Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

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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2 Responses to “Voluntourism as Immersion”

  1. You are right to cite Donaldson’s book in support of your understanding of immersion — just a minor detail, though: Donaldson isn’t a priest, he’s a teacher and lay Catholic chaplain at St Mary’s Grammar School in Belfast.

  2. Thanks for that correction, Gladys.

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