04/23/2014 12:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2014

Is "Voluntourism" Itself Being Exploited?

Voluntourism is under fire. I know, because I have been a part of pointing out the unintended negative consequences of our good intentions for some time. Recently, blogs about "the problem of little white girls and boys" and other rants about voluntourism are starting to get more and more popular. But maybe it's time to look further into this criticism.

In a piece on his new Voluntourism Institute blog, David Clemmons recently released an article exploring the exploitation of voluntourism itself. It resonated with me, as over the last few months I have read a number of "anti-voluntourism" pieces that people have sent me thinking I'd love them, but instead they made me really worried that these arguments are moving off point.

David's article was spurred in part by an ABC Australia Broadcast piece I was a part of, which they provocatively named "Is 'voluntourism' the new colonialism?" David might be surprised to know, I agree with him in large part: "voluntourism" is being wrongly blamed as the "culprit" here and in other similar pieces. In my opinion, it is the marketing of the most irresponsible volunteer programs, and additionally, our own egos, which are leading us astray, not any whole sector.

This week I read a piece a colleague had written that was denouncing "voluntourism" yet promoting "responsible volunteering." Let's dissect this. Is it the "tourism" part people have a problem with? If someone comes and volunteers for a week and then goes straight into a week-long tour of the country, does that act of tourism negate or further in some way the negative or positive impact they had during their volunteer time? Isn't it less important that the person engaged in tourism activities, and more important to ask WHAT they did -- both in their volunteer time as well as their travel -- in order to be able to judge the impact of their work? I think we'd all agree it would be ridiculous to think that a volunteer can only have a positive impact if their volunteering does not happen directly before or after a 'tourist experience' -- as if someone volunteers for a week, goes home for a while, and then takes a separate trip back as a "tourist" we could then praise their volunteering. So let's explore this further.

What factors are in question?

DOES LENGTH OF STAY MATTER? I find the argument about a specific length of time that a volunteer must stay abroad to be "useful" to be off target. Some people can educate themselves well before they come, adopt a learning attitude, and be able to more quickly understand if or how they might be able to support local initiatives. In cases I have seen where short term volunteering is most effective, there are three factors:
  • A very strong skills match between the volunteer's experience and the partner organization's needs
  • The volunteers attitude is perhaps even more important than their skills: they are humble, open minded, and willing to adjust and adapt their expectations quickly about if or how they might be able to support local initiatives
  • The volunteer is worldly -- has worked in and experienced a range of cultures and understand that different people have different communication styles, etc. Great intercultural communication classes are available at groups like ReFresh Intercultural Communication, as even if you have spent a lot of time abroad, understanding how your communication style might be interpreted by others is something we can all continue to work on.

In Cambodia, we have had some fantastic volunteers come and work with us for a few days or even a few hours, who have had a lot more impact than someone might have had in a few months without those skills and attitudes. For example, we had an HR professional on sabbatical from a large company join us for a few weeks and conduct HR trainings for our team, do team dynamics workshops, and help us articulate our core values, all of which significantly impacted our team culture and productivity.

Recently the PEPY team in Cambodia had one of our supporters come in and do a few hour gender relations and communication training which impacts both the team's internal dynamics as well as how the organization approaches and communicates about gender related issues. Granted, neither of these people came over on short-term travel programs billed as "voluntourism," but in essence, that was what they were doing -- they were volunteering some of their time while also traveling in a foreign country.

Additionally, if a program is poorly organized, or the volunteer is irresponsibly placed in a position of authority having that person stay LONGER to achieve some sort of "minimal stay for effective volunteering" certainly does not increase the positive impact of their stay. In fact, it might increase the negative impact. Unfortunately I have seen volunteers who have stayed for many months, not learning a word of the language, imposing their views on people they are claiming to be trying to "help," and generally causing a prolonged nuisance. Hence, I think the argument that the length of time a volunteer program alone can be used to judge the efficacy of the program is flawed.

