Good grief, are you a voluntourist?

Something I’d like to speak to since I broadcasted the news via Facebook that I would leave the -30 degree weather in Quebec to 25-30 degree weather in Chiang Mai is “voluntourism”. The concept has been viciously criticized as volunteering apparently dislikes being associated with tourism (you can read countless blogs and articles on this just by googling “voluntouring criticism”). This is probably because volunteering is seen as a selfless act, while tourism seems well, quite the opposite (excuse me while I consume to my heart’s desire on cheap Thai food and clothing). By definition, am I not a tourist if I am traveling somewhere for pleasure? With that logic, aren’t all volunteers that come from abroad tourists? I think we need to define ourselves a bit better and do our research.

I know you might be pointing the finger at me and ask how I could possibly make a difference in 3 weeks or even 3 months if I had the chance. Some of you might say it’s just an excuse to take selfies and pictures of struggling social groups to remind you how good of a person I am and how privileged we are back home. But for some time now, I’ve pointed the finger at myself and continued to ask what the meaning of volunteering is and whether I have made a good decision coming here.

It seems like with “voluntouring”, people can obtain a quick dopamine fix by doing very little. Some may have simply been lured in by flashy advertisements calling volunteers to help the unfortunate in an undeveloped or developing country. Or perhaps they’re sick of their privileged lives, feeling useless with the yearning to want to go out and make a difference. And with that, they carefully pack their bags in excitement to go somewhere foreign (all the while they are secretly thinking the countless photos they will share with their facebook friends and instagram followers). Now, there’s nothing wrong with that (unless you really think taking pictures with less fortunate children willl make a big impact…unless that’s already happened? ), except when we refuse to do thorough research of the organization we are volunteering with or who we are helping. Then, you just have to wonder if our help is really doing the local community any good.

So then comes the big question: Catherine, why are you volunteering? volun…touring?? oh whatever.
Well, why Chiang Mai, Thailand?

1) I actually did not choose the location where I wanted to volunteer. I was more interested in the program itself – Art Relief International. The reason why this not for profit organization interested me was because of its unique way to reach out to struggling social groups…that’s right through art in all sorts of mediums. I feel like I have suppressed the artistic side of me for too long and once I revisited it with a couple of creations, I knew that I would have to somehow find a way to incorporate it in my life permanently.  So call me selfish or whatever you wish, but this is an opportunity for me to see how an organization executes art workshops and how well they are received.

2) Art Relief International is a program started up by Thai locals who saw a need to help struggling social groups and wanted to use a way creative way to do so. If you ever visit the city of Chiang Mai, you’ll notice that it is full of artists! Having perspective from individuals who have lived here for most of their lives provides this sort of sympathy and intimacy with the local community that I think Westerners often lack (unless they stay for a substantial period of time). The organization is fairly small (six full-time staff, with only a capacity of 12 volunteers at a time)  but they have many partnerships with other NGOs around the city. Because of its small size, the organization can really focus on the needs of the city, rather than having to worry about many cities or a whole country.

So the truth is, I may not be making a huge impact by volunteering for 3 weeks. But, I might not even be making a big impact if I volunteered for 3 months or longer! I don’t think we can judge total impact by the length of volunteering. Sure, what you are doing as volunteer work matters, the skill set you bring to the team matters. But, when we talk about volunteering I think it’s both a selfless and selfish act in some sense, because we may be making a difference (or a potential difference), but in return we do it for us. It seems almost awful saying that, but is that so bad? We  hope to learn from these experiences, we want it to change how we look at the world, we want those memories…but I suppose we could lie and do it to make our resumes more impressive. So that’s a little frustrating, how do I let the world know that I care? I find that with many things in life, we all have good intentions, it’s the moment we start to proceed that we are judged. However, at the end of the day, we should be the ones that know ourselves the best. People will always judge – sometimes with good reason but you can’t let it affect you (especially when they are wrong). Think of it as a broad range of perspectives that are perhaps filled with good intention – to lead you towards the right direction (wherever that is). Ultimately, it is your decision at the end. Someday (if it has not happened already) you will be one of those judges, trying to tell people which way to go, and they might think you’re full of shit. So, don’t let it bother you. Personally, my goal is to keep learning and writing down my ideas as I learn more about my surroundings in hopes to someday make them a reality.

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