Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Archive for June, 2010

Mexican Drug Violence and Voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 27, 2010

The New York Times reports that many U.S. Universities are cutting back on their study-abroad programs in Mexico because of the violence in many cities like Ciudad Juarez.  For example, the University of Kansas canceled a Spanish language study program in Puebla, Mexico, which is nearly 2000 kilometers away from Ciudad Juarez.  On the face of it, this is a huge overreaction.  I have spent a night in Puebla just last winter, and found it to be a wonderful, vibrant city.  The Times explains it this way:

As a matter of policy, the University of Kansas bans study abroad anywhere in a country with an official travel warning, even if the danger being cited is nowhere near where the program will be.

By analogy, this would  be akin to banning a trip to Colorado Springs because of violence in Detroit.

I can’t help if wonder if the bad press coming out of Mexico is having a similar effect on voluntourism to that country.  Are people now becoming less likely to want to sign up for volunteer trips to Mexico, even to areas that are far from where the highly publicized killings are taking place?


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“Luxury” voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 26, 2010

An article on the CNN website features extended commentary by two individuals who come from quite different sides of the voluntourism spectrum.  One of the individuals involved is the founder of a UK-based for-profit luxury voluntourism operator called Hands Up Holidays.  The other comes from Azafady, a small London-based nonprofit with a shoestring budget.

I have stated previously my negative opinion of for-profit voluntourism operators, and I think Hands Up Holidays epitomizes just about everything about the for-profit side of this industry that I find objectionable.  If you go to their web page, they make no bones about the fact that they are a luxury travel outfit: “Luxury Travel With a Conscience,” they say.

When I see that word “luxury”, I am reminded of the information I was given when I went on my first voluntourism trip to Mexico.  An email from the group leader had this to say about what we should take with us on the trip:

Any electronics will need an adapter, but I recommend not bringing any if you can avoid it. Electricity in Cuetzalan is fairly reliable, but again, the less stuff the better. Please do not plan on bringing fancy toys into the village – you may want an Ipod for bus travel etc. but bringing cool stuff into the villages only points out the disparities.

In other words, on this trip we were to leave our luxuries behind.  We were going into an impoverished community, and for it to be a “luxury” vacation would be fundamentally inconsistent with much of what our trip sought to accomplish.

I am not saying that I think people should have to live in squalor when they go on volutourism trips.  On the contrary, I am certainly no fan of squalor.  But I also think that “luxury” is not really a word that goes well with the spirit and principles of voluntourism, and I think that organizations like Hands Up Holidays are really more about profiteering off of wealthy people’s guilty consciences than they are about true voluntourism.  Lest there is any doubt about who their target audience is, on their website I found a two-week trip to Guatemala that they offer, for the handsome sum of $4,750.

Given all of that, I liked what the representative of the UK non-profit had to say in the CNN article:

there’s so much “noise” out there in the form of big travel companies charging exorbitant amounts for volunteering holidays set up with only profit and entertainment in mind.

The profits involved have meant massive expansion in the industry. The basis of my cynicism is that many organizations produce little good and can even lead to skilled, well-motivated people turning away from international charity work altogether.

That would be a real shame because there are bona fide operators of trips like these that understand what voluntourism is, or at least should be, really about.

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Voluntourism as Immersion

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 26, 2010

It is not my intent to bring religion into this blog, but I ran across a review of a book by an Irish priest that raises some interesting points about voluntourism.  Even if one has no interest in the reviewed author’s Christian spirituality, I think it is worth considering the reviewer’s comments about what makes for a positive volunteer experience when going to developing countries:

Donaldson sees ‘immersion’, as opposed to ‘voluntourism’, as an experience that empowers the locals rather than the visitors.

He gives an example of how this might work in a concluding section that he calls ‘the parable of the goats of Mapepe.’ In this story, Zambian and Irish people working together create a project that not only allows the community to feed themselves, but empowers the locals to take on a rich landowner when his goats destroy their crops.

At the same time, Donaldson recognises that this is a small step, a small story, on a continent where deprivation and disempowerment can seem overwhelming. He knows that Western voluntourists can make things worse with false promises, encapsulated in the Zambian mantra that ‘white people tell lies.’

But he thinks that the immersion approach – living with integrity and simplicity alongside people – offers a better way. This is summed up in Donaldson’s thoughts on what the people in Mapepe required from the Irish volunteers (p. 183),

All they required from us was solidarity, mutual affirmation and recognition, love and financial support.

Significantly, financial support is last on the list – reflecting Donaldson’s conviction that money doesn’t go far if it’s not accompanied by solidarity, mutual affirmation and recognition, and love.

This echoes my own understanding.  I think it is going to be problematic if the volunteer sees one’s self as a kind of white knight swooping in from the outside  to solve problems in a developing country.  Such an attitude is hardly respectful to the people one is working with.  If instead one sees one’s self as a partner, and one’s work grounded in, to quote the above review, “mutual affirmation and recognition,” the benefits everyone will reap from the experience will be much greater.