That said, length of stay does indeed have a huge impact on cultural understanding. If someone has never lived abroad, never learned a new language, or has very little experience in the region they are visiting, taking a learning period before trying to "help" is certainly the best way forward.

Many long-term volunteer programs, like VSO, require that of their volunteers, reminding them that the first three months should be for listening and learning before trying to "fix" anything they don't know much about.

Even among the co-authors of the book I am working on (now in editing stages), we have differences of opinion and experience around the "categories" that overlap with and encompass volunteering abroad. I feel that in recent years, the lines of categorization have become increasingly blurred, in part due to the fact that volunteering while abroad has become a more mainstream activity. In the past you might have been better able to distinguish between study abroad, work placement, volunteer travel and traditional tourism offerings, but now trips of all lengths, from gap-year programs to week-long treks, are often incorporating volunteering. If "voluntourism is bad" and "volunteering is good," then that begs the question, what is the distinction?

Does adding a few weekend tourism trips to a two-year VSO commitment make you a voluntourist? Does volunteering for a week straight and closing your eyes when you pass beautiful world heritage sites make you a volunteer but not a tourist? Once again, is it the "tourism" part we don't like, and really, does it matter? Study abroad programs wrap in a few weeks of volunteering, traditional tourism programs include a visit to an orphanage, etc. It's all blending together. And what about strictly tourism offerings that are set up to benefit the people and place you are hosted in, like ecotourism experiences or social enterprises -- are they "bad" because you are just on vacation and not personally lifting a finger?

Once again, we can't say it is black and white. We can't say "voluntourism is bad" and everything else is good because what is in question should not be what label you trip has, but what IMPACT you have -- both positive and negative. If the impact of what you are doing, repeated over and over by hundreds of travelers, is causing harm, like the rotating door of volunteers visiting irresponsible orphanages, then no matter what "category" of travel you associate with that action and behavior should be questioned.

Part of the argument against voluntourism seems to be about your intention. It seems that people think "voluntourists" are there to primarily be tourists, have an adventure, and also give back if they can fit it in, while "long-term volunteers" prioritize altruism over exploration.

First of all, let's get this straight. No one goes abroad, for any length or time, just to "help others" without receiving any benefit themselves, even if at minimum the benefit to ourselves is a feeling of satisfaction that we "did our part and didn't just sit around and watch while others struggled."

I'm of the opinion, and so are a lot of social scientists who have proved that helping others is linked to our own happiness, that the reason people go abroad to volunteer is because we're nearly all struggling with this question of "How can I do good in the world?" and looking for an answer for how we can feel satisfied that we've done our part.

We're looking to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, looking to leave our mark on the world and show that it is better off because we were there, and to not sit back and relax while there is suffering going on around us. When our grandkids ask "What were YOU doing when all of this corporatocracy, environmental degradation, and increasing disparity of wealth was happening, Grandma?" No one wants to answer, "I was just reading about it in the news." We want to jump in! Take action! Help! And one way that is being increasingly marketed to us is volunteering abroad.

The problem is, by just answering the call to volunteer and not being discerning about WHERE or HOW to do that, leads to problems if the program we choose isn't actually linked to positive development impacts (for example, the stories of volunteer travel companies having a building that volunteers paint over and over again).

One aspect of polarization that has come out of the rise of volunteer travel is the division between traveling to "give back" versus "selfish" tourism. Travelers are so eager to distance themselves from the word "tourist." You hear it all the time: "I'm not a tourist, I'm a volunteer." I agree with the part of David's argument, which is essentially, "Get over it. You're BOTH."

Of course you are a tourist. Even if your intentions are to "help" you are still visiting someone else's land, touring their national treasures, meeting people from cultures different to your own, and trying new cuisine. What I think is worrying is that we treat travel that is billed as "helping others" as altruistic and travel that is billed as "improving you" as selfish, and we're measuring the wrong thing.

