July 2016: Volunteerism

Voluntourism is a fraught concept. Are we helping or hurting when we build a house in New Orleans, hold babies in an orphanage in Kenya, or construct a fence for a clinic in Nicaragua? In 2013, the Hewitts went to live with their two little girls in the Mamelodi slums of South Africa, six miles away from their gated community, “to change ourselves.” In Brazil you can tour the favelas for a half day for $30. A 2008 study of 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.

Is this “poverty pornography”, an “experiment in radical empathy,” or harmful?

“(T)he mantra of good intentions becomes unworthy when it… can give a South African AIDS orphan an attachment disorder or put a Haitian mason out of work” for a week.                         Jacob Kushner, New York Times, 3-22-16

Leah, my daughter who is just finishing over two years teaching at Safe Passage in Guatemala, talks about the power of learning by doing, not necessarily changing or giving. She and I believe that the ripple effect of an experience in poverty – for the individual and for the people he or she interacts with for a lifetime – are powerful. Leah told me a heartwarming story the other day that gives me hope that we can construct positive voluntourism experiences.

Leah has decided that one place short term volunteers can be immediately helpful is as English tutors. But “Bob”, a middle aged volunteer, was concerned. He didn’t speak Spanish and wondered out loud multiple times, how this would work. Leah reassured him that only speaking English could be an asset and left on vacation.

When she returned, Luis, a star student who understood English very well – he could decipher rap songs – but never spoke, came up to Leah and asked her what her favorite food was, did she like to cook, and more.

“Luis,” Leah asked, “Your English is fabulous! I’ve tried to get you to speak for two years, what got you talking?”

“Oh,” he responded in perfect English, “I’ve had two tutoring sessions with Bob and he doesn’t speak Spanish so we speak English.”

Yes, it is difficult to construct meaningful, respectful, and positive short-term interventions. What matters, says Leah, is that we do so, conscientiously and thoughtfully.

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