Palms Encounter: Timor-Leste is one of many short-term “immersion” opportunities available to Australians. What makes it different?
When designing this program, Palms Australia was careful to ensure that the principles which inform our development work should not be abandoned simply because an Encounter is not a development project.
Sending “wealthy” Australians to contribute physical labour for two weeks is rarely helpful and often damaging. For the cost of a trip, local people could be employed for a much longer period, gaining skills and an income, which is spent locally. An Encounter is not volunteering. Volunteering takes time and deserves to be done properly. Encounter participants visit several Palms Volunteers in the field to see the positive difference they can make.
Community engagement is essential to ensure the trip is not what Kennedy Odede calls “Slumdog tourism”. This was not a guilt trip. The trip seeks to encourage healthy attitudes, which respect the dignity of all people. Of course, the depth of interaction possible in a short trip is limited, but where respectful relationships already exist, it is easier to achieve cross-cultural exchange and avoid patronising or degrading interactions.
The environment should be considered even where this might mean a reduced comfort level. Sometimes this means feeling a little cramped as you load into a single vehicle; at other times it means choosing the beautiful simplicity of an eco-tourism destination instead of an international hotel.
Development projects should be properly scoped and assessed. Participants should not make on-the-fly decisions about giving away money based upon feelings of guilt. There will be time later to support well-designed effective development.
Preparation and support is important. Given the short time available in an immersion, there is a risk that participants see a single aspect of the host culture and make harmful generalisations. Palms Encounter ensured pre-departure preparation was undertaken and that an experienced guide was available to help participants unpack their experiences.
Cross-cultural engagement should not stop at the end of the trip. The main purpose of the Encounter is to educate for action. Participants will be provided with ongoing opportunities to support the communities they visited, either by volunteering later or by supporting Palms’ programs in those communities. Friends, family and colleagues will ask about the “holiday”, while ten days by no means makes a person an expert, it does provide a perfect opportunity to share stories and increase understanding in Australia.
We expect to run two Palms Encounters in 2011, 4th -16th July and 19th September – 1st October. We are also seeking returned volunteers who might be interested in training to become a group leader. Contact Palms Australia for more details.