Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Posts Tagged ‘Voluntourism’

Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Posted by mikeonpurpose on April 25, 2012

It should be quite obvious that I am a proponent of international volunteering in developing countries–I wouldn’t be doing it if I felt otherwise.  But the question that always informs my decision to volunteer is what I think I am accomplishing, and how volunteering fits into the bigger questions surrounding the poverty that exists in developing countries.  I have observed, from paging through the websites of some organizations that send volunteers abroad or that do international relief projects–and I will not name names here–that some seem to suffer from an unfortunate hubris.  You will sometimes see these organizations bragging about how they offer a “proven solution” to the problems of poverty in developing nations.  This is, I am afraid to say, nonsense.

It is indeed wonderful when non-profits form partnerships with local communities abroad that can lead to greater opportunities for those who live in difficult circumstances.  I am all for that.  But let’s not overstate what an NGO or volunteer organization can accomplish, and let’s not pretend that we are “solving” anything at a deeper level with these kinds of activities.  Giving people more tools to cope with an unjust economic system may help individuals and communities negotiate their ways through that system, but it will not end the injustice.  Certainly, people in dire circumstances need to be in charge of their own destinies, and the assistance that we give should not be about Westerners taking charge of their lives, but rather about a partnership between peoples of different cultures–that’s a given.

But when you travel to a developing country, what should be obvious is that the problems of poverty are deeply systemic.  In countries, such as those in Latin America that I have visited, that are controlled by powerful economic oligarchies that control most of the wealth and land, where these oligarchies employ violence, war, and genocide as the means in which to defend their privilege against those who want simply a fairer piece of the pie, then to say that the problems of inequality can be solved by giving poor people the tools to better function in a society like that–well, that’s just more than a little naive.   (I also think here is something just a little condescending about the attitude that some organization can sweep into a developing country and find a way to rescue its poorest people from their dire circumstances through some “proven technique”.  Local communities in these countries are fighting their own struggles.  What they need and ask for us in the West is partnership, and the solutions to economic injustice will ultimately come out of their own efforts.)

I think that international aid to a developing country is akin to giving an aspirin to a person who has an infection.  It treats the symptom, but it does not cure the disease.  Knowing this doesn’t mean that we stop giving out the aspirin.  But it does mean that we have to recognize the deeper issues that are at stake.

To underscore these points, I would like to recommend a wonderful video of a talk given at Swarthmore College by a woman who is originally from Rwanda and who speaks to these issues directly.  I think that anyone who is interested in international volunteering or other issues relating to international development in poorer parts of the world should see this video.  Among the insightful comments that the speaker, Stephanie Nyombayire, has to say, are these:

I am not saying, “Don’t donate a meal to someone who is starving.” What I am saying is, how can we design campaigns the change the system, or at least undermine the system, rather than sustain it?  These pictures that we see and the lives that people are leading are not the result of, did not come from a vacuum. They are the result of a man-made system, a system made by men and women like you and me, and maintained by men and women like you and me…

Yes, do give where you can, but most importantly, question the relationships that have led to a unidirectional flow of resources…

Instead of fighting the war on poverty, why aren’t we fighting the war on pathological power?

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Guatemala and Reverse Cultural Shock

Posted by mikeonpurpose on August 23, 2011

As usual, I am trying to get my bearings after having returned from a volunteer trip in Latin America.   It is the phenomenon of reverse cultural shock.  Apparently you never get over it, no matter how many times you take trips like these.

I have found that by the time these trips are nearly over, I am ready to return home to the comforts of home.  There is a certain level of stress that accompanies going on volunteer and cultural exchange trips, at least for me.  There is the stress of adjusting to a lifestyle that is so different from what I am used to.  There is the stress of worrying about where my passport is.  There is the stress of worrying about the safety of the food I eat and the water I drink.  There is the stress of finding toilets that have seats on them.  On top of all that, there is the stress of air travel itself, from the cramped airplane seats to the rude TSA agents barking orders at you.

You might wonder, with all that stress, what are the rewards in going on trips like these.   But in fact the rewards are many, and so profound that they make it worth all the stress that I endure.

