One of the most difficult challenges to overcome when traveling overseas, particularly to developing countries, is what I call economic armor. It’s the suit made of expensive traveling clothes, luggage, shiny rented cars… it’s the air of privilege that surrounds many American travelers like a cloud. It makes good sense that people without money or material goods see these travelers as an opportunity. They see economic gain for themselves and their families—food, shelter, a lifeline. Imagine yourself in dire straits, struggling to feed your family. Wouldn’t you see privileged tourists this way too?
Overcoming this hurdle is important because it’s difficult to build real friendships, relationships of mutual benefit, when money is a motivating factor in every interaction. UNITE is a voluntour company/social organization that specializes in removing these barriers to foster open, true communion between travelers and local people. Tourism does help a depressed region economically and this is important, but tourists and volunteers have a lot more to offer than their wallets.
UNITE describes itself as a portal for service. Indeed, they work with a vast network of vetted projects in East Africa and help volunteers and voluntourists find appropriate placements. In this way they function as a meta organization—a group that operates at the level of the big picture, partnering with projects that contribute to large-scale change. UNITE is dedicated specifically to women. They focus on women’s health (specifically reproductive health issues), education, and microfinance programs to support women’s role in the economic growth of East Africa. Their microfinance programs are fascinating economic experiments. They involve the borrowers in every aspect of the lending the process by having them vote on interest rates, bail each other out if one member defaults, and monitor each other’s progress.
I think UNITE does a particularly good job of combining touring with volunteering. They offer personalized trips so travelers can customize their experience, doing as much or as little volunteer work as they please. Even if a traveler doesn’t want to volunteer, traveling with UNITE will give them much more than a traditional tourism experience. They will still benefit from UNITE’s close connections with NGOs and will see East Africa from the inside. They will meet people who expect to interact, not to do business. These travelers will be volunteering without realizing they’re doing it. Just their presence, curiosity, and conversation will enrich their lives and the lives of the people they meet. Education is just as important as service. UNITE travelers learn from real people, armor free.