Friday, May 23, 2014

Voluntourism, Poverty Tourism, Mission Trips, Oh My!

Simply by reading this post and the linked articles, you will have contributed one of the best things you could contribute to the mission here with the Episcopal Church in Cange, Haiti. Please read it.

This post is a collection of articles that discuss the positives and negatives of volunteer trips, the issues of voluntourism, and some suggestions on how to improve on this phenomenon.

The issues these articles address lead me to question the sincerity of human good will, the limits of commitment, and virtue of selfishness. It is my hope that by sharing these articles, I will push you as I am being pushed to consider the broader context in which we live, work, travel and volunteer--not only in places abroad, but in our own neighborhoods and towns.

Over the course of the past 9 months, I've seen group after group visit Cange. A decent portion of my audience on this blog are people that I have met on their short term trips to Cange. Many of them have never met each other, although I see connections slowly being made.

Some individuals had never traveled outside the U.S. or to a so-called developing country (this is technically still my first time to a developing country). Others can't stop talking about all the traveling they've done around the world. Some can provide an informative history of the U.S. involvement in Haiti, while others couldn't point to Haiti on a map. But, by the time the visitors leave, all of them have learned something. I want to make sure what is learned is framed in reality and not preconceived ideas of nationality, religion, poverty, race, and the romanticized virtuouness of volunteerism.

Volunteering is an interaction, meaning there is an exchange between those involved. These exchanges involve things we can see and things that can never be seen. I believe it is the things that we are most unaware of, the things that are not physical, that are most important in this interaction.

These interactions, indeed these relationships, between outside visitors and local Haitians, motivate me to write this post. I've seen some pretty discouraging behavior leading to some damaging interactions, often with the visitor oblivious to what has happened. Some of the negative perspectives on volunteering abroad, backed up by some angering and heartbreaking stories, may leave one who has a desire to help a bit discouraged.

Yet often these interactions, these relationships, between outside visitors and local Haitians go right. And this fills me with the hope that people can see the humanity in each other, can seek understanding and show respect, and can work together to create amazing positive change.

Article 1
This is a wonderful opinion piece from Al Jazeera America. My guess is it will leave you at the very least uncomfortable, if not angry, because it challenges not only how we approach volunteer work, but how we may live our lives at home in oblivous contentment to our own society's troubles. Warning: May contain trigger words.

But this writer's perspective is an important one to understand. I paticularly like this gem:

"Typically other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help."

Article 2
This article offers a personal view of volunteer work in Haiti, and critiques rather harshly many groups and approaches to that volunteer work. But it provides advice as well:

"Lesson one: Make sure the project is sustainable and somehow addresses the

 underlying problem—usually poverty...

...Lesson two: Confirm that the project you join is a true partner with the 

community and not out to “save” it.

...Lesson three: Ensure the project promotes cross-cultural understanding.

...Lesson four: Check that the project does more than make travelers feel good

 about themselves.

...Lesson five: Go with a program that has an established track record to minimize

 chances that the project will make the problem worse."

Article 3
Third is an article with some details on how to make an impact on a volunteer trip. It's far from a complete list, but this article does point out some key difficiencies and asks questions that can help a volunteering individual or group over come them.

Article 4
Finally, here is a collection of perspectives on voluntourism from The New York Times' "Room for Debate" series. It presents different perspectives in fairly short, clear pieces.
For the sake of the people of Cange, Haiti, or the people anywhere that we may visit for volunteer work (including our own back yard), it is vital that we engage in a discussion over the impact that we are having when we volunteer or donate to a charity, mission or project. We must learn about the culture and history not only of those we are seeking to serve, but of ourselves as well. We carry our national history, race, socioeconomic status, religion, gender and language with us. That sometimes heavy and unseen baggage plays into the interations we have. But it is vital that we recognize its presence and thoughtfully consider what it means for us, for others, and for the relationships we form together.


  1. Hi Alan - Sorry for not commenting here for sometime although I have enjoyed reading your posts. Your quotation from Article 1 is extremely apposite even though it may make many Americans feel uncomfortable. Thank you for being brave enough to post it.

    1. Good to hear from you! I hope things are well in Prague. I apprecaite your comment and the fact that you keep in touch with me on here. I also enjoy your blog--though your recent news is sad. I pray for your emotional healing after the loss of Oscar.