Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

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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