On the trip to Guatemala, I probably did the least amount of what might be called “volunteer work” of any volunteer trip I have done.  And I was okay with that.  Global Citizens Network describes its trips in terms of cultural exchange, with a view towards partnering with a local community.  The volunteer project serves the goal of cultural exchange, rather than being the goal in and of itself.  On this trip, I spent a lot of time with many Mayans in a village in the Western Highlands, and supported in some small way the work of the Mayan Center for Peace.  I got to know several people who came to feel like family.

The GCN delegation heads back from the market with some members of the host community

One of the most remarkable people I met during the trip was Marta, whose family had been persecuted by the military during the civil war, who had fled much of her life from government repression.  She now has settled down into a home, and has committed her self to helping Mayan women in her community.  She heads up a women’s cooperative that is involved with teaching women the craft of traditional Mayan weaving, as well as teaching illiterate women to read and write. The people of this community are taking matters into their own hands to try to build a better life.  I was deeply touched when our delegation met women from that cooperative.  They pleaded with our delegation to help them.   I nearly cried.

Guatemala is a country that has suffered a terrible history, and much of that can be laid at the feet of the United States government.  The 1954 coup, engineered by the CIA, overthrew a democratically elected government and set the stage for decades of military lawlessness, the legacy of which remains even to this day.  The brutal civil war of the 1980s brought untold atrocities by the right wing backed military that had the support of the Reagan administration, and much of the violence and atrocities were directed against indigenous people.  And, unfortunately, one of the war criminals from that time, a retired general named Oscar Perez Molina (who has also been linked to narcotics trafficking), is the favorite to win the Presidential election this year.  Guatemala is ostensibly a democracy, and its electoral process seems vibrant, with many political parties and with billboards and signs and trucks with bullhorns everywhere.  However, in a country where an oligarchy of several families controls the vast majority of the land and wealth, money plays a significant role the electoral process.  The Broad Front of the Left, for example, lacks the financial resources to compete against these well-financed forces.  That being said, the people do take their politics seriously.  The day our delegation arrived at the Mayan Center for Peace, we watched a forum in which eight candidates for the mayor of Cantel answered questions and presented their views on women’s health issues.  The room was filled with people who were very interested in the political process.

There is no easy solution to the problems that Guatemala faces, and our job as a cultural exchange delegation was certainly not to fix them or to take sides in the elections.  Our relationship was not based on dependence, but instead was one of partnership.  The Mayan Center for Peace is part of an effort for the people of the Cantel community to self-organize and take steps towards promoting Mayan culture and helping people improve their lives.  The  executive director of the center, Arcadio, is a man with incredible energy, charm, and vision.  We supplied video equipment and external hard drives to the center that the Center could embark on a project of  recording traditional Mayan weaving practices, and we also supplied yarn so that looms in the Center could be used towards expanding the weaving  as an economic project.

A Mayan woman demonstrates the weaving process

There was a bit of irony in this.  One day, we went on a trip to the nearby city of Xela (Quetzaltenango) to make some purchases for the Center.  We needed to buy a lock box so that the hard drives and video equipment could be safely stored.   Where did we go to make this purchase?  The answer, I am afraid, is that we went to Wal*Mart, a symbol as great as any of the extensive reach of multi-national corporations, and an inescapable part of life in the developing world.

Throughout this experience, what really moved me was the hospitality of the people we met.  Manuel was kind enough to perform a special Mayan ceremony just for our delegation.  Most of the ceremony was in the K’iche’ language, which of course we did not understand, but like many religious ceremonies that are about sights and smells and sensations, it wasn’t really necessary to know what he was saying.

Manuel performs a special Mayan ceremony just for the GCN delegation

We experienced hospitality and generosity many times during this trip.  It was very common for people we visited to offer us bread with tea or coffee, or to offer us some gift.  I found the hospitality of the people very touching, and it was one of the things that inspired me to feel such affection for the people of that community.

A Mayan family in their home

After spending time with a people you care about who are struggling to make their lives better in the face of such difficult odds, the return home forces you to deal with a lot of difficult feelings.  You want to make a difference, and your everyday life may be comfortable in certain ways, but there is also the tremendous discomfort and wistful sadness that the world is so screwed up.  You wonder if you are doing all you can.

