Photo by: mudshine media

Reframing and Restructuring Volunteer Travel

And Why I Chose To Work in the Voluntourism Industry

Justine Abigail Yu
Jun 22, 2015 · 8 min read

Four years ago, I attended a go abroad-type exhibition that prompted me to write a critical piece on the voluntourism industry and the discomfort I had with it.

21-year old me wrote, “What I saw today, essentially, were a bunch of organizations literally selling an experience with the sales pitch of “doing good” and a lot of young people just eating it all up...There was this sort of glamour, romance, and novelty being attributed to working abroad in some rural community in the developing world. One young woman even asked if she could do two 2-week projects back to back — one in South America and the other in Asia. And I couldn’t help but ask myself, what fruits could that possibly bear? Both for herself and for the communities that she would be working with?

Ironically enough, less than a year after I wrote that piece, I began working with Operation Groundswell (OG), an organization ostensibly classified under that very industry.

21-year old me declared, “I think voluntourism is here to stay. And where we take it, how we approach it will determine if it will be a force for ‘good’.”

And that’s exactly why I decided to work in this industry. Because it continues to grow in its allure to travellers and because cultural exchange — that is, true and meaningful cultural exchange — is a force for good.

More importantly, that’s the reason why I decided to work for an organization that has reframed what it means to volunteer abroad for an experience that is truly productive, collaborative, respectful, and yes, fun!

I write this not to promote my organization (though full disclosure, I am the Communications & Marketing Director), but to show that there is a way that volunteer travel can be done right (and there are other organizations striving for this, not just ours). But really, more than anything else, it’s a way to write to my younger self and take stock of what I’ve learned in the past three years about an ever growing, ever complicated field.

Rescuing the Humanity of Places

21-year old me reflected on Pico Iyer’s words: “travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology”. But when we participate in these volunteer programs…do we really accomplish that? Or because of the shortness of time, do we only heighten the difference, painting an incomplete, more incomprehensible picture?”

The problem with volunteer travel, and often travel itself, is that the traveller exists in a sort of bubble. On many volunteer travel programs, groups are shuttled privately from one place to another, fed a manufactured experience that is often out of touch with the daily realities on the ground. Travellers in general, often stick with other travellers from the same places back home, without ever getting to know the very real people who live in this other part of the world. And so, we only ever get glimpses, cracks, dips…

Of course, we only rescue the humanity of places, when we get in touch directly with humanity. When we meet with diverse locals, when we take the time to really listen to their stories, when we strive to learn about their history and struggles and accomplishments and hopes. Only then are we really successful in this endeavour.

One of my absolute favourite TED Talks (and required watching for all OG participants) is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story. In her talk, she captures so eloquently the need to move beyond one-sided narratives and dig behind our mainstream headlines to discover a wealth of experiences. Of lives lived in prosperity, in poverty, in heartbreak, in bliss, in the mundane.

“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” — Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

When I travelled to East Africa with Operation Groundswell back in 2013, that’s exactly what we did. We rented our own apartment in Kisumu, Kenya, spending many sweltering evenings huddled around the kitchen learning to cook sukuma wiki or pilau with our partners and new friends at the Young County Change Makers as we spoke of community development. During the day, we would work in the informal settlement of Nyalenda getting to know the kids who grew up there. I spent free afternoons walking the dusty roads with our neighbour to get sugar cane at a nearby store, gossiping with other ladies as I gnawed on that sweet, sweet sap. On other evenings, I’d skip over to another neighbour’s house, my Mama Alice, to talk about her day at the veterinarian clinic over a steaming cup of delicious chai.

These are the moments that I cherish so much from my time in Kenya. Those faces, those stories…that’s what I’ve come to know and love about that country.

It’s only when we move outside of that traveller’s bubble that we really go anywhere. When we take the time to listen to the myriad of voices in every place, when we bring ourselves face to face with these diverse stories, we not only rescue the humanity of places, but we also, as Adichie suggests, “regain a kind of paradise”.

Solidarity, Not Charity

International volunteering has grown from a call to action to a rite of passage for many of today’s young adults. I do not doubt for a second that this growth has been borne out of good intentions, but of course, we know that good intentions are simply not enough. Many of those seeking to go abroad have deeply misplaced expectations of what their purpose is and what they can accomplish in their roles as volunteers.

