In this series I want to explore both the positive and the negative sides of voluntourism. Today is a focus on the positive – how voluntourism works to build bridges between cultures.
For all the challenges that come with volunteering overseas, in unfamiliar circumstances, it can breed wonderful opportunities to connect with others.
One of the cries of the older generations is that social media has affected our ability to have real human connection – instead we are connected virtually. Loneliness is on the rise. Given that many volunteering programs occur in remote places, it provides an opportunity to disconnect from virtual reality and actually look people in the eyes and have a conversation – something that is often undervalued.
In sharing stories and listening to one another, people discover the common things that make us human, even in the most different of cultures. There is opportunity to understand how the other thinks, what makes them tick, and how they see the world.
Furthermore, working on a project together, in a group, towards a common goal, forges friendships that often last a lifetime.
I also think in some cases, volunteering can be a healing process for people. In a world that is focused on “self-help”, it can actually be refreshing to focus on others for a while. Some even see it as healing wounds from history and undoing some of the wrong done by prevoius generations. e.g. when countries that have a history of hostility have citizens that cross the borders and begin to learn from each other, it can begin a positive connection over once shaky waters (see this post for a great TED talk).
Now although my last post on the economics of voluntourism (link below) may have come across as quite cynical, the fact is that when people go overseas to support a program, they tell their friends, family, colleagues and social networks and it can raise huge awareness for different causes and thereby increase much needed donations for not-for-profits and their valuable projects. You may ask what that has to do with building bridges, but I think it does increase connections to a country that may multiply down the line. For example, someone may start donating to a cause in a country, which leads to interest and research on that country, which down the line leads to an understanding of that culture and maybe even one day the practical experience of making a connection in person.
I have also previously talked about how sometimes voluntourism can become about what the volunteer gets out of it. But I think they often bring back to their country learnings they can share, whether through presentations to the groups that helped send them, or some even go on to do research and studies that share about those issues….or write blogs 😉
Of course, friendships and passion don’t just come automatically. There needs to be a willingness by the volunteer to learn in order for these bridges to be built.
I’d like to finish this post with a direct quote from this article. It can be quite easy to throw stones over the wall at buzzwords/trends such as “voluntourism,” but I think this quote reminds us that it is also important to investigate the valuable and positive gems that may be unearthed in new ventures.