I have a high tech job that may be interesting and economically useful, but it is also provides no profound emotional satisfaction.  And yet it is my high-tech job that affords me the resources and vacation time to take trips like these.  Ultimately, eventually, I will settle back into the routine life that I had before I took this trip, and the reverse cultural shock I am experiencing will fade away, but there is a part of me that doesn’t want to lose what I am feeling now.  I want to be spurred on to make more of a difference.  The only question is what can I do that I am not already doing?

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The return to normal

Posted by mikeonpurpose on December 14, 2010

When I returned about a month ago from spending some time in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, I was emotionally drained.  I had only spent a little over a week in Nicaragua, but that experience was deeply affecting.  I felt a measure of sadness about the poverty I witnessed, along with a deep affection for the people I spent time with.  I spent the first few days after my return looking up Nicaraguan charities that I could give money to.  I just wanted to help more, to make more of  a difference.

After a while, of course, as the everyday, mundane details of life here in the US begin to occupy my mind, I slowly but inevitably returned to something akin to my  pre-trip  emotional stasis.  I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.

The thing about short-term voluntourism trips is that one’s contribution tends to be rather limited.  We worked on a project that was mostly managed by professional masons.  We did help in ways whatever that we could–hauling bricks, helping with the laying of bricks–but a lot of the serious  work was done by professionals who were hired for the project.

In some ways, our assistance was more about emotional support and making connections.  Some of my most memorable moments include the conversations I had with the people of the village.  For example, there were the brother and sister, ages seven and nine, who seemed tickled to death to converse with strange foreigners from a land far away.   They knew their own ages but not their birthdays–a jarring bit of cultural shock as I came to learn that in poor communities there,  people often didn’t know the day they were born.

There was Fabio, the mason who three of us volunteers worked with over a few days, who would address Phil, a fellow voluntourist, as “Fili”.  There was Ofilio, an older man with a leathery tan who wore shoes with holes in them, but managed to dress up a little more for the final fiesta before we parted.  Ofilio asked me at that fiesta if my camera was expensive.  It pained me and embarrassed me to realize that I was holding in my hand a device that would cost most of those people several months’ salary.

I was as affected by the poverty these people lived in, with unsanitary water and in many cases without even an outhouse, as I was moved by the gentle and kind spirit they exhibited.

Spending time, even a short period of time, in a developing country in the tropics is a trying experience that affects you in significant ways.  The time has passed now since I came back, and I am settling into my routine as a more privileged citizen of a developed country.   Of course, even in the US, privileges and wealth are not equitably distributed, and in many ways the inequality here is getting worse.  Poverty is a problem that plagues all present and past human societies, and it is one that should not exist if we had the will power to address it.

I said earlier that I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I settled back into my routine.  On the one hand, I think it is pretty hard to go on perpetually in the sort of emotionally affected state that I was in when I came back.  Life does go on, after all.  On the other hand, maybe we who are more privileged should be a little more plagued by the suffering of others, maybe we need not to compartmentalize things so much, and maybe we need to be prodded and inspired to do more than we do.

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Caveat Altruist

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 5, 2010

I made a reference in an earlier posting to an organization called U’sAgain, a company which takes people’s used clothing donations and sells them for a profit.  Googling this company reveals the seamy side of this sort of business and illustrates what happens when for-profit companies that rely on people’s freely donated gifts of time or possessions, gifts given with no apparent thought of personal profit but rather simply to help others, are used to serve the profit-driven goals of companies that are in it first and foremost for the attainment of filthy lucre.  Caveat altruist.

For example, this Seattle news story from last year describes how this works:

“It’s disappointing. It’s a rip off. It’s a scam. We’re donating our kids’ clothes and our clothes and shoes so they go to local charities so it pisses me off,” Arvish said.

Another donor, Louise Hutmacher, was surprised that U’SAgain is a for-profit company.“That’s not nice. It’s very deceptive. It’s cheating people here,” Hutmacher said.

A former employee, with details of U’SAgain finances, tells Team 7 Investigators the company diverts hundreds of tons of used clothing and millions of dollars away from legitimate local charity organizations in Washington every year.

Part of their success is duping unknowing donators and part is convincing businesses, like Kim’s Auto Repair, to give free space to a red U’SAgain bin.Manager, Sherry Asbury, said that employees of U’SAgain approached her and specifically told her “all proceeds were going to charity.”

She had no idea U’SAgain was a for-profit until we told her.

