23 August 2009 ~ 15 Comments

What are ALL voluntourists good at?

In recent years Voluntourism it has gotten a bad name.  There are a lot of valid reasons that people have been turned off by voluntourism, including:

  • short term interactions with children without proper child protection policies  (Some argue that English teaching is a great way to engage English-speaking travelers in volunteer work, and perhaps sometimes it is, but I feel that even this is not always a good fit. Often times native speakers know the language, but are not trained teachers and repeated short-term interactions can have harmful side effects for children.)
  • volunteer placement agencies charging exorbitant fees from their overseas offices with little to no money reaching the development projects themselves (no need to link to a lot of them for examples, just google “volunteer abroad”!)

These reasons are some of the reasons that I too am skeptical of voluntourism initiatives. I have seen some damaging results of travelers philanthropy which did not embody effective voluntourism or development practices and ended up causing more harm than good.  At PEPY, we have made many mistakes ourselves, especially in our first few years of operations where we designed trips for tourists to “teach and give” rather than “learn and support” and where we designed trips around the needs and demands of travelers rather than those of the communities we were working with.  Many of our initial mistakes are highlighted in the documentary “Changing the World on Vacation” by Deeda Productions. Although watching some of your mistakes on TV and seeing yourself say some ridiculous things you no longer believe in is not a fun pass time, I appreciative that filmmaker Daniela Kon’s work will serve as a learning tool for many others and reminder to me about the lessons we have learned.

As we have examined at the hands-on service portions of our trips looking to find the most useful way to engage tourists in something they are skilled at, we asked ourselves: What ARE all tourists experts at?

The answer we came up with is this: All tourists are experts at being tourists!  Of course!

They know what THEY want when they travel, and that knowledge is often the missing key to successful community based tourism initiatives. Now of course, you and I don’t share the same wants/needs as every tourist and living in Cambodia with a huge child sex tourism industry, I surely wouldn’t want to take the opinions of all tourists to heart when developing new programs. I do though believe that if we find similar minded people looking for an eco-friendly and responsible adventure, one very useful skill they all can bring is the ability to give their feedback and ideas about how to design such a trip.

Tourists can use these skills to help local communities who have a tourism product to offer but are perhaps lacking the experience to market or tailor the trip to tourists.  They can also help promote positive environmental practices by highlighting their desire to see natural environments and physical and cultural preservation in the countries they visit.

By matching travelers up with community based tourism initiatives, we hope to improve the whole adventure tourism supply chain by:

  • giving thorough feedback and ideas for improvement to community based tourism initiatives and groups looking to offer such products
  • offering marketing advice
  • promoting positive environmental practices and preservation initiatives
  • creating informational and promotional material for the organizations we believe in from signs helping travelers find their way to the site to English language placards or hand-outs describing the locations highlights in areas where English speaking guides might not be available
  • Physically helping to improve offerings in the area (constructing signage, cleaning surroundings, beautifying local infrastructure, building safety or protective tools such as fencing or walkways, etc)

We believe that, by designing trips which improve the local adventure tourism supply chain, we can place travelers in a position where both their time and funding are valuable while also helping to ensure that tourism dollars support local initiatives.

We have done some of this in the past, but had not embraced the concept of “using voluntourists as tourists” as much as we currently are in our upcoming tours. Our updated website (coming soon!) will highlight these offerings.  In the meantime… what do you think?  No, it’s not building a house for a family nor petting kids in an orphanage, so it might not have the same appeal as other offerings, but we believe that if we highlight the added value travelers can bring to responsible (aka. well-vetted) community tourism programs, people will be excited to support these programs.

What do YOU think?

PS:  In the hopes of preventing ourselves and others from causing harm through often well-meaning voluntourism initiatives, we surveyed other voluntourism, volunteer, and development organizations to understand the most effective practices in the industry and are starting Voluntourism101.com.  Coming soon! (No really, it is! It has been on the back burner – but our IT team is hoping to put time into it in the coming weeks to get it live by the end of October!)

  • http://www.bluebeeodysseys.com Charlene Selsvold

    Thank you for the courage to share and explore what voluntourism can be about. This has been very helpful.

