Exposure/Immersion Experiences

A position paper

“There is both a moral and social responsibility attaching to these experiences of foreign cultures, and if nothing awakens in our own soul, making claims and demands upon us, calling us to change the way we live, then we have been merely parasites and invaders.” (Tacey, D. 2000, “Re-Enchantment: The New Australian Spirituality”, p. 183)

While Exposure-Immersion experiences can be a useful method of formation of both young and old people, it is unethical to use them for this purpose if the effects on the host community are negative. There are alternative formation techniques available to the Australian church and if the rights of the host community are neglected, it would be better to opt for locally-run formation activities. The novelty and potential to attract more participants should not be enough to justify an overseas exposure tour. The program must have merit of itself or the participants attracted will simply be using the immersion as a guided tour. The experience must also be relevant to the context and not simply a “youth camp in a poor country”.

Negative experiences for the host community can range from inconvenience or cost, including staff-time, to damaging the integrity of the group through insulting, patronising and neo-colonial behaviours. These can be avoided by the full participation of the community in the planning of the activities, proper cross-cultural preparation and support of those immersed and a process informed by best practice in international development.

  • Full participation of the requesting community

The community must participate in deciding the programs available and the sorts of participants they would benefit from meeting. For example, sometimes a group of 16-year-old boys would be the best group to send, sometimes the worst. The community should indicate which times least interrupt their own activities and, in consultation with immersion organisers, decide what activities would be appropriate for participants. The program should not be tacked on to the community’s activities or the experience will suffer and it will more likely be an inconvenience. Some communities exist which have the structures and systems in place to cater for the visitors and could offer a mutually beneficial program. The community should be able to request its full costs covered by participation fees.

  • Cross-cultural preparation and support

The importance of cross-cultural preparation must not be underestimated. It heightens the experience for the visitor by providing a better understanding of the reasons for cultural differences. It reduces the likelihood of simplistic generalisations, unfairly insulting or romanticising the host culture as lazy, greedy, dirty or noble, peaceful, simple, etc. and therefore provides the sort of guests the hosts deserve. It results in an informed questioning of the visitor’s own culture and can result in improved engagement in challenging the injustices and prejudices which exist at home. It promotes mutually enriching and challenging relationships of acceptance, understanding and care, to the point of sharing worlds of meaning in the deepest sense, with people of a culture different from one’s own.

  • An understanding of sustainable development

Though short-term exposure tours are not development activities, an understanding of development theory and practice is important. Participants must be given the understanding necessary to avoid the mistakes of the past, including simplistic evaluations about what would “help these people”. The importance of community-driven, culturallyappropriate development must be emphasised. Any work-like activity which is undertaken must be understood to be an opportunity to participate in the hosts’ lives, not the way in which “we” helped “them”. Participants must understand the potential damage by wantonly distributing gifts, particularly in terms of reinforcing colonial notions of “charity” and reducing the opportunity for genuine relationship, both for this generation and future generations.