If you know someone who has gone on an Alternative Breaks trip, you’ve likely heard them speak positively about the service they did, and the memorable experiences they had learning about another culture. But a question that may be vital when discussing Alt Breaks is whether or not these trips participate in “voluntourism” due to a lack of funding.
Voluntourism is simply defined as “a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.” But some of the pitfalls of modern day voluntourism describe how people traveling to other countries end up getting more personal gain than what they physically give. Volunteers may come back from a trip emotionally changed, but without having done a whole lot of actual work for the community they were serving or having donated a significant amount of money. It’s important for a service project to include this financial component in order to foster sustainable change, and not just stop at physical work that can only be completed in a few weeks. With a larger budget, Alternative Breaks could complete service work internationally while also giving more financially to communities in need. To create a larger budget, the Student Association should allocate more money to the student organization to cover some of the costs to run the international trips, so that the student-raised funds typically spent on group travel would go directly to the countries they are serving.
To participate in a trip run through the Alternative Breaks program, students pay a participation fee between $100 and $800, depending on whether the trip is domestic or international, according to an employee in the Nashman Center. The Alternative Breaks program additionally offers scholarships to help pay for this fee in order to make trips more accessible to students. After the required fee, students work together with their group members to achieve lump sum fundraising goals for each program, which varies based on the city to which they’re traveling. Once they cover those necessities to get to their location and stay there for a week, any extra money that is raised by the group together can potentially go back to Alternative Breaks in order to keep the trips running, or can be given to the trip leaders to allocate – often back to the partner service organization.
But the money left over in donations isn’t enough to make an impact on the community. Due to this need for extra funding, the SA should consider a larger allocation to the Alternative Breaks budget. According to the SA financial budget for 2018, the planned allocation for the Alternative Breaks program is $25,000. If the SA allocated more money to the program, it could be spread among the trips and possibly alleviate some of the costs of the group fundraising goals to travel. Subsequently, students could then focus on fundraising in the form of donations to give directly to those in-country organizations.
The Alternative Breaks program works to provide transferable skills for students, like fundraising and cross-cultural communication, but it is difficult to always achieve both. Junior Sara Brouda wrote about how she felt “uncomfortable” at times when she considered how much money it took to travel to Central America for her Alternative Break, in comparison to the physical work that was completed. I haven’t been on a trip myself, but I know the programs outside of the U.S. are designed thoughtfully and with complete respect and regard for local international communities. It can just be difficult to actually make a lasting impact in only a week, while funding used locally can go a long way.
But ultimately, if one has the financial means to do so, traveling abroad can be a really impactful experience for students that can shape their desire to do policy work and fundraising for international communities in the future, or even as a career. I went on a scholarship-based summer trip to Japan, and spending time with a host family and interacting with an international community inspired me to pursue interests in international affairs and journalism. But many students that have traveled with Alternative Breaks describe how difficult fundraising can be, to the point where trips in the past have even been canceled due to insufficient funds.
There are other organizations on campus that already practice direct fundraising. Organizations like the GW chapter of UNICEF hold several fundraising events, in which all their proceeds go directly to United Nations international initiatives. But because the Alternative Breaks programs that are based outside of the U.S. include the component of international travel, money to cover some of these trip costs is needed to run the programs more effectively. These funds are required to not only break even and allow students to participate, but also dedicate more fundraising money directly to those in-country organizations.
The Alternative Breaks program puts a great emphasis on meaningful service, in efforts to not simply become tourists who also happen to volunteer. But in order to broaden this impact on several communities in need, and ultimately create more sustainable change and service, organizations with power and a large budget – like the SA – should contribute to the financial effort of Alternative Breaks.
Rachel Armany, a sophomore majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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