Chelsea Escalante

During the past two decades, there has been an unprecedented expansion of international volunteering and service, both in numbers of volunteers and sponsoring organizations1. Despite the popularity and growth of international volunteerism, scholarship on the long-term impacts of such service has been scarce. Proponents of such service suggest volunteer opportunities inspire ordinary people to get involved in global affairs, giving them the potential to promote global peace and make tangible contributions to the well-being of people around the world2. Critics, on the other hand, contend that these programs can be viewed as a continuation of imperialism that reinforces existing inequalities or is ineffective in providing long-term solutions to exceptionally complex global issues3.

Just yesterday, I came across an editorial online called “Seven reasons why your Two Week Trip to Haiti doesn’t matter: Calling Bull on ‘Service Trips’”3 (http://almost.thedoctorschannel.com/14323-2/). The author argues that short term service/immersion experiences should be called self-fulfillment trips instead of service trips, citing seven major detriments of such programs to the local community, including the focus on the volunteers’ quest for experience, the negligible long-term benefit to the community, the offensiveness of “voluntourism”, the waste of money, the promotion of cycles of dependence, the lack of skilled laborers among volunteers, among others.

However, even in the situations in which volunteers are unable to bring about long-term change, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable aspects of volunteerism is the exchange of knowledge that each participating group brings to the other. Ways of looking at the world are often vastly different, and each group may not have even considered another perspective before their intercultural exchange. Before this class, I just always thought of it as an exchange of perspective—the two groups have the chance to witness and perhaps, with the right combination of time, inquiry, and desire, may even be able to come to understand how another person interprets their world. However, after reading Lippman’s Public Opinion4, I now consider this an exchange of pseudo-environments. As volunteers and local community members interact, they are exposed to the countless components that make up a person’s pseudo-environment and can choose (whether consciously or not) to adopt those perspectives and carry them forward. I remember clearly that whenever someone got sick, no matter what time of year, the local Ecuadorians would say “Oh, yeah, with this change in weather, it’s no wonder why they got sick”. In our opinions (the volunteers), the weather held pretty constant all year round: hot and sticky vs. hotter and stickier. We just could not adopt this point of view. However, I also noticed that when we would meet people in the community, the questions that they asked would be different than what many people in the US would ask when they first meet someone. Of course this is a gigantic generalization, but here, there is often a focus on the individual (Where do you live? What do you do for work? Where did you go to college? What did you study?). In Ecuador, there was an absence of questions that related to power/status and more of a focus on the family (How many siblings do you have? How are your parents doing? Do you miss them?). Something so small as a shift in the type of questions that you ask when you first meet a person can mean that you are recognizing a difference in the two pseudo-environments and choosing to see the reality in the new one. In more macro terms, being exposed to the pseudo-environment of a developing economy could help to catapult someone into a life dedicated to service which in turn might be a more realistic way of promoting long-term change than just the service experience itself (something that the article failed to recognize).

In my project, I hope to be able to pinpoint some of the parts of the pseudo-environment that volunteers experienced while in-country that they were are able to carry with them in the long term. Likewise, I will try to see if the local community members have carried parts of the pseudo-environment formed through long-term relationships with volunteers—perspectives, ways of doing things that were previously foreign to them—to see if any of those have remained with them over time.

Although volunteer programs cannot go without critique, change can only happen after exposure. An opening of the mind to other possibilities that did not fit one’s previous pseudo-environment is one of the benefits that international experiences have the potential to provide.

 

References:

  1. Sherraden, M. S., Lough, B. J., & McBride, A. M. (2008). Effects of international volunteering and service: Individual and institutional predictors. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 19(4), 395-421.
  2. UNV. (2002). Voluntary action is ‘fourth cornerstone of sustainable development: UNV chief. Retrieved August 30, 2002, from http://www.unv.org/en/news-resources/news/doc/voluntary-action-isfourth-1.html.
  3. Stayton, M. L. (2015). 7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips”. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://almost.thedoctorschannel.com/14323-2/.
  4. Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.