The Dos And Don’ts Of Voluntourism

In Juarez, Mexico, a group of American university students build houses. In Quito, Ecuador, medical professionals spend two weeks correcting cataracts – pro bono. In Kenya, handfuls of Hollywood stars try “making a difference” at orphanages. At the same time, these volunteers are having a travel experience. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and try to bond with locals. They are volunteer traveler hybrids known as voluntourists. Can they really see the world and save it too?

A rising tide of do-good travelers

“Voluntourism,” writes David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, “is the conscious, seamlessly-integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – while in the destination.”

Over the past 20 years, companies and organizations have sprouted up to meet mushrooming demand for these experiences. In kind, journalists and researchers have also begun investigating the impacts. A recent ABC report, for example, examines the downsides of medical missions.

The benefits for the voluntourist are clear: meaningful cross-cultural exchanges; the chance to contribute to a vital humanitarian cause or project; and insights about life from people with different perspectives. But critics have legitimate questions. Can cross-cultural exchanges also lead to greater misunderstanding and loss? Can well-intentioned individuals on short-term schedules make a lasting difference? Is it really about the destination, or just an ego trip? The solution is complex.

Theory versus practice

In academic circles, best practices have been suggested to avoid voluntourism’s potential dark side. Academics cite potential negative impacts such as the overruling of locals’ desires, outright cultural loss or change, low quality of work completed, decreased demand for local labor, and poverty rationalization (i.e. a reinforcement of misconceptions about poverty).

Meanwhile, on the front lines of voluntourism, organizations have years of ground-level experience with connecting travelers to volunteer opportunities all over the world. Volunteer coordinators admit the road isn’t always smooth, and that when trying to place affluent Westerners in impoverished populations, anything can happen.

In a collection of interviews I collected with volunteer placement coordinators all over the world, however, the academic skepticism remained a distant abstraction. Coordinators recalled very few bad voluntourist scenarios, noting that experiences are overwhelmingly positive. Based on their diverse experiences, they offered their wisdom on practices to avoid as a voluntourist and how to volunteer abroad like you mean it. A cross section of those conversations follows.

What not to do as a voluntourist

Tim Rowse is is the director of WAVES for Development, which combines surf tourism on the Peruvian coast with community service projects. He recalled a difficult experience with one particular individual. “Pre-departure, we spent time corresponding with the volunteer on in-country travel logistics, setting up lodging, keying up staff for their arrival in Lobitos, Peru,” Rowse explains. “Preferring to trust that individuals will deliver on their commitments, we let payment slide until his arrival. Turns out, the volunteer decided to bypass WAVES all together and live in an unaffiliated hotel. His idea was to volunteer for WAVES from outside our system. That’s fine, we get people who don’t know about WAVES and show up in Lobitos wanting to help, but we couldn’t help but feel frustrated at how the events occurred.”

Perpetua Opoku-Agyemang is general manager of Student and Youth Travel Organization in Accra, Ghana, which provides a range of cross-cultural programs and support services. She laments some volunteers’ uncompromising attitudes. “We’ve had cases where a volunteer isn’t satisfied with the condition of our bicycles, so halfway through the journey, she or he abandons the bicycle and walks the rest of the way.”

Laurel Carlton is a volunteer coordinator in Xela, Guatemala, at EntreMundos, a non-profit that provides organizations and communities with training opportunities, resources and volunteers. Because EntreMundos emphasizes clients’ needs over volunteers’ requirements, personal irresponsibility can cause substantial problems.

“One volunteer went to an organization that networks with local producers of fair trade and organic products,” says Carlton. “The volunteer spoke Spanish, had marketing skills and, prior to arrival, she indicated she would stay for at least two months. The organization was quite enthusiastic about the volunteer, and spent several days training her and preparing an individual project. After her first week, the volunteer stopped showing up, and the organization was unable to contact her via email and telephone. Three weeks later, they received an email that she had decided to move on with her travels. The organization was so frustrated by this waste of their time, energy and resources that they have discontinued their volunteer relationship entirely.”

How to volunteer abroad like you mean it

Ground-level managers all look for similar things – a willing attitude, language capabilities, cultural sensitivity, applicable skills and open-mindedness – and they tend to agree that longer stays are most effective.

Carlton describes an ideal experience: “One young woman spoke advanced Spanish and had extensive marketing skills. She was exemplary in her work with an indigenous women’s weaving cooperative. She successfully won the organization over $1000 in funds to buy two much-needed sewing machines, she held several successful fundraising events, and she focused on improving ties with the weaving store’s external markets.”

A similar anecdote comes from Chris Engler, a program coordinator at World Unite. “We recently had a 43-year-old man, Olaf from Germany, who works in public relations. He came for six weeks to Tanzania to volunteer with an NGO that is dealing with female genital mutilation, which is a very sensitive issue. A lot of knowledge about local culture is needed to address rural tribal communities about the topic successfully. Olaf was excellent in listening to the NGO members and developing a PR strategy. He also raised funds for its implementation. Olaf is still in touch with us and is continuing with PR work for all the NGOs in Tanzania he got to know.”

Engler says that a positive attitude and cultural sensitivity are the key criteria of good voluntourists. Carlton, aside from prizing strong Spanish skills in EntreMundos’ voluntourists, agrees. “Great volunteers display flexibility, independence, personal maturity, initiative and a high level of openness and tolerance to a different culture. Humility and awareness of their status as a visitor in another country are also highly important.”

Sustainable Bolivia’s assistant national director, Erin Beasley, succinctly outlines a very healthy overall approach for would-be volunteers. “Observe what needs to be done and help to make that happen. Leave the place cleaner than when you arrived. When you receive generosity, respond with generosity. Be direct, thoughtful and patient when communicating with your new colleagues. And have fun! Your energy and spirit of helping is a great addition to your host organization.”

