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Philanthropic Travel, Voluntourism and Summer Holidays

Excerpts from this blog on Philanthropic Travel were first published in 2009 on www.GenaRotstein.com (formerly Dexterity Consulting).

It’s hard to believe that summer’s just around the corner. Setting up travel plans, thinking about vacations, registering kids for summer camp, planning out how to pass the weeks ahead without school and longer sunny days. This is also when university students start thinking about job prospects for the summer. Gaining experience for their resumes and grad school applications includes heading overseas for adventures and opportunities that they would not have staying in North America.

At 17 I moved out of my parents place and spent a year traveling around Europe and the Middle East.  When I returned I made a promise to myself that I would take a month off each year to explore a different part of the world and a different part of me.  My boundaries have been pushed – from kayaking along the east coast of the United States and hiking a part of the Appalachian Trail; to handing out tef (grain from Ethiopia) to street kids and their parents in Northern Ethiopia. It’s this last experience that I want to draw upon for this blog post – travel and philanthropy.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states, “if responsible and sustainable practices are in place, tourism is the natural interlocutor between the wealth and desires of the global traveler and the socio-economic needs of some of the world’s most remote, but heritage-rich communities, natural and cultural sites.” UNESCO sees responsible travel as a delicate balancing act. Tourism involves a series of trade-offs but, within an agreed framework of goals and limits and a climate of educational, respectful relationships, we have one of our most powerful tools for poverty reduction. For more information on UNESCO Sustainable travel and international development programs click here.

What does that balance look like? For centuries we have been travelling the globe bringing with us our own ideas of what society and community should look like.  From the Crusades and their concepts of tithing and soul-saving; to the Muslim expansion into Spain and their values of education and charity; to today’s missionary groups and school projects, charity has been an integral part of globalization and, from some perspectives, colonization.

In a CBC Doc Zone expose, Volunteers Unleashed 22 year old Pippa Biddle examines the under-belly of the voluntourism industry. Her blog post, THE PROBLEM WITH LITTLE WHITE GIRLS (AND BOYS): WHY I STOPPED BEING A VOLUNTOURIST highlights her personal experience as a young adult.

There is a difference between missionary work and philanthropic travel. And there is also a difference between volun-tourism and philanthropic travel. The motivators for both may start at “wanting to do good,” the execution of these types of travel differs.  This is what we are exploring in this post today – the ripple effect of Voluntourism.

What Pippa experienced was voluntourism, “Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sunset, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost-effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.”

Three characteristics that differentiate Philanthropic Travel:

  1. It supports the local community by providing them with the tools and resources they need to do the job themselves. “There are plenty of people (local unemployed labourers) to bang the hammer,” says David Chamberlain, formerly of Exquisite Safaris Philanthropic Travel, “what we need to do is get them the hammers and the nails.”
  2. It does not take away jobs from the local community AND it doesn’t put them at risk because the volunteer job I am doing is what I am qualified to do (i.e. not providing medical support without being a doctor)
  3. The money used to go on this trip is not impacting the bottom the line of the organization I am involved with.

So when  you start planning your holidays that will include a volunteer opportunity, consider the following:

  1. Is what I am about to do taking away a job from someone already in the country?
  2. The funding for the project that the organization received, does that include staff implementation?  If so, how are those funds being allocated if the implementation is being done by a volunteer?  In other words, where is that money going?
  3. Is my time better spent just being present with people and being exposed to a new culture so that I can bring those learnings home?

An effective travel philanthropy experience:

We hear time, and time again, how hard it is to track the dollars that we send overseas.  This is no more true than when an organization receives funding for a project to be implemented by local people, but then sources volunteers from overseas who will pay their way over and for all their expenses and do the work for free.  Yes, in the short-term the organization has pocketed the money that would have otherwise been spent on a staff, but in the long-run, that does not help build up the local economy.

  • Pre-trip educational opportunity
  • Bonding experience in-country between family members and other participants
  • Hands-on interaction with the recipient organization to better understand what has, or is happening, as a result of your involvement and contribution
  • Positive in-country encounters that are not only about the social need, but also about the culture and the wonderful things that are part of that community and country
  • A discussion around community economic development and the projects that you are supporting

To learn more about how we can help you design a philanthropic travel experience please contact us at info@karmaandcents.com or visit our website.

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