This March, thousands of college-aged Americans will descend upon the global south for Spring Break. Their goals are not to binge drink or party, but rather to help impoverished communities with short term service projects. This type of volunteer tourism is supposed to be a win-win: college students learn about poverty and development while providing a service to poor communities, usually through small scale infrastructure projects or education classes. While these projects are well-intentioned, it is important to critically evaluate their long-term impact and shortcomings.
Break Away, an organization that promotes alternative breaks, states that 72,000 students participated in alternative breaks in 2010, though it does not differentiate between domestic and international travel. That’s nine9 times as many people who serve in the Peace Corps each year and 11 times the number of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. At its best, volunteering for a week during Spring Break may open students’ eyes to the difficulties associated with development and the way that poverty manifests itself abroad. Afterwards, they may become life-long advocates for poverty reduction or consider development work as a career. In some cases, funding provided by such programs may help poor communities realize a goal and instigate lasting positive change.
Despite this, volun-tourists are often under-prepared and under-trained in the more subtle aspects of development work, such as using appropriate technology, the ability to adequately train locals, and the ability to monitor the long-term sustainability of a project. Additionally, when volun-tourists travel in groups of college-aged peers, the incentive to revert to traditional Spring Break behavior may be too hard to resist. Even if the project is well-designed and supported by local organizations, some volunteers may behave inappropriately. If you are planning to participate in an Alternative Spring Break, or volun-tourism in general, here are some ideas to maximize the positive impact of your service:
1. Don't use inappropriate technology:
If the group is providing technical assistance for a project as engineers or field specialists, ensure that the project design is appropriate and works with locally available materials, or materials that can be easily replaced. While living in Panama, I've seen several examples of well-intentioned specialists helping with a project design who turned out being more interested in beefing up their own resumes than sincerely building something that would work well given the constraints of the community.
2. Don't forget to research alternative spring break options diligently:
Make sure that the intermediary organization has a lasting relationship with the local organization. The institution should be accustomed to receiving volunteers on a rolling basis throughout the year. Many conservation projects have good models for receiving volunteers to help in animal refuges and protection projects. Plus, animals don’t have culturally-related stigmas and readily accept all people, regardless of their day-to-day behavior.
3. Do not be careless about drinking with locals:
Yes, drinking and getting to know locals is part of the draw of taking a trip abroad ... but since the goal is volunteer work, there are certain lines that shouldn't be crossed. The norms for drinking are completely different in other countries than in our own. Given the context, you may have to decide the appropriate amount you are willing to consume with community members present. Keep in mind that the rates of alcohol or spousal abuse may be higher, and drinking may send the wrong message about community health and personal responsibility.
4. Don’t engage locals in sexual relationships:
Just don’t do it. First of all, it can be difficult to determine locals’ ages. Second, they may be married or have children and not be forthcoming with this information. Lastly, volunteers have the privilege of returning to their home country at the end of the week without having to consider the impact of their actions after their visit ends.
5. If possible, stay a while:
Though week-long stints may help open students’ minds to development challenges abroad, the way to get the most out of it for both the participant and the community or organization is to stay longer. Only spending a week learning all of the ins and outs of a culture is simply not long enough. Many organizations that offer alternative spring break options, such as Projects Abroad and i-to-i Volunteering, also have long-term volunteer programs. If you don’t want to spend a lot of many, helpx.net lists international volunteer opportunities.
Finally, all Americans should travel abroad at some point in their lives. A recent article by Jack Fischl states how dire the situation is: only 36% of Americans owning passports. For us, it is worthwhile no matter how long we spend in a place because we get to see a new culture, try tnew food, and dabble in a local language. But it is important to question whether your experience is as valuable for the community intended to be served. Bad development work and needless giving can prevent future, longer-term, and more sustainable projects from having an impact. American college students need to be aware of this fact and make Spring Break decisions accordingly.