April 24, 2017

Unpack voluntourism

Volunteering experience shouldn’t double as a tourism opportunity

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The concept of volunteering for a few weeks in a remote destination may be doing more harm than good. 
 
While the country varies — India, Tanzania, Bolivia, Malaysia, etc. — and the initiative may be different — building schools, education, starting an NGO — the concept is the same: it’s called “voluntourism”.
 
Voluntourism refers to a form of volunteering that usually takes place in a developing country and incorporates aspects of tourism throughout the process.
 
There are definitely many benefits to volunteering. It can be a powerful, life changing experience that allows you to apply your skills, and develop new ones. You can make a positive difference in the lives of others, 
and yourself. 
 
Many people are inspired by their experiences, and this can shape a life-long desire to do good and help others. 
 
However, it’s entirely possible to have these meaningful experiences without getting on an airplane. Many Queen’s clubs do participate in local projects and might have a greater impact if they focused on these efforts.
 
You don’t even need to leave the University District to have a meaningful volunteer experience. There are an abundance of local organizations that would greatly appreciate your time. For example, the Kingston Youth Shelter at 234 Brock St. is only a 5-minute walk from campus, and the Kingston General Hospital — almost on campus — accepts new volunteers each 
school year.
 
If you’re looking for an impactful experience, would like to travel and you have the means to pay for it, then go for it. But the citizens of the country that you’re visiting aren’t the ones benefiting from the “voluntour” experience: you are. 
 
Rather then spending money on your accommodations, food and travel, your money could fund one of countless initiatives already established with local experts, with the skills, experience and cultural understanding to improve the given situation. 
 
If you really care so passionately about the issues that plague other countries, support the initiatives that already exist within them with fund raising and raising awareness for the cause. As discussed in the New York Times article “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma”, the construction work that eager student volunteers do is often so shoddy it’s ultimately all done for nought. This is because keen students aren’t carpenters. Local tradesmen could’ve completed the same job for a fraction of the cost, with greater efficiency and effectiveness.
 
Look no further than our very own student government, the AMS, to find a plethora of clubs that run voluntouristic initiatives. The AMS funnels funding to these clubs from the AMS opt-out fees, the ones you pay every year. But this funding could more appropriately be looked at as an unwitting donation to theses problematic causes. 
 
Some of these clubs include: Queens Global Village, MEDLIFE, Queen’s Health Outreach, Queen’s Project on International Development (QPID), Refresh Bolivia, Students Offering Support, VIDA, and World Vision Queen’s — these are just the clubs I found after searching the AMS clubs directory for a few minutes. There are plenty more. Each year, these organizations send multiple volunteers to their assigned destinations, but with little oversight of whether they’re accomplishing anything substantial to assist these communities or whether these funds could’ve been better spent. 
 
It’s possible that so many of these clubs exist more so that students can pad their resume for grad school. VIDA advertises their club as one that offers “unparalleled volunteer experiences,” a description that seems to prioritize the volunteers and their learning over the citizens in the countries they’re travelling to. 
 
Do we really need to send multiple students, from multiple organizations to multiple countries to volunteer? Wouldn’t an amalgamation of resources and funding be more effective? Ultimately, these vacation-funding clubs require some much-needed review.
 
Often clubs also attempt to raise funds for their projects through direct canvassing to the student body, using GoFundme, or to Tilt their 
‘charity-kegger’.
 
I see far less value in giving money to other students to fund trips to exotic destinations, pad their resumes, checkout a couple of NGOs or try their inexperienced hands at building schools, than assisting sustainable and knowledgeable causes. There are more effective ways of improving the conditions of the region such as supporting already existing local projects with a proven track-record of success. 
 
A 2009 article by Daniel Guttentag (The University of Waterloo) in the International Journal Of Tourism Research titled “The possible negative impact of volunteer tourism” highlights the multiple concerns stemming from the voluntourism industry. 
 
Some of the concerns Guttentag mentions are: a neglect of locals’ desires, caused by a lack of local involvement; a hindering of work progress and the completion of unsatisfactory work, caused by volunteers’ lack of skills; a decrease in employment opportunities and a promotion of dependency, caused by the presence of volunteer labour — and the list goes on. 
 
These feel-good, resume-padding clubs may only be contributing to these problems and, if so, need to go. Stop attempting to cover your summer vacation with the veneer of calling it global development. If you truly care about international development or health outreach, then support an ongoing and organized effort consisting of professionals and local leaders, but please don’t start another club, Queen’s already has more than enough.
 
Liam Bloomfield is a third-year psychology major.

 

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