Why Peace Corps is not Voluntourism
According to Webster, Voluntourism is a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity. Over this past week I’ve shared some contrasting views on Voluntourism, which is increasingly prevalent and controversial in our globalized world.
Having served in Morocco as a volunteer full-time for two years, my views on volunteerism have certainly morphed from what they were in high school, college, and even grad school. It may seem ironic that coming out of this international service experience I am more convinced than ever that local community service is where the real change happens. When people are involved and invested in the community of which they are a part, they can help create an environment that reflects their values. Lasting change happens when folks are invested for the long-term. It stands to reason that people have more cause to care about the long-term outcomes of their actions for the community in which they live and plan to raise their children than in some random spot on the globe.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for volunteering in a community that isn’t your own. Whether it be in a state that’s been hit by natural disaster or advancing water-security internationally, sometimes an issue needs more hands, resources, and minds tackling it than what might be available in the affected area. But how do you bridge the sincerity and personal investment people have for their own communities to a foreign community and, possibly, culture? This is where an organization like Peace Corps comes in.
One of the biggest critiques of voluntourism is the lack of understanding volunteers have of those they’re “helping.” This ignorance can lead to mistaken actions that are neither helpful nor sustainable. And the short-term nature of Voluntourism doesn’t leave room for the volunteers to see the real effects of their actions. The structure of Peace Corps is thoughtfully designed to avoid the pitfalls that seem to be haunting this growing industry. Here are 6 ways that Peace Corps not Voluntourism.
1. We Live with Host Families
The first step to understanding a culture is, not just seeing how they live, but living how they live. By staying with host families we’re able to observe and participate in the little things that might never be captured in a “cultural session.” Understanding the lifestyle of our host country nationals is paramount to shaping the action-steps we take throughout our service. It helps us see what the real needs are, the cultural constraints, and how decisions are made. Living how those around us live plumits us into the community in a way staying a hotel or dorm never could. We eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep, and wear what they wear. We are a part of the family.
2. We Learn the Language
Learning someone’s language is an indisputable way to show that you really care. It isn’t easy; it means constantly exposing yourself to failure; it shows long-term investment. Sometimes, PCVs learn languages that no one has ever paid any attention to before. And it isn’t just about being able to express ourselves, it’s about being able to understand those we’re with, hearing their thoughts, singing their songs, crying to their soap operas, laughing to their jokes. Though we never stop being students of the language, our effort says “we’re not just passing through.”
3. There is No Agenda
The other day I was sitting at the women’s center with the new volunteer in my site. One woman was teaching the PCV a stitch that is used for the traditional Moroccan clothes. As we sat there sewing and chatting with the women, I had an overwhelming sense that this is where the magic happens. While I admit it is frustrating at first, Peace Corps does not give us much direction on what to do in our communities. I realize more and more each day just how appropriate it is that they don’t. True development is ecological not top-down. Peace Corps doesn’t barge into communities with a plan (even if all the American volunteers are begging for one), instead the volunteers watch and wait and listen and learn and then find ways to fit service in. Shwya b Shwya, or Little by little, is our motto here.
4. We Listen
When speaking to the 100+ new volunteers that recently arrived to Morocco, I told them You may be asked to teach English or something you don’t want to do, but you have to remember this isn’t about what you want, it’s about what they want. Listen to your community and meet them where they are. Start with English-it’s your foot in the door- and as you get to know your community you will learn how to introduce other things. But always remember, what you want doesn’t matter. When we don’t listen failure is bound to happen. In fact, failure is bound to happen regardless, but listening to our communities is a huge part of having a service that is effective and allows our failures to be transformed into learning opportunities.
5. We Capacity Build
They say that in development our goal is to put ourselves out of a job. And Peace Corps volunteers often work towards just that. We are encouraged to find community partners for every activity or class, teaching them how to teach and lead if needed. A project done without a host country national is not considered sustainable and sometimes even frowned upon. Our primary role is to promote volunteerism of people in our communities. If our presence somehow inspires those around us to invest in their town and believe that positive change can happen, then that is a job well done.
6. We Stay for Two Years
Development takes much longer than two years, but it’s long enough to lay a foundation and get things started. Two years is long enough to learn the names of the kids on your street, long enough to celebrate the annual holidays with your host family, long enough to watch favored characters on the soap operas get murdered and come back to life, long enough to watch your baby host sister learn how to speak and master words you still can’t pronounce right, long enough to watch your friends get engaged, married, pregnant, and become mothers. My village in Morocco is my home and the people I serve are my family, neighbors, friends.
It is undeniable that some folks sign up for Peace Corps to have a neat, easy, satifying experience, but Peace Corps is none of those things; development is none of those things. Those people either realize and embrace the struggle of true development work and call forth the patience to see their commitment to the host country through, or they quit after a few months in country. Either way, they are forced to come to terms with the fact that Peace Corps is so much more than Voluntourism. A sincere volunteer always remembers this is not about me, realizes the value in an unAmerican level of patience, and learns that being uncomfortable doesn’t mean you can’t be happy.
So ask yourself this when considering volunteering outside of your community: What are my intentions? And have I done my research on this organization?