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Volunteer Work in Guatemala: Satire, and the Cost and Benefits of Volunteerism

Last week, the Maya group headed to the rural Pueblo of Pasac, Guatamala. We entered their village and after a week of hard work, made a lasting impact on their lives.
Our first task was to flatten the dirt in an area designated for a building project. For over TWO hours, we labored in the hot Guatamalan sun flattening the earth with makeshift tools of treetrunks attached to sticks. I am proud to say I only took a 45 minute break afterwords, during which I updated my Facebook Profile picture so that my friends could see how cultured and giving I am. The next day, we cut down banana leaves and carried them to a garden project where they were to be used as shade for the plants. The rest of the day was spent patting each other on the back, taking pictures with children using our DSLRs, and trying to find a cafe with air conditioning. Hearts full and chins high with the knowledge that we made the world a better place, we departed Pasac with a traditional goodbye ceremony (We sang them Wagon Wheel and dressed up in their clothing) to Antigua, where we spent a couple days rewarding ourselves with greasy fried food and chocolate.

(Again, please note the above is strictly satire…except for the part about greasy fried food)

Some people today may argue that pairing travel and volunteer work, largely in the developing world (AKAVoluntourism) is ineffective, wasteful, and just an excuse for rich westerners to inflate their ego, spruce up their resumes, and travel to a foreign country. No approach to charity is without its flaws, and voluntourism is not perfect, but many positive effects of the practice are simply ignored or patronized. First, while certainly not large, volunteer work does leave an effect on communities. The relationships formed between locals and volunteers can at times be superficial, but I have firsthand witnessed genuine, caring relationships develop and last far past the two weeks of volunteering. Voluntourism is not about Westerners who "know better" coming in to save the day, but instead an opportunity for people from vastly different socioeconomic backrounds and cultures to work together for a common cause. Volunteers don´t pretend to have made a huge difference, its clear that their skills and timeframe do not allow for that. But to have people from truly different sides of humanity spend time together sharing culture, values, and space whilst working together for a positive cause is truly a beautiful thing.

Furthermore, Voluntourism also serves to expose unknowing Westerners to the reality of true poverty in the developing world. It can change lives and influence young people to strive to make a difference in the lives of others, whether they choose to do so locally or internationally. The real value in voluntourism lies in getting young people invested in ending global poverty so that the next generation of mankind will suffer less.

So although it may be easy to criticize your officemate´s trip to help build a school in rural Uganda as insincere or self-serving, please consider the value of exposing society´s power players to the reality of the 80% of humanity that struggles to survive  daily on less than the value of a Starbucks Latte.