Nienke de Pauw is on an extended holiday in Rotterdam. Let her explain.
Thousands of people love travelling to faraway countries. What is it about travel that people love so much? People answer that we want to meet interesting people, experience different cultures, eat exotic foods or learn a new language, for example. These answers suggest that travelling is mostly about experiencing the new and the different. Through travelling, we meet people who have a different story to tell than your colleague at work, or the friend you meet at the gym twice a week.
For similar reasons, volunteer tourism has turned into a booming business over the past decades. More and more young Western people spend some time in a developing country, trying to help out those with fewer opportunities. This type of tourism does not only involve the new and the different, but also gives tourists the feeling that they can actually give something back to the locals. However, long-term consequences of this type of tourism or voluntary work are in some cases more harmful than we would expect. While these travellers seek a special experience, I believe that what they are looking for can be found much closer to home. When you discover your own city, you may find that it can be just as exciting as when travelling far away, while the risk of doing harm without realising it, is much smaller.
Recently, the debate on volunteer tourism in developing countries has flared up strongly. UNICEF even started a campaign against some types of volunteer tourism. In March of this year, the Dutch television program Brandpunt broadcasted a documentary on orphanages in Cambodia. It turned out that the ‘orphanage business’ is so attractive for making money, that middlemen recruit children in order to act like they are orphans. However, the families do not receive any part of the donations from the Western volunteers, and the children often end up with missed education and psychological traumas. In order to draw international attention to the issues in Cambodia and many other countries, UNICEF and Friends-International recently launched a campaign called ‘Children are no tourist attractions’. This is only one of the many examples in which volunteers think they are doing a good thing, while the results of their actions may be much more harmful than they would ever realise.
Personally, I believe that people can find the experience they are looking for in travelling much closer to home, without the risk of doing any unexpected harm. Without having to get on a plane first, I have been meeting lots of interesting people from different cultures lately, who live a life completely different to mine. They invited me to join activities I would normally never do, in places I would normally never go. People of all ages, backgrounds and wealth share their life and travel stories, and show interest in mine. I feel like I’m travelling the world every day.
You may wonder where I’ve been? In Rotterdam, my hometown. I am working for Rotterdam Cares, which is an NGO under the umbrella of Nederland Cares. We facilitate flexible and non-binding volunteer opportunities for young professionals, individually or in groups. The target groups for whom we work are the elderly, homeless people, mentally or physically disabled people, immigrants and children from deprived families. The key goal is to stimulate an inspiring meeting between a young professional and an underprivileged co-citizen in need of some help or human contact.
The unexpected happens when you get to meet people from your own city, with whom you would normally never speak. It is inspiring to meet people who live in poverty, but who still make the best of life with what they have access to. I will provide you with an example of such an event. A few weeks ago our NGO organised a game night at the Pauluskerk, which is a well-known institute that helps out refugees and homeless people in various ways. These people were invited to play games with our volunteers and win lottery tickets for a raffle at the end of the night. Beforehand, the homeless people and refugees had been asked what exactly they would like to win. Shampoo, deodorant, a scarf or a hat turned out to be their biggest wishes and needs. The volunteering young professionals and me were extremely surprised how these people leapt for joy after having won a bottle of shampoo. I also had an amusing conversation with a funny looking guy – with bicycle bells fixed on his gloves – that I often see walking around in town, but would never approach for a chat. How often do you speak to a homeless person for more than a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’? During this event it turned out that young professionals and homeless people can actually have a great night together, laughing, but also engaging in more serious conversation. You would be surprised to hear what all these people have been through before ending up in your city, being at the exact same place as where you are yourself, but in a completely different position. At events like this, I have seen volunteers and target groups exchange contact details to stay in touch, just like you would when meeting people on a trip far away.
What I like about travelling, I find in my own city: new experiences, interesting people, different languages, cultures, and even a different surrounding. I have seen more of my own city in the two months of doing this job, than in the two years of living here before that. Doing a volunteering activity is a challenge that always brings me more than I would expect before going there. Since I’ve been doing this, there is no need for me to go to Africa, Asia or somewhere else far away.
I believe volunteering work is great for getting you out of your comfort zone and giving something back to society. However, the impact of the work on the target groups should always be evaluated first. Volunteering work in the Netherlands is organised very well and does not do any harm to our fragile groups. I can tell the activities and the devotion of the volunteers really mean something to the elderly, the children, the immigrants, and the homeless people I meet, as they literally tell me so. It does not matter what type of job you have or kind of studies you are doing, how busy you are, or who you want to be professionally. The other world is just around the corner. You can meet the new and different without having to travel intercontinentally. You don’t need to take three weeks off either. A few hours after work or on weekends is enough. You will probably come home with a feeling of surprise and relief, never having expected to have such a fun night, meet interesting people and be able to help someone else at the same time. And in case you don’t, it will probably still be an interesting learning experience: travelling is not always fun either.