Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Archive for August, 2010

Press coverage of voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 27, 2010

An article on the CNN website discusses the reverse culture shock that people sometimes experience when they return home to the US after volunteering in another country.

While I thought the article made some interesting points, I was disappointed that it gave so much coverage (and, essentially, free advertising) to a for-profit tourism company, i-to-i.  When there are so many excellent non-profit voluntourism operators out there, why give all this publicity to a company that profits off the altruism of its clients?

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Every Day is a Choice

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 13, 2010

I’ve been reading the book Bonobo Handshake, a memoir by Vanessa Woods that tells of her experiences in the Congo working with bonobos.  She writes in her book about an incredible woman named Claudine, who has tirelessly given of herself to the operation of a bonobo sanctuary.  At one point, Claudine’s husband was facing a serious health crisis, which served to threaten her ability to commit to her work in the sanctuary.  Woods writes:

I realize I think of Claudine as something more than human.  Like Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandella.  These people, they save the world and you assume it is because they are programmed to do it, like Pavarotti was meant to sing and Lane Armstrong was meant to ride a bike.  But it isn’t that simple.  Every day is a choice.  A choice that gets harder and harder.  Claudine has a husband who needs her, children who get angry with her.  She is an ordinary person.  It’s just that she does extraordinary things.  (P. 178)

I think this emphasizes the point that when we set the Mother Teresas of the world apart from the rest of us, when we make them into saints, it makes it easier for the rest of us mere mortals to make excuses for ourselves.  Well sure, we might tell ourselves, Mother Teresa or Gandhi did all those extraordinary things–but that’s only because they are saints.

But the reality is that all of us are, deep down, the same–mortal human beings who are faced with life choices every day.  The decision to reach out and help others is not something that only saints do  And it is not something that these “saints” do on autopilot.  All of us have hard choices to make in our lives, are often pulled between various duties and responsibilities–and that is true as well for those we idolize for their service to the world.  Instead of looking at the people we admire as somehow far removed from us and what we can do, maybe we instead should remember that they, like the rest of us, make hard choices in their lives, and that we can make a difference by the choices we make, even if “only” in small ways.  But small ways matter, too.

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Finding charm in the country you visit

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 3, 2010

I ran across a blog posting by a woman who said she preferred the city of Xela in Guatemala to Antigua, which she compared to Diseneyland.   I have not been to Guatemala yet (I will be traveling there in a few months for the first time, and I will be passing through Antigua), but I think I understand where she is coming from, based on what I have read and heard about Antigua.  Antigua is often presented in guidebooks, and by people who have traveled there, as the antithesis of Guatemala City–a clean, beautiful, architectural wonder in comparison to the capital, which is presented as immense, ugly, sprawling, and extremely dangerous.  Antigua, a small city, also happens to be the home of many language schools; and, or at least so I hear, it is teeming with foreigners as a result.   Xela has many language schools as well, but is not so much overrun by foreigners and is offered as a hipper, more authentic place to take language classes than Antigua.

The comparison of Antigua with Disneyland reminds me a bit of my experience with the city of Bruges in Belgium (a city celebrated a few years ago by the film In Bruges).   Although obviously Belgium as a developed country is quite different from Guatemala, the idea of a country having a Disneyland city in contrast to one with more authentic charm does seem to be analogous in this case.  Bruges is highly a touristy city with at least some of its “ancient” charm largely a matter of artifice, since the city has been rebuilt several times over the years.     From my own experience, Ghent offered a more more authentic European charm than the Disneyland version that was Bruges.  But so far, no one that I know of has made a feature movie with the title In Ghent.

I think it is sometimes worth thinking about what one looks for when one wants to experience the “real” Guatemala (or Belgium, or Mexico, or France.)  Guatemala City, with all its danger, its slums, and its crime, is of course just as must “real” to the people who live there as Xela is.  I certainly think there is nothing wrong with being charmed by a particular part of the country, but it is useful to recognize that a nation can be comprised of many diverse elements, and there are many ways to be charmed.  One can be charmed not just by colonial architecture, but also by the customs, the culture, the music, the clothing, and the warmth of a nation’s people.   Those elements transcend the touristy elements and have less to do with sightseeing than with making a connection with the community one is visiting.  And I think that the value that is to be gained by that can be more lasting as a result.

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Voluntourism in the New York Times

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 1, 2010

An interesting article in the New York Times discusses the benefits of volunteerism.  It mostly focuses on volunteerism by young people, but in the process I think it raises a very important point:

Participants get much more out of the work they do, Professor Niemi said, if there is a forum to talk about and question the larger issues involved.

Otherwise, he said, students may believe that all problems are solved through individual efforts and government doesn’t have a role. “They’ll see that the homeless don’t have food and that individuals help, but they won’t understand the connection between public policy and the homeless,” he said.

Professor Kahne also found this to be true in his research, noting that “most service programs do not examine causes of social problems or possible solutions” and, therefore, play down the need for political engagement.

In looking at what volunteering offers, Professor Kahne distinguishes among three types of citizens: “personally responsible” — that is they help people they know and donate blood; participatory citizens, who are active in community projects; and justice-oriented citizens, who examine causes and possible solutions for society’s ills.

While I think that all three kinds of volunteers listed in the last paragraph of that quote have a valuable role to play, I would place myself in the third group.

Certain kinds of volunteerism are probably less likely to run up against social justice issues than others.   For example, volunteering at a library wouldn’t deal with the consequences of the same kinds of deep rooted social problems as volunteering at a food bank.  When you volunteer to address the consequences of poverty and social injustice, it is important to recognize that this is not a substitute for solving the root causes of these problems.  Volunteering is not, or should not be, done instead of working for social change–it is, rather, done as a complementary activity.  Volunteerism addresses immediate issues, while at the same time one can remain focused on taking a longer view towards solving the root causes of the problems at hand.

Another curious comment caught my eye in this article, in which one individual is quoted as snidely demeaning the value of voluntourism:

“We’re not idiots,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “We know the price of an air-conditioned hotel and a plane. It’s an act of affluent tourism masquerading as community service.”

I can only hope that Nasirian’s comment was taken out of context.  Otherwise, I am afraid that if college registrars think that all voluntourism is “an act of affluent tourism masquerading as community service” then this assertion that “we are not idiots” would remain an open question. Now I certainly would be the first to agree that some forms of voluntourism do tend to conform to Nassirian’s description.  I myself have, in this blog, criticized luxury voluntourism and for-profit voluntourism operators in no uncertain terms.  However, that being said, it would be a huge mistake to make such a blanket characterization of all forms of voluntourism.   In fact, many kinds of voluntourism are far removed from affluent tourism, and if college registrars (or anyone else) thinks otherwise then I would invite him or her to do a little more research.

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