Fairly recently, I read a lovely article that highlighted the cruising industry’s most recent business endeavor — volunteering.
I know. I know. You’re probably wondering what the cruising industry has to do with volunteering; and why that would warrent an article.
You’re right. Normally, cruising and volunteering would be considered two completely different things, but cruise lines seem to be offering customers the ability to go on vacationandvolunteer. Now, a customer can sail their way to the B.V.I. or Jamaica, or the entire Pacific Ocean, stop at some other country, volunteer for a few hours and hop back onto the ship to go home. (There are a few other vacations “packages” that allow anyone the ability to put on their volunteer hat for a few hours of nominal discomfort, then turn around and leave the cares of those they’re volunteering for behind.)
Voluntourism, in my opinion, usually comes from a place of “goodness.” A person, generally from a well-developed nation, wants to share what they have with someone else (who typically would not have access to those accommodations). Personally, I don’t think that these vacation types are going to be of any help to those places in desperate need of volunteers. Spending money to only give a few hours of volunteering seems (to me) a bit selfish and unhelpful. (To be fair, I get that there are many people who want to help others and don’t know hoe. I also get that cruise lines are looking to tap into a different group of people who want to vacation, but also like volunteering.) What happens when the volunteer leaves? What happens when tourists, who mean well, just give everything that they have (material possessions), without addressing the root issue? Why should volunteering make us (the individual) feel good? Shouldn’t we be doing it because there is a need?
In a lot of cases, voluntourism (while well-meaning) can cause more harm than good. If you find yourself wanting to help others, you’re not sure why it may be more harmful, or you want some tips on how to approach volunteering, then let me give you a few points to think about:
- Learn the language.Simply learning the basics can go a long way. Many people are excited when someone puts forth the effort to learn their native tongue. It’s an olive branch of sorts. It shows that you were willing to try something new, or were open to learning, or that you understand that we’re all human. Showing interest in learning the language of the country that you are looking to volunteer in is key to opening up social doors.
- Learn the culture.Being familiar with customs is key to learning an entire (generally) people’s way of thought. What kind of foods do said people eat during what times of the year and why? Why are certain garments created in this way for this ceremony and who gets to wear it? What does this statue symbolize? This list goes on. Learning about a culture different than your own and respecting the people who practice the customs, shows that you’ve done your homework and you care directly about the people you’re trying to help.
- Be wise(don’t just give free things). As much as you want to help, you should never “throw money” at the situation. This includes cold hard cash, jewelry, and other expensive items. Just giving money directly to the people you’re so desperately wanting to help may not help the situation at all (it could make it worse!).
- Check your home front.You don’t have to go to some exotic country to help; there are plenty of people right in your own backyard that are in desperate need of you — volunteering. You’d be surprised by the amount of underprivileged youth that need tutoring, or houses that need help being built, or community centers that need help being cleaned, or hospitals that need candy stripers. I could go on and on. There is so much to do on your home front.
- You’re working with humans, not animals.Whether you go to some exotic location or you stay in your home country, it is important to remember that you are dealing with humans. You are dealing with people who possess thoughts, emotions, and have dignity. Do not take that away from them. Remember that they are not their situation; they are not things. If you go to an exotic country, remember that because they may be in a terrible situation, it doesn’t mean that your country/custom/culture is somehow inherently “better” than theirs. (This is getting into colonialism mentality and I’ll save that for a future date).
These simple steps can help you better approach a volunteering situation, while maintaing the dignity of the person(s)/situation you’re helping. No one should feel like you are being condescending towards them, no one should feel disheartened by a volunteer worker. Remember, the only realdifference between the volunteer worker and the person in need is circumstance.