What is the cardinal sin of most volunteer vacations? Focusing too much on the volunteer and not the cause. Organized volunteer trips make this mistake in the pre-trip marketing to get volunteers to sign up, during the volunteer work, and then in evaluating the impact of the trip. As the classic work on sustainable development “Toxic Charity” showed, this cardinal sin isn’t limited to organized volunteer vacation firms (both for-profit and non-profit). Toxic Charity showed that many faith-based volunteer projects or other projects organized by universities or individuals or groups commit the cardinal sin in focusing on the volunteers, not the cause.
First, let’s look at the pre-trip marketing. It’s simply unrealistic that a short term volunteer project involving unskilled volunteers can have a major impact in promoting sustainable development. And yet the hype of many volunteer vacation firms would make you think that in one week, two weeks, or even a month the efforts of an unskilled local volunteer will significantly change a community, particularly when the volunteer doesn’t speak the local language or have a strong understanding of local culture. So often volunteers are encouraged to believe that their short time volunteering will have a significant long term impact. Volunteers think they will be greeted like Mother Teresa as they wade into a sea of grateful faces, with rose petals thrown in the path before them.
Volunteers are encouraged to see locals as helpless and in need because this view makes the volunteer feel generous and powerful. Even the tendency to “slum it” with mediocre to abysmal room and board gives volunteers the short-term rush of poverty themselves, relieving years of guilt in lives of privilege. “I will know the suffering of the poor by sleeping in a shack on a cot for a week.”
During the volunteer work, volunteers often want to take the lead, to leave their mark in the form of sharing great ideas and wisdom with locals. Instead of working with locals to help them implement and improve their own sustainable development plans, volunteers believe they will shine the light of civilization on backward people. Volunteers will take charge of the project, often overlooking or ignoring the wants and needs of locals. Most important, volunteers will often do the work that locals should have done themselves, thus perpetuating a culture of dependency where locals look to foreigners for solutions to their own problems. Often volunteers steal jobs that would have gone to locals, thus destroying jobs and businesses and the economic pillar of all sustainable development. Years ago, Conde Nast looked at the pitfalls of volunteer vacations in an article regarding volunteering in Haiti that still rings true.
Finally, too many volunteer trips measure their success in the enjoyment and impact on the volunteer, not local sustainable development. The trip is deemed a success if the volunteer “feels” good about what they did, if they got to meet some friendly locals, if they left their little physical mark in the form of some nails in a roof or paint on a wall. The trip is deemed successful if the volunteer was safely exposed to people in need before getting back onto the jet back home, where they can proudly post dozens of selfies of the volunteer with sad and/or helpless locals (as this hysterical video from SAIH shows). SAIH is the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund that fights stereotypes in aid and development. All too often, volunteers work on one-off projects with no long-term plan or measurement of success and no effort to gauge whether well-intentioned efforts to help might have produced unintended consequences.
How do you avoid committing the Cardinal Sin of volunteer vacations? Focus on local heroes. Remember that on good volunteer vacations, the heroes are not the volunteers. Instead, the heroes are local leaders who fight for a worthy cause and remain on site after the temporary volunteers fly back home.
So in your volunteer vacations, support and empower local heroes in all three stages of the volunteer experience. Stress the focus on supporting and empowering local leaders in pre-trip marketing, making sure that volunteers understand that locals are in charge. During the volunteer work, make sure that local leaders are directing and approving work and priorities. Exercise judicious humility in trying to get locals to “do it another way,” realizing that locals might know something you don’t. Make sure that clear and appropriate economic support goes into local priorities, and not just into making the trip more fun and rewarding for volunteers. Finally, measure success in how projects impacted locals and helped locals. If possible, try to set up both short-term measurable goals and medium to long-term goals. Get real feedback from locals, including areas for improvement next time.
If you’ve successfully avoided the volunteer vacation Cardinal Sin, your thoughts and your photos that you share back home with your 500 Facebook friends will reflect your focus on local heroes. You shine as a volunteer when local heroes shine. In helping local leaders to shine, you might encourage some of your Facebook friends to come and support your favorite local hero!
#Recycling #ToxicCharity #SustainableDevelopment #VolunteerVacation #DominicanRepublic #Sustainable #Voluntourism #Voluntourist #FaithBased
(Photo of Cristobal Rijo, Community Leader in Monte Verde, Dominican Republic promoting recycling and anti-littering)
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The BeachCorps Beach Bum loves great vacations and great volunteer work!