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Can Your Paintbrush Save the World?

Arts & Culture | September 28, 2015

On one of her last days teaching English in Guatemala City, a group of students ran up to Tufts senior Madison Hafitz singing “head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” a song she had taught them during her two weeks volunteering there. Hafitz only spoke a little Spanish, and admits that this made teaching at and communicating with the school where she volunteered challenging. “I feel like I did make an impact on those kids in the sense that I did teach them something. But it’s also the type of thing where I’m not sure how much was retained,” she said.

When Hafitz went abroad to do community service work in 2013, she was among over 1.5 million young people who also participated in this growing trend known as voluntourism. Voluntourism offers the tourist a chance to experience a new place and be immersed in a different culture while feeling like they’re making a difference. To the modern Western traveler, it’s the best of both worlds.

Hafitz’s experience in Guatemala inspired her to lead two service trips this past summer in Costa Rica through an organization called Westcoast Connection / 360° Student Travel. Hafitz led groups of teenagers aged 14 to 16 in repairing and painting houses. But she noticed that, for many, the goal of the trip wasn’t to serve. “We had a lot of issues on these trips…in terms of explaining to the kids that we were here for the service trip, not to take the Instagram photos. Some kids were doing it for high school service credit, others because their parents were making them do it,” she said. Hafitz went into her voluntourism experience with a focus on contributing to the community, but that is not always the case.

“If people want to travel and see the world, then doing service is a totally okay thing as long as they’re not just doing it to be able to say that they did it,” said Hafitz.

Cathy Stanton, an anthropology professor at Tufts, agrees. “[Voluntourism] is not inherently bad. The question is who is organizing it, and who is participating.”

Stanton said a trip shouldn’t just be about what the voluntourist can get out of the experience, but how they can actually help. Though a community in need of aid may benefit from unskilled volunteers, they might benefit even more from the help of people who volunteer their specialized skills. “There’s no formula for figuring out the right way to do this…every case is going to be different. There isn’t a one size fits all,” Stanton said. But there may be ways to use voluntourism to simultaneously make an impact on communities and promote cross cultural learning and interaction. Tufts thinks they have a solution.

Tufts hopes to create an ideal type of service abroad with its new 1+4 Bridge-Year program. The program is different than the traditional short-term voluntourism opportunities. By urging students to volunteer for longer periods of time, the program will “enable students to both learn from, and have a lasting impact at their placement,” according to Jessica Crowe-Rothstein, the administrator of the new program. The current placements are offered through partnerships with existing organizations, including Global Citizen Year in Brazil, Amigos de las Américas in Nicaragua, and United Planet in Spain. Service opportunities include environmental sustainability, child development, and community health, among others. The program is centered on active citizenship, provides financial aid, and includes programming that continues on the Tufts campus after the year is over.

But there are still critics of Tufts’ 1+4 Bridge-Year program and voluntourism in general. They are all saying similar things: tourists often volunteer for reasons centered on their own entertainment and overestimate the contributions they make in communities.

Rafia Zakaria, a journalist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, said, “The willing, paying, and often unskilled are led to believe that hapless villages can be transformed by schools built on a two-week trip and diseases eradicated by the digging of wells during spring breaks….The helpers can see and touch those they are saving and take evidence of their new nobility home with them.” Voluntourism has the power to take the do-good, idealistic enthusiasm of tourists and reinforce the idea that the rest of the world needs to be saved by the affluent—and usually white—Western world. As Stanton puts it, “Voluntourism can help create a belief that people in need of Western aid are unable to help themselves.”

Not only critics of voluntourism, but also voluntourism organizations themselves, have noted problems with their outreach. “What I think often gets lost is the host communities,” said Theresa Higgs of United Planet in Boston during an interview with NPR. “Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student’s learning objective, to someone’s desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?”

With more young people getting on planes to volunteer abroad every year, voluntourism isn’t going away any time soon. But, there is a possibility that it can be remodeled. According to Crowe-Rothstein, when involved over longer periods of time, voluntourists can make lasting change and connections with a community by using pre-existing and honed skills.