I traveled to Belize last August with the Rotary International Belize Literacy program. I really enjoyed my time in Belize, it was awe-inspiring in its natural beauty and the people were fantastic. I spent time in the Cayo region, which meant I had the chance to see Mayan ruins in my time off. Awesome, right? It was.
However, this blog post is not really about the fact I got to swim with sharks or climb Mayan ruins. Rather, this is what I learned about volunteering while I was there.
Belize is about a two-hour flight from Houston, Texas. It is relatively safe, clean, the food is good, and the citizens speak English. As such, it is the go-to location for every church group, hospital, or student group with good hearts and a week to spend volunteering.
The vocational training team I was sent on was tasked with finding out why, after Rotary had been in Belize for over 10 years, it was not seeing the results it wanted. The Coles Notes version of the story is:
- Belize needed more schools, so Rotary built schools.
- Belize needed trained staff in their schools, so Rotary sent Canadian teachers down to train Belizean teachers.
- Belizean teachers needed more support, so Rotary sent Canadian principals down to train the Belizean Principals.
- Belizean principals needed support, so Rotary sent down a team to work with Ministry of Education officials.
- Teachers, Principals and Government officials needed more support, so Rotary sent a team down to assess the situation with community leaders (that’s where I came in) and what we found was quite eye opening.
Belize is the half-finished project capital of the world. True, it is the destination of many voluntourism groups, but each group only stays for about one week at a time. Think about your home community – imagine your local community school was falling into disrepair; a group of people descend on your neighbourhood, paint part of it and go home. Great, except who will paint the rest? Who will do touch-ups when it gets chipped? Is the paint even the problem? These questions often go unanswered by communities working with voluntourist groups. Compounding the problem is that no one ever wants to say no to someone offering a hand, even if it won’t be more help.
What struck me as most troublesome was that there seemed to be little concept of sustainability or long-term planning amongst either the volunteers or the locals. The question “what happens when the volunteers leave?” was, for the most part, left unanswered. For example, the Belize Ministry of Education receives old computers from North America almost daily with no idea what to do with them. The places that need computers have no internet infrastructure, aren’t on a reliable power grid and, quite frankly, have greater needs beyond the internet, like access to clean water. Yet, the government receives more computers, at times without warning. Another example is one small town, which already had two community centres, said they needed another because the others were run down. Without a plan for how to use and maintain the centres, it’s no wonder the community centres get run down.
The developing world, to be cliché, needs heads not hands. I learned that, while places like Belize are always looking for help, what we do while there doesn’t always help. As the old adage goes “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” All too often, voluntourism programs hand out fish, when they should be teaching not just how to fish, but also healthy, sustainable fishing practises so they can share it with their communities. Admittedly, I may have really stretched that analogy. Fishing aside, the idea that every way in which we try to help should leave a lasting, positive impression seems obvious to say, though I have to admit the point seems all too often missed.
– Steven Kwasny
Information Management Assistant
What do you think? Have you had a similar or maybe a different voluntourism experience? Share it with us in the comment section below.