29 January 2013

Further Attention on the Drawbacks of Voluntourism

Dorinda Elliott traveled to Haiti to seek answers about voluntourism. She works with the the Fuller Center for Housing’s Global Builders project and recounts her experiences and observations in an article for Conde Nast Traveler.
At the Grace/Fuller project, though, I am wrestling with the subtle social implications of volunteering. I am heartened by the fact that the Haitian homeowners and we Americans are working side by side. But to my alarm, I learn that the construction work stops each time the Americans depart because of lack of funds—leaving the Haitians waiting around until another group of “saviors” arrives.
Elliott's article is the latest in what seems to be a slow growing trend of reporting that looks critically at voluntourism. Most readers of this blog will not find the reporting to be revelatory or earth-shattering. Not too much time is spent speaking with experts or going deep into the issue. However, the article is notable because it appears in a place that would often tout the positives of voluntourism.

Regardless of how you feel about the issue, there are problems with voluntourism. Some groups do a terrible job and others are better. At the very least, it is important to disabuse people of the notion that voluntourism is itself a good thing. That can help to make would-be volunteers deliberate when choosing where to go and what group to work with. 

Elliott concludes by noting that some are serial voluntourists and posits that good intentions may be doing more harm than good.
After an exhausting day, we all climb into a van and head back to our dorm, where I ask the others, over beers and peanut M&Ms somebody brought from home, why they are here. Many of them, it turns out, go on Habitat or Fuller “builds” all over the world several times a year. “Look, I have been blessed. I have a great job and a nice house,” says Kaye Hooker, the team leader. “I’m here because there are so many people in the world who can’t even meet their basic needs.” Adds John Stanford, a retired heart surgeon: “I’d rather practice my hammer stroke than my golf stroke.”

These are kind, generous people. So why do I feel uncomfortable? Something is nagging at me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I learn much more valuable lessons on my trip to Haiti than how to handle a hammer or sift gravel: I learn the surprising amount of damage that can be done with the very best of intentions.