“That’s ridiculous. We had no idea that anything like that was going on. I thought maybe a homeless shelter or a shelter for women. I’m kind of stunned,” Asbury said.

So while U’sAgain does make it clear on their website that they are a for-profit business, they are (at least according to the above news story) apparently less open about this elsewhere.  People often assume that organizations that perform these kinds of ostensibly altruistic activities, that rely on people’s generous impulses, are not for-profit charities.  It turns out, of course, that they can be wrong.  There are always organizations out to prey on people’s altruism in order to make a buck.  That’s American capitalism for you.

I admit to my own naivete in this matter when I first began researching agencies that offered volunteer travel services.  Why I was so naive is a very good question.  Perhaps I wanted to believe the best about other people, and helping others is humanity at its very best, and that community service is what non-profits are supposed to be about.  But the reality is that whenever there is the urge to help others, there is also likely to be found others who are willing to line their pockets from those who exhibit generosity.

Yet  profiting off of others’ generosity is really just a symptom of something that I think is a much broader trend in our society.  I think we are seeing a trend of increasing corporatization and commodification of community services throughout many sectors of society.  An example that concerns me personally,  because I work for a public university, is that I see this trend taking place in higher education.  It is happening in a lot of ways; an obvious example is that certain for-profit universities like Kaplan or University of Phoenix have turned a major sector of this industry into what is effectively yet another corporate commodity.  But we also see a trend of creeping corportization within public universities as well.   State funded universities, receiving less money from public coffers, have become increasingly dependant on grants from corporate sponsors, which has the negative effects of both reducing academic independence and also of leaving in the lurch those departments whose academic disciplines are of no interest to corporate sponsors.  The pursuit of higher knowledge becomes tethered to the goal of supporting of corporate interests rather than the free pursuit of wherever knowledge will take us.

And I have seen other ways in which the values of corporate society have really taken hold in public universities.  I mentioned  in a previous posting the obscenely high $400 K salary of the CEO of CARE, but if you take a look at the salaries of the top executives of many public universities you will see that the problem is rampant throughout many other non-profit organizations and charities as well.   The University of California, for example, which has suffered through employee layoffs in recent years, is run by an individual who receives a salary of at least half a million dollars a year.  Meanwhile, many mid-level university executives, recruited from banks and similar corporations, have infused that university with a corporate style and culture.  The glory days of higher public education seem dead indeed, killed by the values of the corporate world.

One of the first things I research when I look at whether to donate money to a charity is how much the top executives of that charity are paid.  Clearly, corporate cultural values are not restricted to corporations but in fact are found within many non-profits–one need only look at CARE to see this–and I conclude from this that the problem is thus really a deeply rooted societal one.  As the consensus of neoliberalism, free markets, and globalization has become an unchallenged mantra in American society, I look at the poverty that I witness in developing countries and see what free markets are really doing.  It is no wonder that we have seen a rise in progressive politics in many Latin American countries in recent years.  As I see it, this neoliberal ideology not only has led to devastating economic effects in developing countries, but it is this very free market ideology, which has taken hold in the US as a unassailable tenet, that has had an insidious impact on the distribution of wealth in our society as well.  This ideology has been used to justify the high salaries of CEOs everywhere, both in for-profit companies and in non-profits.  The argument has been presented that these executives need to be attracted to their positions by offering them high salaries, and that these salaries are comparable to what they could make in private industry.   The implication is that, for these CEOs,  they could just as easily work in private industry as for a charity–it’s apparently all the same to them, so of course we should just pay them what they could make in for-profit companies.   (And we all know that there are no incompetent CEOs anywhere, and that is why they deserve those high salaries!  I’m sure that the former CEO of BP was worth every penny.)   What we can infer from this argument is that the mission and values of that charity are apparently not what drives these non-profit CEOs, but rather the raw pursuit of as much money as they can make.   It’s all about the pursuit of personal monetary gain and climbing to the top of the salary ladder–and yet somehow they can reconcile that value with the supposed goal of eliminating poverty.  I know that CARE is about fighting poverty because it says so right on its web page.

