After finishing a week long experience with The Giving Lens in Nicaragua, a nonprofit that offers photography workshops but also a chance to work with the local community and local nonprofits, I wanted to take a little time to reflect.
Before I get into my experience I wanted to talk a little about my previous travel and volunteer experience. I have recently become more involved in the travel community by becoming a member of Go Girls of the World, as well as their local Chicago meetup. I’ve attended the Women in Travel Summit in Chicago as well as various other events. One topic that comes up often is voluntourism.
When people hear the term “volunteer” especially in the context of travel, I think most people think of a great selfless act people are choosing to partake in. Recently, however, there has been controversy surrounding the idea of voluntourism that is being discussed in the travel community. Often, a problem arises where people will go somewhere to volunteer without truly having an understanding of the area they are traveling to. While the volunteers can walk away feeling good about themselves and feel as if they helped or even tried to save those they were working with, they often cause more harm than good. The volunteer walks away happy and fulfilled while those they aimed to help walk away with more of a mess to clean up. Instead of being the selfless act it was meant to be, it actually turns into more of a selfish one.
For example, I read about a group that went to build homes (a common enough volunteer activity, one that I have also taken part in) but had no skill in doing so. While the volunteers slept at night, what they had built had to be taken down and redone properly if the house was to stay standing. When the volunteers woke in the morning they were none the wiser and continued to build the structurally unsound houses that would again need to be fixed. I’m sure this has happened many times.
When I went to volunteer in Guatemala in 2009 at a school, it never occurred to me I could cause more harm than good. I went to teach the students each day, hoping and really feeling like I was making a difference. Looking back, I’m honestly not sure if the goal of helping to educate the students was really accomplished. The students enjoyed my company and I think their math skills did improve, but trying to teach reading in a language I barely spoke was pretty unrealistic.
I have kept in touch with the organization I worked with and they no longer have volunteers at the school in Guatemala. They do fundraising and have invested in the community. They now are able to staff the school with local teachers who speak fluent Spanish. This helps everyone in the community. They are now self sustaining which was the vision from the beginning, I just wasn’t aware of it. When I visited the school by the same organization in Peru, I was sad to see there weren’t volunteers. When I think about it now though, I’m able to understand that this is actually a very good thing for their community now that it is self sustaining.
When I got to Nicaragua, I was curious what the volunteer portion of our trip would be like. It was actually very different than I expected, in a positive way. We worked with a local nonprofit called Empowerment International. They run many educational programs as well as a variety of clubs for the kids in Granada, including a photography club. I figured we would visit the kids a few hours each day, helping them with the basics of photography, then go off and do our photos shoots. This was not the case at all.
The students we worked with were actually part of our workshop. They went to almost all the photo shoots with us. When the participants were up and ready to go to a location at 4:30am, so were the kids. They got the same teaching by Jay and Varina Patel, professional and amazing photographers, that the rest of us got. Many of the students have been doing photography longer than I have and are way more advanced than me. I had a lot to learn from them. Many have also been published in magazines here in Granada. Throughout the week the workshop participants really didn’t volunteer at all. Instead, we shared our experiences and passion for photography, working side by side. It was fantastic. I think everyone, students and participants alike, all left feeling positive about the interactions and relationships formed in the group. It was a truly unique experience.
Going forward, I would not hesitate to do something like The Giving Lens again. I will, however, have to think about other types of voluntourism trips. I would need to consider what kind of impact I would actually be making, and whether, in the end, I was truly doing good. If you are considering volunteering abroad I would urge you to do the same.