Thank you for bringing to a broader audience this critical issue. International service took form a decade before the Peace Corps emerged, but recently, the idea of combining service with international travel in the form of “volunteer vacations” has given birth to a troubling trend of "for-profit" volunteerism.
As more and more travelers opt for this type of vacation, so too the range of operators expands. Indeed, hastily contrived projects riding the current “voluntourism” trend can, in fact, exploit local people for the benefit of the "volunteer" and leave grossly unfavorable impressions abroad in their wake.
Mutually beneficial international volunteer opportunities are full-time programs, and prepare volunteers to serve ethically and sensitively in the host country. They’re grounded in a long-term community development commitment, and contribute not just volunteer labor, but funds to support the volunteer work projects. Anything less potentially reinforces “Ugly American” stereotypes by simply dressing “do-gooder” programs in humanitarian clothes.
There is a place for outside assistance by short-term volunteers directed by qualified non-profit organizations. Ethical volunteer programs encourage and support local self-reliance. By working side-by-side, American volunteers and rural community members can learn important lessons about interdependence while addressing important community needs. Long-term international partnerships focus on ongoing local investment, and engage volunteers in work projects that honor and support local leaders’ vision, commitment and contributions. I don't believe it's up to us in the economically privileged region of the world to operate out of our arrogence by withholding valuable resources from those who request our help. The key is to operate under the direction and at the invitation of local people on projects they develop and drive. Open-minded, well-directed volunteers can be very useful on these kinds of efforts.Emergent “voluntourism” offerings – with their implied emphasis on tourism in place of service – erode the foundation supporting true development programs and lead unassuming humanitarians into something far different from what they intend.
Michele Gran, co-founder, Global Volunteers
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