The power of compartmentalization!  Having a veneer of saintliness is apparently all that really counts in our society.  How the CEO of a charity whose mission is ostensibly to  fight poverty can justify making a $400,000 salary is something that I can’t quite fathom.   But there you have it.  Compartmentalization is a powerful force.  It’s all the “I’ve got mine” mentality, but one can assuage one’s guilt without considering that our own lifestyle decisions may express certain values that one ostensibly adheres to.   Jerry Brown, who is currently running for the Governor of California, likes to tout on his web site that he once spent time working with Mother Teresa.  He also currently lives in a $1.8 million mansion in the Oakland hills where you won’t find many poorer people hanging about.  Apparently that time he spent with Teresa didn’t exactly rub off on him and his personal lifestyle.  All the Mother Teresa talk is about earning credibility, about achieving saintliness by association, without actually being saintly in any meaningful way.    Call it chutzpah, call it compartmentalization, call it whatever you want.  Now I admit that I don’t live a saintly life myself, but then I also don’t go trying to project a saintly veneer by associating myself with Mother Teresa, either.

There is no easy escape from all of this.  If we are drowning in a profit-driven culture, the only way I can stay afloat is by clinging to those moments of bona fide idealism, untainted by the sullying effects of profit-driven exigencies and the attendant neoliberal ideology that is used to justify it all, when and where I can find them.  Until we can build a truly just society, which is not going to happen in my lifetime, the best I can do is grasp for whatever I can find that will keep myself afloat as I try to make the small differences that I can.  Volunteering abroad isn’t about being a savior or a saint, but rather trying to make a difference in a way that is true to my own values.  And finding a voluntourism organization that meets my values is not an easy task.  I have found some  non-profit organizations that seem committed to the kinds of goals that jibe with what I think is important.  I have no doubt there are other organizations that I am unaware of that also could work for me.  It is an ongoing endeavor to try to make lemon out of the lemonade of an economic and political system that seems not particularly interested in the pursuit of social justice.

This is not an optimistic outlook, to be sure.  But I draw my inspiration from Albert Camus, the philosopher who saw the response to an absurd life to be that of making meaning and purpose out of a dire and pessimistic situation.  I do what I can, I roll that stone up a mountain only to see the stone roll back down again, because to do nothing is to give in to despair and to give up.  And if I die without having at least tried to make a better world, then my life will have been in vain.

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Sarah Van Auken

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 5, 2010

Sarah van Auken deserves special props for her work in compiling information about organizations that offer volunteer travel opportunities.  It was through her 2010 Volunteer Directory that I discovered El Porvenir, and I now see that she has expanded her directory and incorporated it into a free ebook.  You can also look up organizations via a page on her website.  This is a truly valuable research tool for finding potential organizations to work with, and I highly recommend checking out her website.

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Profiteering and altruism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 4, 2010

The Staying for Tea blog has provided an interesting taxonomy of so-called “poverty tourism”, of which voluntourism was cited as one example.   I left a comment in response to it in which I alluded to some differences between for-profit and non-profit voluntourism operators.  This led a representative of a for-profit voluntourism operator (Geovisions) to come into the discussion to defend the fact that his organization engages in a for-profit business model that lines its pockets through the altruism of others.

In so doing, he offered what struck me as a set of talking points formulated to justify what Geovisions does.  He claimed, for example, there is no meaningful difference between a for-profit and a non-profit outfit, other than a minor technicality of what tax status each claims.  This strikes me disingenuous.  The government establishes distinctive sets of guidelines governing how each type of organization can function and what it can do with the money it makes.  These differences stem from the fact that the primary purpose of a for-profit business is to make money, while the primary purpose of a non-profit organization is to provide a community service.  To support those distinct kinds of functions, what each is allowed to do is delineated.  A non-profit organization in particular cannot distribute its profits back to the owners.   (A summary of the distinction between for-profit and non-profit enterprises can be found here.) So to assert that that there is no meaningful difference between a non-profit and a for-profit voluntourism operator sounds more like a sales pitch than an accurate description of what is going on. I can’t really blame any corporate representative of a for-profit tourism company for doing this sort of thing;  the company’s job is to make money, after all, and salesmanship and advertising include making claims that will induce people to spend their hard earned dollar on that company’s products.   The fact remains that his organization has a financial interest in convincing people who are understandably skeptical about giving their free time and energy to an organization that profits financially from what is freely give to it.  So claiming that there is no real difference between a for-profit and a non-profit voluntourism operator can be seen as a kind of sales strategy.

