2011-09-29

volunteer work in Argentina? Here’s four takes on the benefits of it

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By Lisa Andersen and Robert Wake-Walker


What is to gain, who are the recipients, and how is it done?

Tuesday the 27th September 2011 was World Tourism Day, so therefore we have spent the week reflecting upon the subject, and want to share our thoughts with you. We talked to different people at different levels within the field of responsible tourism, in order to gain a wider, more thorough perspective on the matter and on the issues.

What is responsible tourism, and what is to be gained and learned from it?

Is this idea of learning the same both at the top and at the bottom? In order to find answers to all of our questions, we talked to the executive secretary of the Responsible Tourism Network in Argentina, to the founder of one of the organisations, to a founder of one of the projects, and last, but certainly not least, one of the many volunteers in Buenos Aires. 

Tourism and production

Juan José is the man behind the Argentine Responsible Tourism Network or in Spanish, Red de Turismo Responsable. He is also behind one of the organizations in the network: Generación Par. Generación Par is focused on promoting responsible consumption. For example, by hosting workshops on recycling. Juan’s work with the organization is deeply entwined with his work with the network, and the visions of the two seem to be similar. Talking to Juan it seems more and more obvious that responsible tourism and responsible consumption are one subject, not two. As he talks, he weaves back and forth between the two, not seeming to distinguish between them.

“We need to choose what and how we consume” 

The idea of a network of organizations promoting responsible consumption came to Juan when he realized that there was a general problem regarding the labelling of responsible products and services. The problem is, according to Juan, related to an idea of an ever-present government, also governing production, employment and environment. However, as Juan sees it, these issues are not being governed. Instead the consumers must act responsibly themselves, paying attention, not only to their own and others’ working conditions, but to the environment as well. Therefore Generación Par wants to open the eyes of the consumer: “we are alone and we have to choose what and how we consume”, Juan says, and further explains that the most responsible company is one who provides its consumers with information about production, employment, environment and so on.

He later started working on the idea of a network where organizations and companies who are interested in the idea of responsibility. However, joining Red de Turismo Responsable does not mean that the company must be working one hundred per cent responsible in all aspects, because that simply is not possible, says Juan. What is possible is to commit to a process of changing for the better. Each year every member sets goals for the next year. And the organization is planning to launch a new set of icons, which will provide the consumer with readily available information about the production of the product, including accessibility, waste-handling etc.

“It’s not just a brand”

With this, Argentina seems to be taking the lead within innovative ways of implementing responsible tourism and consumption, and to Juan, the reason is obvious: “it is different when you think of responsible tourism as a brand and when you think of it as responsible production.” In this perspective, responsible tourism is something that comes with responsible production, and as Red de Turismo Responsable believes: everyone is ready to benefit from good employment.

“This is where I can make a difference”

In order to gain another insight into the matter of responsible tourism, I went to Pablo Nogués, about an hour train ride outside of Buenos Aires. Here I was going to visit Silvia, who runs a small after-hours English school. She bases her work on the idea of quality education for everyone. That means that the school has very few resources at its disposal, as Silvia makes a point of charging the lowest possible tuition fee. It is not easy to run a school at such low cost, but Silvia seems to have what it takes: lots of energy, insight and compassion. And this seems to be where her motivation stems from. She grew up with the privilege of quality education, and when she realized that not everyone has this privileged background, she knew she had to change that. Even if the change looks small on a national scale, in the lives of the families, the opportunity is life changing.

Silvia employs volunteers from all over the world (recruited through Voluntario Global). This adds to the children’s understanding of geography – it becomes relevant and thus interesting to them to know something about a specific place, when the person in front of them is from there. It helps them realize the differences in the world, and sometimes the meaning of these differences. To Silvia, the most significant help for the school is the volunteers. Without them, the budget would not be sustainable, and the children would miss out on a lot of interesting lessons.

Further, Silvia recognizes and highly appreciates the lessons the volunteers learn, what they gain and what they take home with them: new insights, thoughts and ideas. This aspect of cultural exchange is as important as the main-objective. This is what keeps many projects within responsible tourism going: the prospect of giving and receiving on equal terms. At least that is Silvia’s take on it. In order to investigate this objective further, Rob had a talk with one of Voluntario Global’s founders, Valeria. 

Do you consider Argentina an interesting place to do volunteer work? And why?

Yes, it’s an interesting destination to be a volunteer, but then all places are around the world. Voluntary work is a fantastic way in which we can get to know the community and culture of a country. Each and every country has its own, personal culture, which makes each volunteering experience unique. For example, a volunteer worker in Bolivia would be exposed to the history of the indigenous culture. In Buenos Aires a volunteer gets to grips with highly topical subjects and current affairs such as poverty in modern society and education and health issues. 

Please can you explain a bit about your role in the organisation?

About six to seven years ago I had the idea of creating a new voluntary organisation, and that is how we founded Voluntario Global. The plan was to help improve the culture of many lives in Buenos Aires, and that is where I think volunteers really help to make a difference. As well as immersing himself or herself in a culture,a volunteer must strive to create a better society to live in for a community. Today my role is different. Everyone who works in VG can take the decisions and be responsible. I feel that everyone in the organisation makes a difference.

Is the voluntary sector continuing to grow in Argentina?

Yes, it is continuing to grow but more in Buenos Aires than the rest of Argentina. The rest of the country’s problem is that everyone arriving in Argentina has to come through BA. There are no other means of arriving in the country (internationally) without coming to the capital and as a result there is a greater concentration of volunteers in the capital.

How can being a volunteer be considered an alternative of responsible tourism?

It is first important to distinguish between two different types of volunteer. For example, a volunteer medic who travels to Afghanistan would not be considered a ‘tourist’, but a professional worker. However, the young people who help here in Buenos Aires do volunteer work as a means of responsible tourism. If you consider a ‘tourist’ somebody who wants to explore different cultures of a country, this is what the majority of volunteers in BA hope to achieve. Therefore there is a strong link between tourism and volunteer work if you take Buenos Aires as an example.

What are the principle motivations for the volunteers to choose to involve themselves in this experience?

One of the primary reasons is to learn another language, but to learn it by speaking it in the target country as opposed to in a school. There is a big difference in learning a language and studying a language; this is the difference between speaking it in the country and being taught in a school or university. But a languageisn’t just learnt by speaking it, but by immersing yourself into the culture and learning about the way of life.

Valeria seems to believe in the learning process of volunteering, just as Silvia did. She also places great importance on the local communities. 

 

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