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Is volunteerism the new vacation?
15 February 2008
by Jonathan Cheng

Queens, Australia:

Students are increasingly spending their vacations immersed in a variety

of volunteer work. Royal Military College student Wesley Tse spent last

summer in Haiti with a religious organization helping to plan and

develop a new orphanage.

“I have this desire to help people and I wanted to take what I am learning in school and apply it,” he said. Tse’s work involved 10 days of surveying the build site, administering physical testing and creating preliminary designs for the new orphanage. Tse said the trip was a huge learning experience for him.

“I could really feel the destitution of some children. It’s painful to see some of the kids. They really don’t know how to smile,” he said.

“Reality smacks you in the face.”

Tse said the trip was far from a leisure vacation.

“It was definitely hard work,” he said. “We were up at 6 a.m. for the first three days. It was rainy season and we had to get the surveying done before the rains.”

But like any trip, Tse said he came back with good memories.

“I would like to be back to a place like this far more than I would choose to go to a resort. It doesn’t compare,” he said.

“It’s exhausting work, but it’s far more rewarding.” Jim Carson, Queen’s alumni, is director of Volunteer Abroad, a program owned by the Canadian Federation of Students and administered by Odyssey Travel in Kingston. Carson said many students want to do something meaningful with their vacation time.

According to Carson, Volunteer Abroad operates by the principle of responsible tourism.

“No matter where anybody goes, they spend the first week in a training seminar where they learn what is culturally appropriate,” he said.

The type of training can differ depending on the country, Carson said. There are social connotations associated with actions that people normally overlook in North America. For example, in Nepal, it’s rude to shake someone’s hand or eat with your left hand, as it is reserved for impure or unclean acts such as toilet hygiene.

“We want to give people a sense of the cultural framework that they are going in to.”

Carson said another aspect of responsible tourism is to be aware of a tourist site’s physical space and lasting power. He said travel can have negative consequences such as harming environmentally sensitive areas, but the Volunteer Abroad program seeks to leave a positive impact.

It focuses on working with local communities. Some tasks include contributing to pollution control, cleaning up and helping to build infrastructure.

Carson said Ghana and Nepal are popular countries for overseas volunteer work.

A large portion of the people who are volunteering overseas come from a university environment.

“People are coming looking to improve their skill-sets and CVs. People are becoming more driven to get first-hand knowledge of what it means to live in other circumstances.”

Carson said there are three types of programs for those looking to travel for a cause.

Long-term volunteering often involves one- to two-year commitments, during which the volunteer may be eligible to receive a stipend for his or her work.

Short- to mid-term volunteering usually occurs within the range of two to six months.

Finally, there’s “voluntourism,” which is a kind of adventure travel.

“Voluntourism is a separate category, where some component of social awareness is integrated into an adventure itinerary,” Carson said. “It’s focused on tourism.”

Carson said, voluntourism is a dangerous word.

“We’re seeing this huge interest in going overseas, people gravitating towards making a difference. Companies are seeing an opportunity in voluntourism. The itineraries aren’t focused on helping, but packaging the words. If your goal is to help overseas, [the company’s] primary focus should be helping you to help [people] overseas and not just adventure.” Carson said Volunteer Abroad doesn’t offer voluntourism, but focuses on short to mid-term overseas volunteering.

Morgan Vanek, MA ’08, has gone to Guyana twice to do development work. The first time, in 2005, she travelled with Youth Challenge International to work on literacy development.

“I was there for five weeks and we were moving from village to village,” she said.

Part of her job involved asking community members questions for a government survey. Vanek said she wasn’t entirely comfortable being a Canadian traveller asking locals for information for the government.

The next year Vanek returned with Queen’s Project on International Development (QPID) as the site director in Guyana where QPID was working on three teaching- and literacy-based projects.

“I love that I was able to go to Guyana twice because most people [there] say that Canadians come and go and it was really nice to be able to come back,” she said.

“I would like to go for a period of time where I feel like I’m living in the community.”

Vanek said it’s exciting to experience development work first-hand but she doesn’t know whether they were there long enough to make a real change.

“There’s a really huge learning curve. … I don’t know that students with three months, even, can overcome that,” she said.

Vanek said the projects’ participants are more likely to benefit from the trip than the people they’re going to help.

“It has more to do with providing those students who can travel with opportunity to gain skills to bring back here,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy work, she said.

“Developmental work is hard. You’re living in a situation where you’re uncomfortable … but it’s important to sit there and interrogate that. It’s important for it to be hard.” Vanek said the trip helps you realize how advantaged you are to not have to live there on a daily basis.

Global development studies professor David McDonald said it’s important to question how we view trips considered to be charitable.

“Often they sell these things as eco-friendly for reasons that are beyond me. Who’s actually certifying these things as eco-friendly?” McDonald asked.

“Firstly, there’s the huge carbon footprint to get there and then there’s the four-star accommodations.”

McDonald said ethical questions need to be raised about whether these trips are actually beneficial for local communities.

“On the developmental tourism front there’s a lot of people who have a missionary or colonialism approach to it,” he said.

But, there are some excellent programs out there that make a point of politicizing what they do, McDonald said.

“[Look for] programs where there’s at least a recognition, if not a direct attempt, to say, ‘What can we do to deal with inequalities rather than paper them over with building a house?’”

McDonald said students are becoming increasingly aware of opportunities in ecological and developmental tourism.

“Students are being exposed to these things in ways they simply weren’t 29 years ago,” he said adding that formal education and niche marketing in the tourism industry is opening up many opportunities for this kind of tourism. The tourism industry is very problematic, said McDonald, but that doesn’t mean good work can’t be done.

“I don’t think it’s a fad. I don’t think it’s just going to disappear because the realities of ecological degradation … are not just going to disappear.”

With files from Jill Buchner