Most of us do understand the difference between donating money to a charity and donating money to a business.  I donate my clothes to Goodwill, but I don’t generally donate them my local for-profit local clothing store.  Geovisions and other organizations that are in the business of selling a product for profit understand this.   Hence the “there’s no difference between us and them” sales pitch.  Although, that being said, my analogy with Goodwill does provide for an interesting example outside of the voluntourism industry, and it shows that profiteering off of altruism is not restricted to voluntourism.  I recently ran across an article that discussed a for-profit business called UsAgain that takes donated clothes and sells them at a low cost in developing countries.  That being said, I will give UsAgain credit–they say right up front on their web page that they are a “for profit enterprise”.  This is not something I have seen stated so clearly on the home page of any voluntourism operator web page I have looked into.

For example, when I go to the Geovisions web site and click on the “About Us” link, I do not see anything that indicates that they are a for-profit enterprise.   Maybe it says so somewhere and I just missed it.  In any case, the Geovisions representative claimed in the blog discussion that I cited above that none of their customers actually cares about that; this therefore served as a justification for not needing to go out of their way to publicize this fact.  I can’t speak for how many people care about it; I can only speak for myself.  I do care.  Which is why I spend a fair amount of time researching organizations before I volunteer with them.

He did raise a valid point by mentioning that just because an organization is a non-profit, that is no guarantee that it is ethical or well-run.  This is certainly true.  That is why, for me, learning whether an organization is a non-profit or not is just a starting point.  The next step for me is to do further research, through Guide Star or Charity Navigator or other resources at my disposal.   Research into not just voluntourism operators but charities in general can be disheartening at times.  Some non-profits pay their CEOs obscenely high salaries.   The CEO of CARE–which of course is not a voluntourism operator, but the example is still egregious enough–makes a salary, or at least did the last time I checked, of about $400,000 a year. That is not something I would ever choose to contribute my charity dollar to.

Of course, everyone has to make their own decisions in this area.  If someone really doesn’t have a problem with volunteering their time and money through a for-profit voluntourism operator, then they should by all means do so.  But this is something I choose not to do.

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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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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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Fear and curiosity

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 23, 2010

Going to Guatemala has inspired me to do a lot of research into the country, its history, and its culture, and one thing that I find myself coming back to again and again is the problem of crime.  Guatemala City in particular has a terrible reputation as one of the most dangerous, if not the most crime-ridden, major cities in the world.  And yet, while guidebooks do mention this problem, they also give plenty of information about places to visit and things to do there, essentially presenting the city as a worthwhile tourist destination.  If you search the internet you find that a lot of people discuss the crime problem there, and you get a mixture of responses.  A frequent response is that if you use common sense, watch your surroundings, avoid the public buses, take taxis at night, and avoid dark alleys, you will be fine.  Some say they have gone to Zone 1 in the city without problem, and others say to avoid it like the plague.

I don’t expect that my travels to Guatemala City will actually take me into the city.  The plan is probably that I will just take a shuttle from the airport to Antigua.  But I still find myself strangely attracted to the idea of seeing Guatemala City for myself.  It is almost as if there is an exotic appeal about a place that is off the tourist radar.  I find myself looking in Youtube for videos of Guatemala.  For example, one video is taken by an American man as he walks through a market in Zone 1 of the city.  There isn’t much taking place in the video–just images of people doing things in the market, and it seems quite innocuous (although at the beginning the man points out that he is being discrete about filming), and it brings home the point that Guatemala City is a place where millions of people go about their everyday lives:

I you type things like Guatemala Crime into Youtube’s search engine, you will find a great number of videos that come back–news reports and documentaries that tell a tale of a society in which thousands are murdered each year, with only a tiny percentage of those murders ever resulting in a conviction in Guatemalan courts.

The worst of this is clearly found in Guatemala City itself.  Antigua, I am told, is light years apart from the violence found in the capital, although I also am aware that Antigua is hardly crime-free either.  Since I don’t expect to be spending time in Guatemala City, this is all a moot point anyway.  Still, there is a part of me that is strangely intrigued by Guatemala City.  It is a place that inspires in me both a sense of fear and a strange sort of curiosity.

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