Adventures in Voluntourism-they have become part of tourism mainstream

A friend of mine recently spent a few nights in a hotel owned by an international chain and sent me an article on 'Adventures in voluntourism' afterwards that he had found in their official in-room travel magazine. I saw the picture of a smiling woman in hot-pants balancing wood on her head and thought that this may be the beginning of a whole new genre of erotic photography, a new type of locker-room pictures for aidworkers or something similarly inappropriate:

 Photo: A happy voluntourist (viatora fortunata nivea), unknown location with permanent summer

However, the actual article was slightly more balanced, yet for obvious reasons focussed on the marketability of the experience. It started with examples from the US and introduced a project that the Global Citizens Network runs in connection with the Quileute Nation peoples in Washington state. It sounds like a decent project, the historic Quileute Shaker Church gets refurbished in the process and in the end 'the voluntourism situation can open up the minds of people in the host community as much as it does for the volunteers' the Chairwoman of the Quileute Nation is quoted. Sounds like an interesting way of getting out of your holiday comfort zone and the author stresses the opportunities for first-time travellers to discover a different culture. However, there is this feeling in the back of my mind that voluntourism in small communities may become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Volunteers support the building of an 'outdoor amphitheatre to shwocase traditional cultural performances' which will attract more visitors in return. I could imagine a situation where such activities are not driven by the demand of the community, but basically turn into a situation where 'growth' is introduced in the process and the next thing you know, tourists build accomodation for more tourists. In a less regulated environment there are plenty of chances that the good intentions my get exploited. David Clemmons of voluntourism.org is also featured with his organisation and the thought of a 'worldwide voluntourism industry' makes me cringe a little. The article also introduces two projects that the hotel company runs and at least they do not seem to do harm: One project encourages volunteering in an animal sanctuary ('Yes, you may choose to cuddle animals who need love and attention!') and beach cleanups that 'usually start at 9.a.m on Saturdays. Trash bags and gloves are provided, along with food, coffee and water'. The worst case is that it may deprive local children of some pocket money as they could probably cuddle with the animals or help cleaning up the beach...
Not surprisingly the article does not include any negative side effects of voluntourism other than quoting the director of the Global Citizens Network with some questions every volunteer should ask themselves, e.g. 'Can I function effectively while working with people suffering from malnutrition, disease or extreme poverty'? To be honest, I have doubts that I could...
So what do I take away from this article?
First, this was a timely reminder of how big voluntourism has become and that it has entered the mainstream of holiday-makers, tour operators and the hotel business. In connection with the right organisations on the ground and with limitations of such schemes in mind, many probably do little if no harm and can help assist communities mitigating the impact of tourism and Western culture (I guess this is a bit of a paradox...). Second, there is huge section that this article has not covered and that takes place outside the realm of organised holidays: Cuddling animals is one thing, engaging in the whole gap-year, teaching English in East Asia thing is a completely different ballgame. Third, the organised experiences may not be the worst, if we acknowledge that global tourism is often not sustainable and comes with its own baggage of problems. Picking up litter is one thing, making sure that local communities benefit from holiday dollars is another. There is a danger that it turns into a corporate social responsibility affair if global holiday companies make handsome profits often in connection with local elites. Fourth, voluntourism is not social work that replaces professional long-term engagement with communities and should not be the incentive to 'study development' upon the return. It remains a controlled experiment in experiencing global cosmopolitanism that should trigger interesting questions, discussions etc., but that should not be mistaken for 'helping the poor/world'.

Addendum 25 July:
Tom Murphy just shared a very interesting post about Daniela Papi and her 'Lessons I learned' blog about 'NGOs, Voluntourism, Cambodia & Life Lessons'. I agree with Tom: 
As someone who has cheered on the idea of admitting failure, it is encouraging to see someone who is willing to admit where she has gone wrong and freely share what the journey was like. People like Daniela can help to prevent others from making the same mistakes.
However, such an approach has limitations. As important as critical reflections are, they need to be put into the perspective of 'real life': Whether you run a business, research project or NGO, your work has an impact on many stakeholders, jobs, livelihoods, reputation and people's dignity. In short: Your great 'learning journey' may be somebody else's real life with long-term impacts beyond 'I should go back to grad school and learn more about development' insights. Your fascinatingly 'failed project' may not just be a great writing opportunity, but may have failed to deliver services, results, hope etc. to people around you. This is not directly addressed at Daniela, but more of a 'note to myself'. Admitting failure is great, careful planning, extensive listening and high ethical standards are even better when we engage with some aspect of people's lives. And more humility may not hurt either: You are young, you do not know everything, your great idea may have been tested before and just because you met a few weird aid professionals does not mean that the whole industry has failed.

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