Immersion is quite the tightrope. As volunteers abroad (sometimes literally) drape themselves in new cultures, they may not grasp the implications of their choices. Cultural appropriation, broadly defined as the adoption of the customs and aesthetics of a less privileged group, is becoming one of the most discussed products of privilege.
The question resounds: how do travellers not let their excitement eclipse their responsibility?
The answer may lie in cultural exchange over appropriation. While appropriation is marked by distinct power dynamics, exchange is instead based on the rule of fair trade. The New York Times columnist Rivka Galchen articulated this principle well in a piece clarifying the difference: “The more you take, the more you have to give back — the better the work has to be.” In other words, the difference lies in approach.
With that, all eyes are on international NGOs to back the exchange mindset within their organizations. Since they are generally in a foreign country for an extended period of time and interacting with those who may not have as much, volunteers have an extra duty to come to grips. Jim Elliott, founder of the British non-profit Globalteer, stresses the need to foster volunteer awareness.
“Organizations can make sure that people visiting new cultures first understand the difference in privilege before they begin to accept and embrace the culture,” Elliott said. “Appropriation happens when people push their culture while taking parts of another and that happens when that sense of power is there.”
Elliott says this education period begins with helping an individual determine their interests. Whether religion, language or food, it is useful to begin to build knowledge about an aspect of the culture before diving in without thought and risking offence. Once the respect is there, the equitable trade can begin. Personal connection from there on is key. Elliott’s own non-profit is based on what he calls “sustainable development” which emphasizes partnering with local projects and letting them identify local needs. By briefing volunteers on this ideal from the outset, he maintains this separates his NGO from others that may end up intruding for solely their own benefit.
“Cultural exchange takes two parties learning and growing through the sharing of time together,” Elliott continued, “an understanding of each other’s culture is gained and our differences embraced. That’ll only happen when the self-awareness is there on part of organizers.”
In any case, just showing up is no longer worthy of celebration. For charities and their volunteers, the “work” Galchen spoke about in her aforementioned column is not only a bonus but a necessity for the groups willing to ensure their impact is actually for the better. This could take a lot of forms – sharing one’s own culture, helping to ensure local projects can stand on their own before leaving, or communicating the culture they were immersed responsibly upon returning home. One thing is certain though: the future of volunteering belongs to those who understand that exchange ends exploitation.
This post was a guest contribution by Jim Elliott, founder of Globalteer – a Non-Profit Organisation that supports sustainable long-term projects and service-learning enabling cultural exchange and community involvement around the globe.