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Knowing what to look for

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 23, 2010

Looking for a short term volunteer trip overseas can be rather daunting.  A lot of operators offer voluntourism trips and there are a lot of destinations to choose from, and the trick is in knowing how to narrow it down.  When I took my first volunteer trip, I luckily stumbled onto an organization that, as it turned out, met the few criteria that I had in mind at the time.  Only after that trip, when I did further research, did I realize that there were many additional considerations that were also worth taking into account.  Funnily enough, when I came up with a more comprehensive list of criteria, I found myself coming right back to the same organization to do another trip, although I also found another organization that I liked quite a bit and which I will be doing yet different trip with in the future.

Obviously, my criteria are not going to be the same as everyone else’s, but I think it still might be worthwhile to go over the things I learned as I undertook my research for a second and third volunteer vacation.

In my case, the first two steps I took was to narrow my search down according to two criteria: trip length and location.   In the case of the former, having a full time job and limited vacation options meant that I wanted to limit my time to less than two weeks.  In the case of the latter, my chosen location was Latin America, which of course ruled out trips to Asia or to European destinations like Romania.  My reasons for choosing Latin America were twofold.  First, because of the limited time of the trip, I didn’t want jet lag to add to the complications of doing a volunteer vacation, and traveling south instead of east or west solved that problem.  Second, in my case, I spoke a little Spanish and was interested in trying to use my language skills in some way.  And maybe a third reason was that I just had a certain attraction to the region.

Aside from these initial considerations, some other issues arose as I tried to choose a trip to take.  I wanted to consider the type of organization I was willing to work with, the type of trip that they offered, and the type of work that I would be doing.

The type of organization you are going to work with is, to say the least, very important.  For reasons I have identified elsewhere, I choose not to deal with for-profit voluntourism operators.  (A fair percentage of for-profit operators seem to be based in the UK for some reason, although several of them, like Projects Abroad, have offices in the US as well.   Other examples of for-profit operators include i-to-i, uVolunteer, and Global Crossroad).  Also important to me is the philosophy that lies behind the work that the organization does.  Is there any sort of focus, for example, on indigenous groups and social justice issues?  Does the organization see itself as working in partnership with local organizations in the countries they serve?   Does the organization focus only on work, or also on cultural exchange and bridging boundaries between cultures?

Some people want to put in something like a full 40 hour work week on their volunteer vacation and also to see some discreet accomplishment at the end of the volunteer period.  Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, for example, would probably serve that desire.  But other people might be satisfied with joining in on an ongoing project without necessarily seeing a finished product at the end of the term of service, and may be interested in combining volunteer work with cultural exchange, tours and meetings with people from the community.

Some organizations are focused around a group dynamic, others not so much.  If an organization gives specific and limited start dates for its projects, then it is more focused on the formation of groups around those dates.  On the other hand, if the organization states that you can start volunteering , for example, on the first and third Monday of any month, then you are simply part of a stream of people who come and go over time.  Personally, I like the idea of a group dynamic, especially if I sign up for a project by myself and I am traveling to a developing country where my language skills are limited.  If you are more self-sufficient or outgoing you might not have such a strong need to be part of a group, and in that case the freedom to start more or less whenever you want might be more appealing.   Some agencies that have a group dynamic will send a team leader down to the site who will meet you at the airport and escort you to the site (Global Citizens Network does this).  Others will have someone already in the host country who serves as a contact and who will arrange to meet with the volunteers (Globe Aware does this).  In either case, these organizations usually help to take care of the logistics of getting you from the airport to the work site and finding lodging for you.  The management of these logistics is part of the value that is added by paying an organization to arrange these trips.

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In Her Hands

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 21, 2010

I was wandering through a used bookstore last week and ran across a book titled In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World.  The book contains photos and text describing the way that women in developing countries struggle to make a living through their crafts.  The book does not feature any stories from Mexico, but it did feature women from other parts of Latin America, and it brought to mind the volunteer projects that Global Citizens Network does with a women’s cooperative in Mexico.

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GCN’s latest newsletter

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 17, 2010

Global Citizens Network has published its latest newsletter online.

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Cruise lines and voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 14, 2010

I commented earlier on my feelings about for-profit voluntourism operators.  It seems that now a cruise line is offering a program of “voluntourism” for its guests.  The cruise line in question would be none other than Royal Caribbean–the very one that sent a cruise to a private beach at Labadee in Haiti which was separated from the rest of the country by barbed wire, just after the earthquake and thus when much of the country was suffering in even worse conditions than usual.   It was a huge PR embarrassment for Royal Caribbean at the time, and if voluntourism has become a big trend, then one can understand why they came up with this as a way of doing damage control for their reputation, if nothing else.

