Volunteering abroad can be an exciting and challenging experience. Many students find themselves drawn to the idea of leaving home, exploring new cultures, and making a difference in less developed places. But, the concept of voluntourism – volunteering and touring a new country – has raised much controversy about the actual benefits it provides.
On Feb. 20, the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation (SCIC) hosted its second installment of a monthly discussion series called “A Gathering of Global Minds.” The purpose of the series is to engage the Regina community in thinking about important social issues around the world.
This month, the discussion focused on the harms and benefits of voluntourism. The discussion, led by five panelists, explored voluntourism through the different experiences and perspectives of each of the speakers.
Sydney Victor, Valerie Poulin and Eda Pineda are all current participants in the national volunteering program, Canada World Youth (CWY). They each shared with the audience the challenges and lessons they encountered through their six-month volunteering experience.
Canada World Youth, founded in 1971, is an international education program for people between the ages of 15 to 35. The program is “dedicated to enriching the lives of young people that have a desire to become informed and active global citizens…[by helping] youth experience the world for themselves, learn about other cultures and diverse Canadian communities while developing leadership and communication skills.”
CWY enrolls participants in a six-month volunteering program, where 3 months are spent volunteering in a community in Canada, and three other months are spent volunteering at a location overseas. Through this “reciprocal exchange,” participants are able to give back to their own communities, and to communities around the world.
As part of their volunteer experiences, Canadian natives Victor and Poulin spent three months volunteering in Nicaragua with local community organizations and charities. Now, the two are in Saskatoon finishing the last three months of the program. Pineda, a Nicaraguan native, began her internship in her home country, and is now finishing the program in Saskatoon along with Victor and Poulin.
While these three women have had the chance to explore the culture of Nicaragua and Canada, panelist and international studies graduate Sasha Hanson-Pastran says one must be critical of voluntourism, no matter how great the opportunities sound.
“Voluntourism as an industry is huge. It’s so diverse – in terms of the time frame that people go, the kinds of activities, the kinds of organizations that send voluntourists … There’s so many things that fall under that umbrella,” she said.
While Hanson-Pastran admits that CWY is a leader in providing ethical and sustainable voluntourism opportunities, not all organizations are as honest and reliable. What distinguishes CWY from other organizations, she says, is their longer time-frame programs, and a focus on relationship building, international service learning, and encouragement of participants’ critical thinking and self-reflection.
“[Voluntourism can be] a form of colonialism, and that comes from the history of both tourism…and development as industries that are continuing from a history of colonization, that have the same kind of global flow of people, of money, of power,” Hanson-Pastran explained.
While students may have good intentions signing up to volunteer overseas, Hanson-Pastran says people need to really ask themselves whether they are going to benefit the country they plan to volunteer at, or whether they are going to satisfy their own feeling of privilege.
“People have very good intentions, things like making a difference, doing something worthwhile, and contributing to others. This often disguises as a colonial development agenda, and at the same time enforces unreflective volunteer practices. People want to redefine their own superiority and recreate those colonial relationships, when they go in with those intentions,” she said.
Instead of this volunteer model, Hanson-Pastran suggest that voluntourism organizations move away from these colonial, “short-term, profit-driven ventures,” focusing instead on “mutually beneficial” models where the host community is at the center of the equation, and where volunteers are able to critically engage and learn throughout their experience, and benefit the community with their skills.
“[People have] very good intentions, things like making a difference, doing something worthwhile, and contributing to others. This often disguises as a colonial development agenda, and at the same time enforces unreflective volunteer practices…[People want to] redefine their own superiority and recreate those colonial relationships, when they go in with those intentions.” – Sasha Hanson-Pastran
Andrew Wahba, also one of the panelists, agrees with Hanson-Pastran’s critique of the voluntourism industry. Wahba is the founder of the international volunteering website True Travellers Society – an organization he established “out of frustration with the ‘volunteer [around the world,] but first pay us lots of money’ organizations.”
True Travellers Society offers a way to directly connect to meaningful international travel and volunteer opportunities, eliminating the need for the expensive “middle-man.”
According to Wahba, many organizations have turned voluntourism into a profit-making business, changing volunteer opportunities into expensive luxuries rather than educational platforms.
In just a few clicks, Wahba encourages travelers to get connected to locations over the internet, search websites and blogs, read about the organizations and their mandates, and ask people about their experiences.
“Voluntourism has changed now to businesses in a lot of countries…There’s a lot of good and bad in these opportunities. If you’re going to go, do your research before you go, and make your own judgements,” Wahba suggested.
Finding an ethical and sustainable organization to volunteer at is only half the challenge of voluntourism. After securing a good volunteer position, students and travelers are met with many more challenges as they embark on their international trips.
From language barriers to culture shock, Victor, Poulin, and Pineda shared their challenges and difficulties with the audience – both the humorous and the inspiring.
Poulin, for instance, was shocked at the amount of dogs she saw without homes in Nicaragua.
“In Nicaragua and in Canada, it’s very different. Here, a dog is like a baby…you need to give him some love. There, no. You don’t give love to the dog. In the streets, you have dogs everywhere,” she said.
Originally from a small town in Quebec, Poulin said that her experience with CWY was something that opened her eyes, not only to the culture and politics of Nicaragua, but to the diversity and history of Canada as well.
“I think my volunteer experience in Canada is very important because I rediscovered this country…I discovered a lot about Aboriginal people. I didn’t meet a lot of Aboriginal people before this program … I am so glad to have two friends from Nunavut,” Poulin shared.
Making those national and international connections was something that Victor also enjoyed and appreciated about the program.
“When I first heard about this program, I thought it was going to be this amazing program and I was going to make a really big difference in a developing country. But once I began the program I realized that wasn't the reality of it. CWY is a program designed for young people who are eager to learn about new cultures and languages, and who want to explore new realities. It’s an
opportunity for young people to gain volunteer experience and also gain knowledge about your inner self … I gained two new families, one in Nicaragua and one in Saskatoon,” Victor said.
Language barriers, culture shock, and lifestyle adaptation aside, the three women agree that their volunteer work both in Nicaragua and in Canada has helped connect to the world, on a larger scale. At the end of the day, says Pineda, if there’s one thing she learned, it that humans all smile in the same language.
“I learned how important it is to give a smile to another person. It gives you a feeling of being in good company. You feel happy to give and share happiness, and have that companionship.”
Photo courtesy of SCIC