Saturday, May 22, 2010

Responsible Short-Term Foreign Presence from the Developed World in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

In addition tothe long-term foreign presence I wrote about in my last blog, there is also the presence of foreigners that are in the Puerto Plata area short term. These foreigners come through tourism or volunteer and/or mission trips. Tourists also normally stay in secluded resort areas. Some take part in tourist excursions where they see more of the country. I am in disagreement with the way that the majority of such excursions are run which at times intrusively parade tourists through very impoverished communities without truly educating tourists about the lives of the inhabitants, the challenges they face, and any solutions they can support in making change. They simply pass through sometimes handing candy out to begging children. One excursion leads tourists through in horse drawn carriages. Children from the community have learned to run after the carriages and beg. This image depicts a system that we would hope to change. This depicts a system of rich and poor, subordinate and dominant, royalty and peasantry. This is the enemy of equality and empowerment.

We are making efforts to take such a situation in one of the areas where we have a grassroots school and turn things around so that tourists are educated about the community, efforts being made toward positive change, and are invited to support. We are doing this by setting up an internet center and call center where local artwork will also be sold. Once the center is in full function, we will make contacts with those in charge of running the various tourist excursions that pass through the community, asking them to lead their groups to the center. Profit made at this center then will support the school and other projects to benefit the community.

There are many different organizations and groups that lead volunteer teams on short-term trips. Sometimes volunteers stay for longer periods of time as well. Groups may be medically focused running day clinics and distributing medicines, they may complete a work project such as building or painting, or they may run some sort of educational activities for locals. A critique and concern I have about these trips is that they sometimes have the end goal of providing an experience for the volunteers rather than creating true lasting positive change in the community. A goodgoal and rule of thumb when it comes to such trips which we implement is to be sure that the end goal is not for volunteers to just have an experience but to truly and intentionally bring their presence around full circle to where the community is being empowered in some way. Here are a few examples of how this can be done:

  1. Have the volunteer group fundraise/gather necessary equipment and execute a project that leaves a small business in the community which generates funds from within the commuunity, allowing community development efforts to take place year round.

  1. Determine a skill or knowledge the volunteer group possesses that would be practical and beneficial to pass on to the locals. Execute educational activities in order to pass on the skills or knowledge using care and honesty to be sure that everything is successfully communicated.

  1. Be intentional about analyzing areas in need of development, conducting simple surveys to obtain some basic information that can be shared with others working in the same area or desiring to do so. This information is also useful to accurately understand a situation and explain the situation to those at home, educating the foreign community and rallying support. Be careful to not make any assumptions but conduct well translated surveys and interviews to obtain accurate information.

  1. Require volunteers to engage in continued activities upon returning home that raise support and awareness for the community in which they volunteered. It is also wise to give volunteers a pathway to serve in their own local community upon returning home.

These four practices keep volunteer trips from being a “hit and run” where volunteers obtain an experience an pictures to share but leave nothing lasting in the community. A few last words of advice to groups truly wanting to instill change are focus and persevere. Focus in order to be effective in one thing rather than ineffective in many things. Don’t give up when problems arise but take the time and patience to understand the problem, learn from it, pick up and continue.

Every effort should be made to connect short term volunteer trips into ongoing sustainable efforts. I recently met the co-founders of a new non-profit organization in the Puerto Plata area that is thankfully doing just that in the medical sector. We are in the process of planning ways that our two organizations can partner. Health Horizons International trains community health workers and plans three medical service trips a year focusing on five communities in great need. They are working to build a sustainable system where the community health workers continue caring for patients throughout the year and patient records are kept to ensure that there is continuity between groups.

Time will tell if this model successfully meets the medical needs of the counities they serve and the success will also, just like anything else, rely largely on the continued effort of the staff and volunteers that carry the model out. Nonetheless, the type of thinking that went into creating this model is just the type of thinking volunteer groups working in developing countries everywhere need to have – turning short term efforts into something that lasts long term, has continuity,and truly aims to create change in the community.


  1. I could not agree more with your assessments. While the good will of volunteer groups is admirable, governments, IOs, and NGOs conducting development work must make considerable efforts not only for sustainability, but for capacity-building. The back-lash we're seeing now from some African groups regarding aid policies there are precisely a result of good will executed poorly. In some cases, such as disaster relief, an influx of volunteers to help with the relief effort actually assists with local need. I see what you outlined above in counterinsurgency efforts as well, where capacity-building and victory through economic attrition requires providing the means for locals to help themselves; not just "voluntourism" or feel good measures that do nothing to actually help locals. That is not a slight on the volunteers themselves, because a huge part of volunteering is education and exposure. Having been a volunteer through your wonderful organization as well as many others, I know my experiences have driven me to want to do more in the developing world. Education coupled with capacity-building solutions can have enormous benefits for the community, the organization, and the volunteers.

  2. Both of you said it very well. Also - getting short-term missionaries past the "honeymoon" stage is important too. Meaning, in the beginning everything seems to go swimmingly and all your efforts "pay off." When you stick to it long-term, though, you realize that you cannot really control people or situations with your good will or good intentions -- roadblocks, misunderstandings, and temptations to become discouraged will present themselves. Will you stick to it? Or will you be angry that people or situations are not measuring up to the sunny, easy expectations that you had? Those are things I have had to face in myself.