Volontourism: the dangers

DiA blogger Joe Corry-Roake comments on the dangers of volontourism.

As a new academic year starts there will be a wave of people beginning their gap years. For some it will be a chance to go on holiday, while others see it as an opportunity to gain skills which they are increasingly being told are integral to give them a chance in an ever more globalised, and therefore competitive, world. Many of them think volunteering in a developing country will help them also do good at the same time.

This is an increasingly popular option. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of volunteer tourism organisations, and with it the number of people volunteering, grew from around 300 to over 3000. This seems like a growth which should be commended, as it shows that people are using their time to try to aid those less well off than themselves. But is volunteering all good?

Problems

Firstly, there is an economic problem. Volunteers enter the host community as ‘free’ labour, so unless there is good reason to think the project would not have been conducted without the volunteers – especially if funds had been found to pay local people – they are taking work from the local people. Volunteers may actually be restricting, rather than enhancing, the economic growth of a community by taking low or unskilled jobs which could be done by locals. Added to this, by taking the work from the local population, volunteers prevent the investment of wages back into the community and reduce incentives to get local labour upskilled.

So why do volunteers continue to be so sought after? Well, sometimes they pay a sum towards accommodation and food. It is therefore in the best interests of whoever receives this money for volunteer tourism projects to continue in the community.

Secondly, due to the vast number of potential projects and the limited number of volunteer tourists, there is a buyers’ market when it comes to how these projects are chosen. This can, and does, inevitably lead to a pandering by communities to the desires of volunteers so as to attract income. This is reflected in the popularity of ‘glamorous’ projects such as building a school or a well or teaching English rather than the many projects that might have a potentially far greater impact on the quality of life of the host communities’ inhabitants. This could include planning or building sewage systems.

This pandering to volunteers stretches to extremes where projects are really about ‘fun’ activities with a bit of actual volunteering thrown in. One such example is an experience in Tanzania called ‘Dive, Teach & Wildlife’ where it isn’t until the penultimate paragraph of their promotional material that volunteering is referenced; described as an opportunity to meet people who are “cheerful and welcoming despite the deprivation that characterises their day to day lives.”[2] The indigenous individuals are reduced to an almost animalistic like existence, treated as another part of the itinerary. Unfortunately this project is typical of those promoted, in particular, by profit-making volunteer tourism organisations.

Even when a project is chosen and it has the potential to be beneficial, a lack of training or contact with the communities prior to placement is endemic in short term volunteer projects. This lack of training means that the volunteers often take on unskilled labour jobs which the indigenous population could do –and often don’t do them very well either. A lack of information prior to placements also contributes to frequent accusations of cultural insensitivity due, in part, to a lack of awareness of cultural norms and values and respect for the host community. This can pose a major barrier between volunteers and locals and add to a sense of an ‘other’.

Solutions

So what can be done? There are three key areas which could serve to ensure that short term volunteer tourism can have the maximum positive impact both for volunteers and host communities. Firstly, host communities must be empowered to ensure that the projects which are conducted are those which are really needed. Secondly, linked to this would be the introduction of an accreditation body which could monitor and assess volunteer organisations in key areas, such as the need for some basic training prior to the placement. Thirdly, there is a need to move away from the term volunteer tourism, to a new term which no longer evokes a holiday mood but instead pushes the individual concerned into a quest for effective impact with terms such as volunteer abroad as surely far more appropriate.

Volunteer tourism only makes up a tiny proportion of the development dialogue and much of what is done in its name is greatly beneficial. However, as the search for projects to bump up the CV begins before university, it is important that potential volunteers realise for themselves that the mere act of volunteering does not automatically mean that a good outcome will follow for the host community. Alongside this awareness it is also vital that the wider development community tries to reclaim what remains a potentially great and powerful source for aiding development from the tourism industry.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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