Voluntourism Dos and Don’ts

Don’t

  • Overstate your skills and abilities
  • Make commitments you can’t keep
  • Expect a free ride just because you are working
  • Forget your priorities: In voluntourism, ‘tourism’ comes second

Do

  • Your homework. Look for transparency about how your fees are being used
  • A deep self-evaluation of your motives and expectations before voluntouring
  • Plan to stay awhile. The longer you stay, the more effective you can be
  • Try it at least once in your life, no matter your age or experience level

Ready to volunteer abroad?

WWOOF Worldwide
EntreMundos, Guatemala
WAVES for Development, Peru
Conscious Journeys
Sustainable Bolivia
World Unite
SYTO Ghana

[Images courtesy WWOOF Canada and World Unite]

La Convención: A Festival Of ‘New Circus’ In Buenos Aires

In the urban landscape of Buenos Aires, Argentina, fauna is fantastically diverse. I love watching the human wildlife. My favorite species is the callejero, or street circus performer. In parks around the city, they set up their slack lines. They hang their long, silk telas from trees to practice aerial dance. Juggling pins fly. The callejeros spend hours in the parks, simply teaching and learning circus arts.

Each year, callejeros from Buenos Aires and all over Latin America convene outside the city. The event is called La Convención Argentina de Circo, Payasos y Espectaculos Callejeros (Argentinian Convention of Circus, Clowns and Street Performer Shows), or La Convención for short. It’s a grand affair that gains a bigger crowd each year. The November 2011 Convención attracted around 900 participants.

The event was founded in 1996, when the circo nuevo (new circus) phenomenon began to grow in Argentina, mirroring movements and conventions that were going on in Europe’s bohemias.

“La Convención was created to satisfy the need for space. We wanted a space for meeting, learning, exchange and union – by artists and for artists,” comments El Payaso Chacovachi, one of the founding clowns. That first year, 250 people and one small circus tent started something special.

Now, fifteen years later, this has become one of the greatest street-level shows on earth (or at least in the southern hemisphere). La Convención has always been a five-day marathon of workshops, contests, parades and performances. On day one, the big tents go up – two real circus tents.

Flocks of circus artists arrive with their own tents, costumes and juggling pins. A small village springs up in the grassy sports field complex that the organizers have reserved. Dining options: a food tent with lovingly prepared vegetarian fare, or public grills for DIY barbeque. There’s time to decide – dinner doesn’t start until 10 p.m. at the earliest.

Ambling through the tent village, I feel lucky. My Porteño friends with callejero tendencies had tipped me off about the gathering. Word of mouth is the only kind of publicity for this deliberately non-commercial event. I stand out a bit as a foreigner with no circus attire, but nobody minds. I gravitate toward the hula-hoopers and the swapping of skills begins.

According to the printed program, a schedule of organized events is set for each day. “Jueves, 1600hrs: Charla, debate y mesa redonda (Thursday, 4 p.m.: discussion, debate and round table).” This is in jest. The first three days pass in a dreamscape of loose workshops by day and drum circles by night. Artists savor this time as a chance to learn, teach and grow their talents.

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Every imaginable skill from the school of new circus is represented – the juggling of anything from pins to discs and cigar boxes, contact juggling, unicycling, staff spinning, diabolos, poi, hoops, aerial dancing, trapeze and improvised, new forms of object manipulation, balance and strength. Art meets play. Spontaneity reigns.

The last two days – a Saturday and Sunday – are the culmination of La Convención. Saturday is the grand parade. Everybody unpacks their best and finest circus attire. They achieve a “new circus” look by mixing classic elements like wigs and noses with contemporary design. Red, black and white stripes are everywhere. Tutus ruffle. Leotards and leggings are worn tight. I watch two clowns paint each other’s faces, matching each other.

The nuevo circo clowns pile into buses, cheering and playing whatever instruments they can find – tiny charango guitars, kazoos, melodicas and accordions – in an exodus toward the city of Monte Grande. They take to the streets.

Hours of parades degenerate into a massive street party. A foam machine covers everyone with a layer of white. Paper plates of shaving cream appear out of nowhere, suddenly widespread. Pie in the face! Soaked and soapy, I join the chaos.

Back at the circus grounds that night, all the face paint and foam has been washed off. Another party erupts in the Big Tent. A brassy ska band keeps everyone dancing into the small hours of the morning.

A final big day is ahead. The best of the professional performances have been saved for Sunday. The grand finale: shows by the most prestigious circus schools and companies in Argentina, like Compañia Colectivo Xibalba and Escuela Le Lido.

On the bus ride back to Buenos Aires, I read the event booklet cover to cover. I find this:

Founder’s Manifesto [translated]

Clowns, circus people, and street performer artists are a special stock within the world of professional artists, and I call professional anyone who lives by their profession.

Because of their particular characteristics, as half artist and half foraging go-getter, and since they clearly mix their lives with their art, they are associated with freedom within the collective imagination.

Their freedom is physical (they generally work traveling), economic (the money they earn is directly associated with their ability and effort), and psychic (they don’t have to be the best, they’re happy just being). This freedom allows them to take the reigns of their own lives. So, they happily wander the world without borders, full of limitations, creativity and courage, actualizing themselves as artists and as people.

La Convención is designed to celebrate these lives, and also to learn, to familiarize, to inform ourselves, to enjoy. Most importantly, we come to celebrate once a year for six days, creating our own utopian world full of free and sovereign ideals.”

~ El Payaso Chacovachi

Official festival website: http://convencionargentina.com/
Photos from last year’s Convención on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ConcursoFotograficoConvencion
La Convención 2012: November 23 – 28