When Discover Corps founder Andrew Motiwalla invited me to experience one of his volunteer vacations to Cuba, I was initially very skeptical.
As a well-known travel blogger, I have long been an active voice in routing out corrupt volunteer tourism operations that rake in huge amounts of cash without contributing a penny to the people they claim to be helping. Even well-meaning volunteer programs often unknowingly pursue activities that do more harm than good.
So I wrote back, explaining my skepticism about the concept of volunteer tourism, and asked him to answer some very pointed questions before I could even consider taking one of his trips. Frankly, I expected him to balk, so I was genuinely pleased by Andrew’s thoughtful and detailed answers.
ASKING THE HARD QUESTIONS
What requirements must participants meet in order to teach English? Are teachers given a fixed curriculum to follow, and is there a turnover from one teacher to another?
Andrew: Our travelers do not actually come in as English teachers. They work more as teaching assistants who work with small groups of students, doing activities that reinforce the lesson the teacher is giving. For example, the teacher might give a lesson about conjugating verbs with plural or singular subjects. Our travelers would observe the lesson (or might have been given a copy of the lesson the day before), and sit with students and do activities such as worksheets or games related to this lesson.
What is the minimum amount of time that volunteers must commit to in each community?
Andrew: Since our travelers only visit for a week or two, a few times a year, both the travelers and the community groups are clear that the travelers can’t do the work of the community. That’s why we partner with non-profits or groups who are already doing great work in the community and have the ability plug us in.
With regard to volunteers who help construct facilities in poor villages, has there been an assessment done to assure that volunteers are not taking away jobs from locals?
Andrew: Our philosophy is not to supplant the local service providers, but to reinforce the great work they’re already doing. This includes joining in on a construction project.
Do you consider whether bringing foreigners into indigenous communities changes the makeup of local life, sometimes for the worse?
Andrew: Your question about whether foreigners should even visit these communities is also well grounded in a concern for cultural preservation. My view is heavily informed by what many of our community partners tell me. I’m translating here and paraphrasing different people’s comments to make them generally applicable:
“Andrew, we know that your travelers use their vacation time and money to spend time with us. People in our own country do not even come visit us. The capital city is only a couple of hours away and we never get visits from people there, unless it’s a politician during election season. For our staff, it’s touching that your travelers come all this way and treat our staff like celebrities. It’s always energizing for our staff to have your groups come in; it makes us feel special. And while your travelers learn about our culture, we also get some new ideas.”
So, there’s the aspect of being in solidarity with our community partners, and there’s also the simple fact that organized groups are going into these communities. And because I do personally care about the communities we visit, I prefer that travelers engage these communities with an organization like Discover Corps, which comes in the spirit of service and solidarity and follows our responsible travel guidelines.
NOW I’M A BELIEVER
Based on his answers, I accepted Andrew’s offer and subsequently traveled to Cuba with Discover Corps. From meeting with an economics professor from the University of Cuba, to engaging Cubans in conversations on the Malecon, to learning how non-profit community groups across Cuba are using the arts to improve life, every detail of the trip was designed to provide an unparalleled cultural immersion.
It was also my good fortune that Andrew was on that trip, and we had many opportunities to discuss the issue of volunteering in more depth. I take it as a particularly good sign that his firm has been chosen by the National Peace Corps Association (NCPA) as the operator of their Next Step Travel, which provides volunteering experiences for former Peace Corp volunteers, but what impressed me most was Andrew’s views about responsible volunteerism. Discover Corps volunteer projects are driven by the local communities.
Whether they are helping to build classrooms, improving water systems, or creating eco-friendly homes, they partner with local communities to help them achieve their development goals. Allowing locals to decide what they wish to accomplish puts them in charge of their own destiny and virtually assures their continued engagement and ultimate success. Good volunteerism is driven from the bottom up, rather than the top down, as Andrew obviously knows.
I may have started out as a skeptic, but after experiencing a volunteering vacation with Discover Corps, my faith in volunteer tourism has been restored. It’s not a question of whether there are any legitimate, honest, and capable operators out there; it’s a question of finding the ones who are, and in my opinion, Discover Corps is one of the good guys. –Barbara Weibel
BIO: In 2007, Barbara Weibel realized she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. Searching for meaning in her life, she walked away from corporate life and set out to see the world. Nearly nine years later, she is still traveling and sharing stories on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travels.