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Thursday, March 29, 2012

UNION: Beyond the Consumer’s ‘Voluntourism’

For those interested in traveling for a purpose beyond merely taking in the sights, consider volunteering with HOPE International Development Agency's UNION program. If you have a few minutes, watch this short film about UNION.

In recent years, we’ve become aware of the term ‘voluntourism’, which refers to overseas tourism that incorporates some sort of volunteering. The term is fairly glib and in many respects, it should be. The idea of rich westerners taking excursions to the poorest, most desolate places on earth for their own sense of personal enrichment should make us all a little squeamish. The idea that one can buy the experience of feeling like a good person — because, let’s face it, it is costly to fly, costly to travel to far flung places — should give one pause.

We have been sending volunteers to the communities where we are at work since the early 80s, long before there was a market for this kind of travel experience. Since that time, we have been telling people that, in fact, they are really not that useful to us as school-builders, nurses, teachers, or any of the myriad roles that people take on as overseas volunteers. Even if those are exactly the sort of jobs our volunteers do, the purpose has never been to replace indigenous school-builders, nurses, and teachers with Western travelers — the purpose has been to allow our volunteers to simply experience life in these villages.

The most useful work our volunteers do takes place when they return home — our volunteers have raised untold sums of money for the communities that they grew to love, they have become formidable advocates, they have found ways to support and strengthen the work of HOPE. We could hand out a million pamphlets on poverty and their impact would be inconsequential compared to the experience of a handful of people who had actually traveled to a poor village and befriended the people there. Information breeds opinions, but experience stokes the fire of activism.

So while the term ‘voluntourism’ summons images of the perfect consumer package — a travel experience designed to provide moral satisfaction in a few convenient weeks — please understand that the UNION experience is a little different. We want your time overseas to be the beginning of something a lot less convenient, tidy, and short-term, but ultimately much, much more satisfying

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