15 May 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Beyond Good Intentions

Have you seen this website? www.beyondgoodintentions.com is the best site I have seen recently which takes the issues of development and tourism and makes them digestible for everyone to easily think about. LOVE it!

After watching the volunteer travel one, I of course felt the need to comment, and did herehttp://www.beyondgoodintentions.com/share/read.php?6,45 (copied below)

Happy watching!In many of my first short-term international volunteer experiences around the world I walked away glowing from the experience. I had learned so much, regained a passion for helping others, loved working outside and doing physical labor rather than working at a computer, etc. At one point, after my second volunteer vacation, I remember saying I was going to travel this way once a year for the rest of my life and then do a big trip around the world to see all of the projects I had supported when I was done.

It wasn’t until I stayed longer, here in Cambodia, that I began to realize that my impact during projects which were designed for short-term support were often created more for my benefit than the communities/projects we were meant to be supporting and that in some cases I was even doing more harm than good. My feelings on the matter became inversely proportional to my length of stay: The longer I stayed to volunteer the more I realized about the less positive sides to short-term volunteer work.

After starting PEPY and having lived in Cambodia for most of the last four years, I have a new perspective on short-term volunteering. I believe that short-term volunteering is most effective when it is rooted in learning rather than giving and when volunteers are involved in an on-going project where they are asked to support actual needs at the time rather than something developed simply to fill their volunteering desires.

A wise person who has lived here in Cambodia for many years and who runs a successful social venture once said to me, when reflecting on the increasing number of volunteers coming to Cambodia, “People come here, see problems, and immediately want to take action to fix those problems. What they need to do is come here and learn for a while. Then they will better understand how they can be of help.”

I couldn’t agree more. As someone who indeed jumped in and started trying to “fix” before I started to learn and is now backtracking, I wish I had internalized these same ideas sooner.

One of the key lessons I have learned now that I am trying to understand how to “do it right” rather than “just do it”, is that development programs in general or any volunteer projects should be designed to empower those in need of the service to be able to do the things themselves. It seems to me that so many volunteer tourism programs are designed to keep themselves in business. I have asked the directors of volunteer programs here taking short-term travelers, who pay a hefty fee, to teach English for a week or a few months, why they choose English teaching. Is there a big demand for that? One director was upfront with me and said “it is what travelers are looking to do. They want to interact with kids and they want to teach English and that is how we get most of our business so we need to find more places for them to go teach because the demand for these trips is so high.” Should it be driven by the demand for the trips or the demand for the skills? Are kids who learn Head Shoulder Knees and Toes from a new foreigner every two weeks demanding a rotating teacher base, or would they be better off learning from a local staff member where the equivalent investment was put into their teacher training?

So much to think about…. like I said, the more time I am here, the more skeptical I get about the impact of volunteers. The more successful projects I have seen are those experiences designed in a way where travelers can learn from and support the local people in the area and those making long-term commitments to a project. They can walk away better educated, as activists for the projects, and have contributed to something which will have a far longer impact than the duration of their stay.

Thanks for bringing these issues into discussion, Tori!