05 July 2009 ~ 11 Comments

Giving things away can cause more harm than good (voluntourism & traveler philanthropy gone wrong)

Someone asked what the impact of many tour companies and individuals looking to offer philanthropic opportunities in developing areas might be…. here are my thoughts and a story from my experiences in Cambodia.

I think that it can be a tricky line to walk for those entering a new culture or area and looking to help. Knowing who to trust, what to do/give, where to put support, what that support should be designed like, if/how their should be community by-in/support/funding to make it happen, who will monitor it, how changes will be made, etc etc, is a lot to take on. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t but it means there is a lot to learn, and even more to learn once we start and make mistakes. There are so many groups in Cambodia coming in and digging wells or giving away filters and sometimes those things do harm (wells leeching arsenic from bedrock, breaking and sitting unfixed as there is no local ownership, etc). Here’s a story for you:

In the rural Cambodian district where we work at PEPY, most people were drinking directly from the local pumps. We had the water tested and found high levels of bacteria so we identified what we believe to be the best and most affordable filter and decided to try to get these used in the community. We saw that there was a man in a town 10km away who had begun selling these in his shop and we were able to purchase them and have them delivered to our target area to be sold for the same price at $11.50.

In order to be able to sell the filters, we required that the teachers attend a training and learn how to teach others proper use of the filters. We invited someone from the organization where the filters are made to come explain how the work, how they are made, and how best to take care of them. The teachers were given charts with this information and were taught how to then present this information to anyone who was purchasing a filter.

The filter program worked well and the teachers were able to get over 150 water filters into local homes. The price for the filter is not insignificant, but the community had seen the results of having clean water as we had been using the filters in the local schools and had drastically increased attendance at school as absences due to sickness went going down. We were excited about the benefits these new filters would have on the overall community health.

Then a foreign funded group came though, looking to “help the poor people” of the area. They began selling the same filters at $3 each, far below what they had paid for them.

In one day, without knowing it, they actually greatly HARMED the potential for health increases in the area. They thought they were “doing good” by giving things away, or subsidizing them, but instead, without knowing much about the area, they:

– damaged the market potential for both our teacher’s filter sales program and the nearby shop owner

– built mistrust as the community now thought the filters really should have been much cheaper or that they should hold off on buying them as someone might come give them one

– did not do the training/education necessary to actually help people understand how/why they work – so people are not taking care of them, thereby undermining the power of the very filters they distributed

– created a situation where the richer (all relative of course) people no longer want that product. It is “cheap” – subsidized to the poor people, so it must not be good, in their minds. Those who can afford it have now been saving up for the nearly $20 filters being marketed by Korean groups which are much more high tech looking but actually do not remove bacteria from the water, but with a higher price tag, no education coming with the product, and community trust damaged, some are using their very limited budgets to buy a product which is often essentially one month’s worth of income and not effective.

In this case, “giving things away” took away the very thing they were trying to provide: a chance to have clean water.

What does this have to do with voluntourism? The same effects can happen if voluntourism projects are designed by those coming in from the outside. I’ve done it wrong myself, damaged existing markets or systems, and have seen the results, so I’d love to help people from doing the same. Now that I have been in Cambodia 4 years, I can see the results of mistakes I have made, but some voluntourism is in and out, with limited or no monitoring or follow up. In those, and all cases, the more local know how and existing power and social structures are used, in my opinion, the more likely it is to avoid the mistakes of doing harm when intending to do good.

Unfortunately with more and more entities designing voluntourism experiences with limited local buy in – the more worried I am about the overall scheme of things.