Volunteering Not Voluntourism

people on steps taking group photo

I am a student of International Development and Globalization at the University of Ottawa. We are the dreamers, the social justice warriors, the optimists and the idealists. The program specializes in studying the history and current progress of development efforts in the global ecosystem. Although most of us came into the program with bright eyes and big dreams, it can be easy to fall into a trap of pessimism and cynicism about development work past and present after a few semesters. I think this is one of the great faults of the program. Classes should be factual, but also inspiring and motivating. Although the saying holds true, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” it is equally important to highlight all the ways that development has also succeeded.

One of the lessons we are taught in development work is that, when possible, always try to work with or through the host countries government when embarking on development projects or when delivering aid assistance. Theoretically, and practically, working with the government helps to provide stability to the country because it reinforces the government’s legitimacy. In an ideal world, every government would be responsive to aid and work with donors to provide the necessary services to it’s citizens. Unfortunately, there are cases were the government cannot or will not provide development assistance to it’s citizens. So, what happens in cases were there is a gap between the services that the people need and the services a government is able or willing to provide?

Guatemala is the perfect case study to examine how community projects and non-profit organizations are stepping up to fill this gap. We call this grass-roots development. Grass-roots development is important because three decades of development work has proven that the top-down approach isn’t working. True development takes local participation and ownership in order to propel projects towards success based on goals which are highlighted by members of the community, demonstrating real need and real success. Local-led community development projects are the future of Guatemala. Their local specialization work towards alleviating poverty and creating lasting socio-economic change. However, one of the barriers to the success of these grass-roots programs is that they often not centrally located and receive less attention than some of the larger NGOs in the country. This is where Buena Onda comes in! Buena Onda works like a travel agency, but for volunteers. We funnel interested, dedicated and passionate volunteers to provide assistance to our project partners around Guatemala. We work to ensure that each volunteer is matched with a project that requires their time and talents to complete a project, or assist with the competition of their daily tasks.

When I first started working for Buena Onda, I was sceptical about the validity of volunteering in Guatemala. I was worried I would be propelling the misguided voluntourism sector. I was wrong. Just like development dialogue, volunteering has got a bad rep, but it can also be a meaningful experience for both the volunteer and the project. Grass-roots organizations are the quintessential start of local engagement and the future of lasting, sustainable development. By engaging local actors, these organizations ensure that the values and needs of the community are represented and respected. Therefore, when a volunteer enters this environment, they are partaking in a community-led project and it truly becomes a bipartisan relationship.

This bipartisan relationship is important because it eliminates my primary concern with voluntourism, which is that volunteers do not contribute to the project, in fact hindering the progress, due to the lack of knowledge and training. However, our project partners exhibit an exceptional amount of courtesy for volunteers to ensure that the volunteer experience is a symbiotic relationship and positive experience for both the volunteer and the project. The energy exhibited by each project staff member was both inspiring and invigorating. There is nothing more electric than meeting with individuals who share the same optimistic view of development, as well as your commitment to social justice.

It is important to understanding that skilled volunteers are always in demand; but, skills are not limited to post secondary education. Skills in art, construction and languages are just as useful, and, there is no greater skill than flexibility and initiative on behalf of a volunteer. For this reason, I believe volunteers can make a meaningful impact if they are matched with a project that is looking for their specific skills. As long as you are passionate and willing to adjust to the needs of the project, volunteering will have a meaningful impact on the project. For example, one of our projects is looking for a guitar teacher because they received a donation of 10 guitars. The school was extremely enthusiastic about the opportunity, but the after school program requires a volunteer in order to be able to take advantage of this generous donation. A volunteer who could fill this need would in fact be making a meaningful contribution. Through numerous encounters with project staff, highlighting needs such as these, I have grown to believe that volunteering really matters.

Disregarding the fact that projects could seriously use the extra man power, there one more reason that I believe volunteering is important for the global development ecosystem. Above all, volunteering helps to foster global citizenship in both donor and recipient countries. This is an important point because the pressure from global citizens on governments and multinational corporations for social responsibility, development and social injustice will decrease the chances that social injustices both at home and abroad will simply slip under the radar. For this reason, global citizenship, through participation, should be fostered to help ensure a continuous commitment to international aid and development.