Voluntourism has gained popularity over the last few decades as a buzzword. Voluntourism is defined as travel that includes some aspect of volunteer work. As college students, it sounds like a great deal—pad your résumé with volunteer work while gaining international travel experience. However, this seemingly novel idea has been met with criticism.
Here at the University of Texas at Austin, an international nonprofit organization called Global Brigades brings a holistic model of sustainable development and global health through ten disciplines. to survey or build. The rest of their time is spent at the compound meeting fellow brigaders, both from UT and from other universities.These ten disciplines consist of architecture, business, dentistry, engineering, environmental, human rights, medicine, microfinance, public health, and water. UT is one of the few campuses in the nation to host all ten disciplines.
Every brigade, or trip, lasts anywhere from a one-week project to a three-week internship in Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and Ghana. The needs of the community determine which brigades will enter and work on a project. The projects vary from home-to-home visits to construction projects at the community school. All the brigaders stay in a compound near the community of interest. There, they spend most of their time immersed in the community, meeting members and working with them
Besides the project, one other important aspects of a brigade is a lesson that the brigaders will share with the community members. For example, participants in an environmental brigade teach the community about proper composting techniques and separation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, while participants in a dental brigade share the proper way to brush teeth and maintain dental health.
This may sound all too similar to voluntourism. College students visiting a rural community in a different country for a week sounds like a recipe for negative impact. But there are three aspects that set Global Brigades apart from the pitfalls of voluntourism.
One, most brigaders do not participate in tourism of any kind. Global Brigades, as the international organization, does not highlight the prospect of visiting sites in country. They place heavy emphasis on the developmental work to be done.
Two, unlike most programs, Global Brigades (GB) has an intensive plan with an exit strategy. Every community has a GB representative that works closely with community leaders to discuss potential projects and maintain a healthy relationship through all the projects. GB carries out detailed research into community needs and resources, and relationships with community members are established to foster trust and buy-in to the mission and vision of GB. Next, program preparation happens at all levels, from local government to community leaders to community volunteers. Only then will brigades come through the community to implement the programs decided upon by GB and the community, again based on their needs. Between brigades, as these do not happen on a weekly basis, GB staff members enter communities to ensure the projects are still ongoing and that there are resources available to the community to continue. Lastly, once a community meets their country’s success indicators, the relationship shifts from constant brigade presence to that of follow-up and guidance to maintain and assess the programs implemented.
Three, the holistic model is in place for maximum impact and development. Medical and dental brigades make every community’s first visit. These are the volunteers who assess the health situation of the communities. In addition to procedures from traditional medical missions, such as check-ups and medicine distribution, brigaders are also collecting information and data on the health issues most commonly seen in the community. This data is then sent to GB for further processing and evaluation to deduce the types of projects that the community needs. More often than not, the health needs can be tackled by cleaner sources of water through pipes built by water brigades and latrines constructed by public health brigades. Oftentimes, these projects are also coordinated with the help of the architecture and engineering brigades. Through these surveys, volunteers also document issues that affect the community members, such as legal disputes, environmental pollution, and lack of economic education. These issues are tackled by human rights, environmental, business, and microfinance brigades, respectively.
Global Brigades is far from an organization that haphazardly sends volunteers to communities that need help. They create a system that works, one that ensures maximum benefit for the community and its members. These experiences are beneficial on both sides. As the community flourishes, the volunteers learn about work pertinent to their interests and have a chance to experience other cultures in a nondisruptive manner.