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The challenges of voluntourism

June 21, 2012

Volunteer vacations are becoming increasingly popular as well-meaning travellers seek to have a positive impact on the places they’re visiting. However, as one Royal Roads alumna has learned, voluntourism can sometimes have the opposite effect and cultural understanding is key to creating successful experiences for everyone involved.

“I think there’s a lot of potential for positive change rooted in the basics of forming human friendships – and there’s also a lot of potential for naive attempts at helping to be disruptive to communities,” says Rohan Stritch, international internship co-ordinator at Victoria International Development Education Association. “The impact you can reasonably have as a paying volunteer in places such as Uganda, for instance, begins with how well you comprehend your role, your humility and your openness to learn.”

Stritch, who graduated from the MA in Intercultural and International Communication program, recently led 10 First Nations youth on a four-month trip to Uganda and Zambia as part of the Canadian International Development Agency’s pilot International Aboriginal Youth Internship Initiative. She is now preparing to present her Royal Roads thesis, Be sugar in milk: local perspectives on volunteer tourism in India and Uganda, at the Crossroads conference in Paris in July.

As part of her thesis research, Stritch met with Indian and Ugandan non-profit directors and asked for honest responses to hosting Western volunteers. This experience filled out her understanding of the issues and revealed a range of local forms of interpretation and resistance. Her studies positioned her well to guide the aboriginal youth through the internship experience, which she describes as a “seesaw,” where expectations on both sides had to be continuously adjusted until they balanced out somewhere in the middle.

“Much of what we’re told about less economically developed countries comes in the form of generalizations, stereotypes and misinformation,” she says. “Similarly, much of what communities that receive volunteer tourists are told about more economically developed countries can be unrealistic. So it takes time to bring perceptions that have been formed over lifetimes back down towards reality, while also fleshing them out so that the actual dynamism of cultures is appreciated. Sometimes expectations never meet, but when they do, there’s a harmonious moment where friendships and solidarity form.”

“I was really impressed and intrigued with her project because she’s really researching a dilemma that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer,” says Prof. Virginia McKendry, who supervised Stritch’s thesis. “I really appreciate when scholars are moved to do research because of something they’ve encountered in their own life. I think that strengthens a thesis, rather than making it un-objective.”

McKendry adds that Crossroads is a prestigious conference and the fact that Stritch was accepted is testament to the high quality of her work and its relevance.

“It’s meaningful, applied research grounded in scholarship,” she says. “The fact that others are interested in hearing her work makes it more than an academic exercise. Somebody sees a need for learning from her. In a few short months, she’s gone from being the student to the sharer of knowledge.”

While Stritch co-ordinated the aboriginal internships and acted as a teacher for the youth, she says she also learned a great deal from the participants, the overseas partners and Ugandan and Zambian people. 

“I’ve lived, volunteered, studied abroad, interned, and travelled since I was young, and I learned a lot through my research from the Indians and Ugandans I interviewed, but we’re always learning and I think that’s the main point.”

Stritch has been interested in international development before she even knew the term and was inspired by her father, who, as a medical student, did a practicum in Zambia. After it was over, he and his friend decided to miss their flight home and hitchhike back to Ireland. Her father passed away when she was young, but she has grown up reading his stories.

“He gifted me with strong cultural curiosity, making travel an early and obsessive pursuit,” she says. “After studying world cultures through university and travelling as much as I can afford, I’m completely drawn to this work. I recognize that there’s work to be done, so it just makes sense for me.”

Through her work, Stritch has also inspired others to contribute to international development. The aboriginal youth worked for Uganda Rural Fund and Women First in Uganda, and Justice for Women and Orphans and Women for Change in Zambia. Their positions involve communications, research, community outreach, monitoring and reporting, workshop facilitation, family empowerment and youth leadership.

“Aboriginal youth have extensive knowledge, experience and skills that can contribute to the success of international development projects,” says Minister for International Co-operation Beverly Oda. “These internships will enrich the lives of aboriginal youth from across Canada by providing them with opportunities to increase their awareness and understanding of international development issues, while enhancing their skills for employment.”

“Individually, spending four months working in a community-based organization in Uganda or Zambia is life changing and you inevitably return home a different person, with enhanced confidence, awareness and leadership capacity,” Stritch says. “Collectively, the ripple effect that this program has caused, in each of their First Nations communities, has been really exciting to watch. Overnight they became role models, showing other youth that doing something like this is possible. I have full confidence that they will continue to be sources of community inspiration and I am really excited to see what they’ll achieve within their communities, and beyond.”