What is interesting about this is the statement by the CEO of Royal Caribbean that this highlights “our commitment to the local communities we visit.”  My definition of commitment to local communities is a little different from that of Royal Caribbean.  If Labadee is any indication, I am afraid that a group of well-to-do people people frolicking in a private beach resort that is separated from the rest of the country by barbed wire is not exactly any kind of commitment to local communities that I am aware of.   Yes, those few locals who manage to find work in the hospitality industry are let in past the barbed wire–but the rest of country is not.  And the visiting frolickers who come to use that little piece of the country for its beaches are not, as I understand it, allowed into the rest of the country.   It is a vacation defined by a wall of separation between the frolickers and the country as a whole.  The country is, in effect, used for its little piece of waterfront that serves as an exotic playground–not as a rich source of culture to be experienced and shared.  In fact, Wikipedia mentions that back in 1991 a journalist discovered that passengers who disembarked there were not even told that they were in Haiti.  That makes perfect sense for this type of vacation, when you think about it.

Royal Caribbean is cashing in on a trend, and while I respect the desire that people have to contribute in some way when they go on vacation, there are many fine non-profits out there that offer voluntourism as an expression of a fundamental philosophy that underlies their work.   I am not saying that people should live in squalor when they go on vacations, but I do think that vacations that are about immersion in another culture have more in common with volunteer work in a developing country than vacations that are about barbed wire isolation from that country.  A volunteer vacation in my mind is, or at least should be, one in which the vacation experience and the volunteer work are interrelated, both equally serving as expressions of community contact and support for the ongoing struggles that those in developing countries face every day.

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Remembering Xiloxochico

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 14, 2010

It has been nearly six months since my volunteer trip to Xiloxochico, Mexico, an experience that I still think a lot about and that continues to inspire me to want to do more trips.  A fair amount of the work we did at the site involved moving large quantities of sand from one place to another.  It was chilly and wet much of the time we were there:

We also bought some paint that needed to be hauled from central Cuetzalan to the combi  station:

But it wasn’t all about about work.  We also had a chance to tour a nearby agricultural cooperative:

And we shared meals and good times with the members of the local community:

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Profiting off the good will of others

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 11, 2010

When I first started researching voluntourism operators late last year, I went into the process with a certain amount of naivete.   I tended to associate volunteer work with non-profit organizations.  People who freely donate their time and money and efforts for a cause beyond themselves are not doing that for monetary gain, and it had not occurred to me–yes, I know, I was naive–that there might be voluntourism operators making a buck out of people’s freely given good intentions.  I’m not sure why I was so naive; the cynic in me certainly knows better.  After all, there are people willing to make a buck out of anything.  So why should this be any different?

I was lucky in my own research before taking a volunteer vacation, because I stumbled almost right away into a reputable non-profit organization that organized my trip to Xiloxochico, Mexico.   My experience with that organization was wonderful.  It is certainly not the only non-profit out there that manages volunteer vacations, to be sure.

I don’t think that most of these for-profit operators make a secret of their for-profit status.  But they don’t exactly scream “We’re a for-profit operator” on their web sites either.  You have to dig a little to figure out what is going on.  In my case, because it hadn’t occurred to me at first that this might be an issue, I didn’t even think about researching the non-profit status of voluntourism operators that I found on the web.  Now, of course, I know better, and it is one of the first things that I check when I discover a new organization of potential interest.  (One starting point: the idealist.org website has an article that lists a few of the more prominent for-profit volunteer-sending organizations.)

One thing to bear in mind that the term “voluntourism” encompasses a fairly broad spectrum of philosophies and approaches.  Some voluntourism operators are really boutique travel companies that offer luxurious accommodations, supplemented with a bit of volunteerism as a side activity.  There also can be a difference in various organizations in how focused they are, if at all, on deeper social and economic issues that affect the local communities.

It seems to me, though, that to the extent that any company or organization markets itself to those people who want to do good and to offer themselves freely towards that end, making a profit out of that effort doesn’t sit well with me.

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Conversation in a Food Bank

Posted by mikeonpurpose on June 10, 2010

“You look familiar,” I said to the woman standing across the table from me at the food bank.  “Did you volunteer at Medshare?”

She nodded.

“I think you were at the same table that we were.”  The “we” in that case being myself and my girlfriend, who was standing to my left, weighing the bags that I was handing to her after I scooped rice into them from a bulk container.

The woman clearly didn’t remember me.  “I was a little distracted,” she explained.

“It takes a lot of mental effort trying to figure out where to sort all those medical supplies,” I suggested.

That, it turns out, was not why she was distracted.  “I was on a date.”

I was picturing in my head the idea of volunteering as a date activity, which seemed like a very cool concept, when she then went on to add, “You’d think that if he volunteers that would mean he was a nice man.  But that was not true.”

I guess that just goes to show how complex humans are.  Volunteering does not prove one’s “nice” credentials. And few of us who volunteer can even remotely be characterizes as saints.  Volunteers are just people who are trying to do something meaningful or important or helpful, which does not preclude the possibility that in other contexts we can also be selfish; nor does it preclude fact that we who volunteer are human beings with all the attendant flaws and warts that being human implies.

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