Once again, what category the trip is billed as is NOT what matters! What matters is what happens in the world because YOU took that trip. Not what is the impact being "sold," but what IS the impact? You can say you are helping others, make a wrong choice, and end up causing more harm than good, or you can travel to learn, and improve yourself, while doing your best to leave a positive impact along the way, and do just that.

In our work at Learning Service, we advocate that the term "service learning," a term often used in North American academia to describe volunteer travel, be flipped. We need to LEARN before we can HELP. Therefore, a trip where someone wants to jump in and take action, but they don't first learn a bit about the complexity of aid, the pitfalls of irresponsible volunteering, what questions to ask when vetting a volunteer travel provider, or the context and culture of the place and people they are aiming to "help" can be less "responsible" than a trip billed explicitly for learning.

I really believe in the Mahayana Buddhism saying describing the vajra, which my colleague Claire Bennett often recites:

"Action without learning is ignorance, learning without action is selfishness"

I'd love to see the image of volunteer travel shift away from people jumping off a plane saying "I'm here to help you!" to saying "I'm here to learn from you how I can be of help, now, or in the future."

Realistically, it can be both. False marketing by non-profits or companies that show poverty porn images of crying children saying "She needs your help!" certainly make you feel like you are responsible, and that you should hurry up and take some action. And organizations that offer potentially harmful placements, such as unvetted placements in direct work with vulnerable children or those lining the pockets of corrupt businessmen whilst selling it as a way to help, manipulates positive intentions.

Any volunteer travel companies that falsely market the impact of their offerings are indeed leading us astray. But it's our own egos that can trick us into thinking an act of international service is for "others" and not for ourselves. It can be both! Learning, benefiting, growing and improving ourselves are some of the most important reasons.

It's imperative that more people have the experience of traveling and living abroad. Yet if these travelers are signing up for trips promising "the chance to help people less fortunate" and they think their own learning runs counter to their impact, then we miss out on one of the most important aspects of global peace and understanding -- learning and empathy building.

As an intellectual argument, I would say no. In fact, I find that some of the most responsible organizations where you pay a fee, like People and Places, are in a better position to create a responsible volunteer offering as they spend a lot of time and money understanding their partner's needs, making sure each volunteers skills are well matched and providing educational material before departure, etc. If people are paying for an experience and act the same as if they weren't, or better yet, behave even more responsibly because the organization they paid has helped them be better prepared for their trip, then there would be nothing to be concerned about.

That said, there is indeed a worrying trend associated with voluntourism that does have to do with the fees exchanged. The experience being "sold" is the chance to volunteer. Hence, the commoditization of that offering, with "discounted trips to help the poor!" and other mass marketed offerings can lead to travelers feeling like THEY are customers, THEIR needs must be prioritized, and THEY should get to dictate how their experience plays out.

They paid for it, so they want to get the most of their money -- more pictures with kids, the chance to meet and get to play with a child from the orphanage they are visiting, unrestricted access to the non-profit organization's management team to deal with their desire to help, etc. This demanding client, looking to consume the experience of volunteering, and check it off their list along with the Taj Mahal and a chance to swim with dolphins is where the sale of "serving others" becomes problematic.

So where does this lead us?

I believe it certainly means we need to let "voluntourism" off the hook, as it's not some undefined tourism category that is the problem. The problem is that yes, some people are being exploited or misled, both the travelers and the communities they aim to be serving. Yes, not all travel companies, mission trips, or non-profit volunteer placement partners are created equal: some are having a more positive impact than others. And yes, sometimes our egos and desire to "do good" can set us up for failure.

Is this critical debate helpful?

Not if it is putting "voluntourism" or any other travel category into a "bad" label and other offerings in a "good" label. What IS useful about the debates and criticism of our collective goodwill gone awry is when both individuals and the sector as a whole can look at what is working, and what is not, and learn from that -- and then transition that learning into more positive action in the future.