Monday, July 11, 2016

"Volun-tourism" - is it a good thing?

Over the weekend, the Today Show has a segment on "volun-tourism," people using their vacations to do volunteer work.

It sounds great, doesn't it?  Visit some new and interesting place and do some good while you're there.  And I've done it myself, if you count church mission trips to Appalachia and Maine.

But seeing it brought me back to Robert Ludlum's book, Toxic Charity, which I reviewed last month.

Rev. Ludlum spends a lot of time in his book on church mission trips and why they often serve the needs of the people on the mission trip more than the needs of the people at the trip's location.  Too often these kinds of activities have middle class Americans swooping in and trying to fix a problem for people they have defined as poor or in need.  In doing so, they can sometimes infantilize the people the people they are serving and take away their right to self-determination.  One example he gave was of a mission group that built a well for a village in  another country, so they would not have to walk miles carrying their water.  Fast forward a year and the villagers were again carrying water for miles.  Why?  The outsiders built a well, but they did not engage the local people in the project, teach them how it works, or what might go wrong and how to repair it if it broke.

The mission trips I went on were powerful experiences for me.  But when I reflect on it, I'm not 100% sure that they were as important or powerful for the people we were seeking to help.  And it should be about the people in need and the local community, not about those of us from the outside, shouldn't it?