Q3: Mother Teresa's Drop-in and Volunteer Program Seems Like An Early Embrace Of This Trend. Do You Agree, Or Were There Many Other Organizations Drawing International Voluntourists Decades Ago As Well?
A: "I would agree that Mother Teresa's program was a pre-cursor to VolunTourism (I am stressing the 'T' here because I want to emphasize the fact that VolunTourism includes both the voluntary service and the travel & tourism aspect of the experience). Mother Teresa's program was set up to host individuals for whatever amount of time they could offer. There was no judgment. There was no grand, long-term commitment. The program was crafted to allow for movement and flow of volunteers. And if individuals wished to volunteer for a day or two and then go sightseeing elsewhere in Calcutta, or in India for that matter, they were free to do so. In this way, Mother Teresa was ahead of her time.
There is another point that should be made here: Mother Teresa was working with vulnerable populations. The voluntary service was not intended to be 'sustainable.' Services were necessary on a daily, recurring basis. This is what made her program so ideal for VolunTourism.
Where opponents of VolunTourism cast challenge at the idea is in relationship to 'sustainable' initiatives. We know from past experience, there are more non-sustainable voluntary service projects in the world than there are sustainable ones. Yet, many arguments against VolunTourism use 'sustainability' as the justification to oppose its expansion and adoption around the world. Mother Teresa's approach makes a strong case in support of the types of VolunTourism programs that are being developed at the present time. "
Q4: Mother Teresa Epitomized The Old Way Of Doing International Volunteer Work You Join A Religious Order, And You Go For A Lifetime. Is Voluntourism A Democratized, Easier, 21st-Century Version Of This?
A: "I would say that voluntourism is an expression of where we find ourselves, our global selves, in the 21st Century. If my calculations are correct, there are four times as many people on the planet as there were when Mother Teresa launched her initiative. In order for programs to continue to exist, they can no longer rely on donations and charitable giving to maintain their status as 'operational.' Programs must generate new streams of revenues and new ways for 'potential' donors to connect with projects in a hands-on manner, to meet the collective needs of the organization and the constituents served.
The new model of addressing social challenges in the world must be based upon an understanding that many hands make lighter work for everyone. I believe Mother Teresa understood this. I believe she understood that human beings need to be of service, that it is as important to them to be of service as food, water, shelter, clothing, and oxygen - the basic necessities. Only the stoutest of hearts can embrace what Mother Teresa did, but it does not mean that any of us with less stouter hearts 'need' it any less than she did. We must crawl before we can walk, and, subsequently, before we can run. Souls like Mother Teresa came onto this stage running. We 'crawlers' need opportunities to attempt to walk. Voluntourism is one of those opportunities."
Q5: Travel Has Made It Easier For People To Volunteer Abroad, But It's Also Made It Easier For Those Volunteers To Come Back Home Quickly, Rather Than Devoting Serious Time In A Place. Can These Volunteers Really Have Much Impact When They Go On Relatively Short Trips?
A: "We have to be very, very clear about what we mean by impact. Impact on whom? Impact on the communities? Impact on completing a specific task?
The challenge we face with voluntourism is that we currently define impact by a very narrow standard, often based upon time commitment, as if more time translates into greater impact. But, what researchers around the world are starting to discover is that impact is most closely related to how well structured projects are. For example, a computer programmer can come into a remote village and, if the community has prepared itself for her/his arrival, s/he may be able to complete her/his task in two working days. The individual has skills; the community has prepared itself, in advance, for her/his arrival; the goals and objectives are well-defined; communication has taken place in advance of the arrival - in other words, all of the necessary elements to make that short-term commitment incredibly successful has occurred. What's more, this individual may be accompanied by five other individuals who have a similar work plan. These six voluntourists are able, in a matter of two days, to complete a task that would require one volunteer weeks, if not months, to accomplish.
I liken this to a company who is paying a consultant or a lawyer a large hourly rate of pay. If the company does its homework and organizes itself, which we expect that it would, the fee will be nominal compared to the seeming benefits of the services rendered. All parties walk away from the 'transaction' feeling as though everyone has benefited.
When voluntourism is done well, services can be rendered in a short period of time, with phenomenal results for all parties. And, if a voluntourist experiences a couple of days of interaction with the destination - seeing the art, culture, geography, history of the destination - the experience has even greater meaning for that individual.
I think this is the impact that voluntourism is starting to have. People are paying for these experiences. NGOs are realizing that if they want 'satisfied voluntourists' they better have projects organized - defined work-plans, pre-determined goals & objectives, etc. This, in my opinion is one of the great impacts of voluntourism. They are also realizing that individuals wish to see the destination, to experience it in ways that no other traveler, at least no other traveler that individual knows, has experienced the destination and has contributed to it.
Impact is directly proportional to how well-managed these service engagements are, how balanced they are. Timeframe is not the essential element. "
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