21-year old me demanded to know, “why are we invested in volunteering and engaging? Is it a commitment to social change? Because if it is, two weeks caring for children in an orphanage or building a school will not usher change.”

OG’s programs are not your pat-on-the-back kind of program. We will be the first to tell you that in the few weeks you spend abroad, you’re not going to “save” Africa. Or Asia. or South America. Or any place for that matter. For decades, we have seen governments, organizations, charities, international institutions, and countless individuals try to do just that and here we still are. Billions upon billions of dollars have been poured into projects without ever consulting the very communities they aim to “help” and “develop”.

That’s why working in partnership and collaboration with locals on community-requested projects is key. This isn’t always sexy. You might not get that Facebook photo with the school or well you helped to build in some remote village. Because sometimes a school or a well just does not need to be built. Maybe the greatest impact you can have is simply to spend time with a local organization learning about what they do, understanding the challenges they face, sharing what you learned with people back home, and standing in solidarity across borders. Maybe the greatest impact you can have isn’t something you can necessarily see or touch, but something far more powerful.

This was a big lesson for me and my team in East Africa. Our program focus was LGBTI rights and we planned to volunteer with local advocacy organizations to learn more about these issues in a region where it is largely taboo and incredibly dangerous to identify as LGBTI.

In 2009, a bill was proposed in the Ugandan Parliament that criminalized homosexuality to the extent that it would be punishable by death. The international community, particularly Western nations, spoke out against this grave violation of human rights by cutting millions of dollars in aid from Museveni’s government. The result on the ground was not one of change as the West would have hoped, but an increase in hostility against the gay community who was now vilified and blamed for the aid cuts. Another classic case of good intentions and its unintended, but dangerous consequences.

In this context, we quickly learned that many LGBTI groups in the region were skeptical and hesitant to partner with us. This was a hard lesson, but one that was crucial in understanding the harsh realities of this fight for rights.

We didn’t actively volunteer with any LGBTI organizations as we had originally hoped. Instead, we met with a few who were willing to share their experiences and perspectives with us and we listened intently, eager to learn about their struggle and stand with them in solidarity. And we focused our efforts instead on a partnership with a community development organization to assist in their dialogue programs that challenge youth to question binary views of gender and traditional gender stereotypes.

Solidarity implies a willingness to confront the causes and conditions of suffering that persist in destroying dignity, and to demand a minimum respect for human life. Solidarity also means recognizing the dignity and autonomy of others, and asserting the right of others to make choices about their own destiny.” — James Orbinski

If we are talking real impact, if we are talking real change? Then this is where it’s at. Not through a handout that perpetuates systems of power and dependency, but standing in solidarity with these communities and recognizing that if we are to usher any kind of change, it is by putting their needs above our egos.

Awakening Critical Consciousness

But volunteer travel is so much more than just the hands-on volunteering, or at least it should be more than that. It should be an educational experience that aims to tackle the very questions I was asking myself four years ago. An educational experience that aims to understand the context and history of local issues before attempting to find its solutions. An educational experience that forces us to confront our own assumptions and perspectives. An educational experience that challenges us to reflect on our role in this process of social change.

At OG, our goal is to challenge our teams to think critically about the issues they are dealing with on the ground and how that all connects to their lives back home. Through dialogue with our local partners, program leaders, and each other, we hope to facilitate an experience that gives our team members lenses in which to see the world and themselves.

“At the point of encounter, there are neither utter ignoramuses or perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they know now.” — Paulo Friere

21-year old me agonized over questions about power, privilege, injustice, and inequality. I still do. And I still don’t have all of the answers. But I do know that it is only when we understand and fully grasp the very real connection between personal development and international development that any real change can be made.

I’m proud to work with an organization that attempts every day to bring us closer to that.

Backpacking with a Purpose

critical reflections on traveling ethically and responsibly

Justine Abigail Yu

Written by

I am to stir the conscience and spur social change. Founder & Editor of Living Hyphen.

Backpacking with a Purpose

critical reflections on traveling ethically and responsibly

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