Activism: Good Intentions and Voluntourism, by Pranada Devi

In the search for opportunities to rethink our life and broaden our horizons, we may decide to spend our vacations doing something for people elsewhere in the world. Many opportunities now exist to spend as little as a week (or as long as you want) in impoverished areas, learning about the needs that exist and how you can contribute to a solution.

Mashable highlighted five such opportunities a few years ago: ResponsibleTravel.com, Ecotour Directory, TrekAmerica, Volunteer Vacations and Global Volunteers. All of these “voluntourism” initiatives are still active and have received varying degrees of recognition.

It’s important to understand, however, what you’re going to be contributing to and how that will support a community to make long-term positive change. Daniela Papi, founder of an NGO and a voluntourism organization called PEPY (originally “Protecting Earth, Protecting Yourself” and now “Promoting Education, emPowering Youth”), writes a blog called “Lessons I Learned” about the growth edge she faced when she started her NGO in Cambodia and what she originally thought she could contribute, compared with how she approaches the work today.

Papi narrates the pitfalls we can run into when our good intentions lead us to make one-off gifts or support efforts that make us feel sympathetic. “I saw children taken from their own family’s homes into “orphanages” in the city to live under the care of sympathetic foreigners. The tourist spot where I myself had bought souvenirs from irresistibly persistent children was growing as more and more parents pulled their kids out of school to bring in the family income. When I asked parents why they took their children out of school, they answered with what I already knew to be true: “The tourists feel sympathy for our children. They want to buy from the youngest kids.” I saw tourists investing in “poorer” looking orphanages promoting a cycle that encouraged orphanages to appear run-down and unmaintained. Myopic good intentions were continuing to fuel a sympathy-driven system of aid that was promoting genuinely destructive patterns.”

The extent of these well-intentioned but problematic tours is such that it became the subject of a 2009 documentary called “Changing The World On Vacation”. Papi’s organization was depicted in this movie and she relates her embarrassment in her blog at watching the movie for the first time and seeing how she used to conduct her work.

Papi notes, “Oftentimes the real needs of a project are not things that volunteers can easily support. Language barriers, lack of local knowledge and lack of skills prevent volunteers from being a good fit for most development project needs, so instead tour companies often create projects for the travelers.” Her recent Huffington Post article includes advice for choosing a voluntourism trip that will actually make a positive impact.

It’s important to approach the idea of making a difference in the world with a spirit of true selflessness. Selfless service may not be glamorous or satisfying to the ego’s sense of likes and dislikes. It may consist of sorting medical goods at home, instead of travelling to a war-torn country. It may consist of holding a yard sale to raise funds, instead of donating used items overseas. It may consist of apparently menial tasks such as folding magazines or sorting recycling or filling out information on a spreadsheet. It may be chopping veggies for your local soup kitchen, rather than flying overseas to hand out meals at an orphanage.

There is no doubt that witnessing real poverty firsthand and being of service to people who are poor and needy can help us develop a sense of compassion, and perspective on the relatively comfortable, privileged life most of us lead in the West. But it’s important to practice humility and discernment when deciding where and how to be of service. Recognize that the bottom line is the long-term difference made in the lives of the community you’re trying to help, and ensure that whatever you choose to do (whether on vacation or in your spare moments every day) is contributing to that bottom line.

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Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She manages the Politics, Books and Activism sections for Parvati Magazine in addition to serving as Managing Editor for the magazine overall. She serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.