  • http://www.voluntourismgal.com Alexia Nestora

    Love the idea Daniela, would love to see some hard examples so people can get a better idea of what you’re planning and what vision you see ahead.

    I think loads of operators strive to do this but lack the in country connection. From my experience there are 1. NGOs on the ground that need money desperately so they think about accepting volunteers 2. non-profits (sometimes for profits) that are in a developed country that recruit volunteers to work with the NGOs. You have the distinct advantage of being in the middle of all this so can provide insight that very few have – specific examples would help everyone learn I think.

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    A friend wrote to me today, in response to this post, with these great questions:

    “How is letting a tourist with some marketing experience (may have varying degrees of expertise) coach a local provider, any different to an English speaker coaching English? Are the intent of both the same…as well as the risks?”

    The key question I would ask in volunteering is:

    Will the system run better once the volunteer leaves because of the work being done?

    If the answer is yes, then I think the project is worth considering, and if the answer is no, it is likely that when the volunteer leaves the position, it will just leave a void where they had been with little long-term capacity building having been accomplished.

    In the comparison in this case, here is where I see the difference. The volunteer English teacher is coming in to a school, often times one without a set curriculum, and delivering a service directly to the community (children, adults, etc). Even if the curriculum is set, it is still the teacher’s abilities and skills which will make the lessons effective or not. In addition, if the volunteer English teacher is teaching directly to students, they are not building the capacity of the system to run better on its own once they leave. Instead, they leave a void when they are gone which must then be replaced by yet another (likely unskilled) volunteer. (I have commented on this before: my thoughts are that this type of volunteer work is ineffective, though one way to at least improve the situation would be to have a longer-term volunteer with high level teaching skills work to train a teacher, rather than teach students directly. At least in that case, when the volunteer leaves, the capacity of the teacher has been built and the system will run better because of their support.)

    In the case of volunteer tours designed to support community based tourism programs, as is the case with any volunteer tours, the possibility of effectiveness is determined by how the trip is designed http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/05/volunteering-or-voluntourism-who-cares-its-how-you-design-it/. The way we will design the tours is:

    1) Work with groups who have asked for our support or have been referred to us and, upon meeting them, it is clear that a bottleneck in their marketing or execution of their tourism offering is in their understanding of the needs/desires of the foreign tourists. It also must be clear that they are looking for this support and excited to work with us. In this way we know that our services would indeed be a good fit and that we have a willing group looking for a partnership.

    2) We will not send tourists into the program blind, asking them to create a marketing plan and then execute, like asking a novice English teacher to build their own curriculum. Instead, we will do the preliminary research first, work with the community to identify needs, and see where we might be able to add value for this specific case.

    3) The project would likely be completed after the volunteers have left, or determined before they arrive, thereby not making it up to the volunteers to make the key decisions. For example, a community might already know that one of the problems is that no one can find their location. It might have been determined by their team or other community based tourism advisors in collaboration with the PEPY team that sign posts and relevant information in local advertisement magazines would be two of the key needs. When our guests come to visit their community based tourism initiative, their role might be to construct/paint/design the signs with the local community based organization (CBO), use an odometer and calculate distances/directions to the location, and draw up a map or write an advertisement to be placed in local media sources. (Side note: The funding might already be provided by CBO/a partner NGO or might come from the income from the tours, depending on the case.) In the case of coming up with text for an advertisement, this would not run while the volunteers were visiting (as their stay would likely be 1-2 days, depending on the need). Instead, it would be reviewed by all relevant parties after the volunteer visit to be determined if it should be used or modified to be most effective.

    4) All visits to local CBO tourism sites could also involve thorough review forms, allowing the tourists to give their own feedback and suggestions for improvements. These would then be passed on to the CBO and they would determine which items they wanted to take action on. Some of the ideas might become other projects we would take on in the future (build a small resting area where people can enjoy a picnic meal in the shade, build a wooden walkway so that travelers do not damage the site by walking all over the sensitive area, put up a sign post explaining the history of the site to travelers who do not speak the local language, draw a map of the area so that tourists don’t get lost, etc).

    In these cases, if the project is designed well, it fits the community’s needs and allows for the final product to be determined by the CBO, when the volunteers leave, the project will run better because they were there. In my opinion, that is the best type of voluntourism project: projects where, during the monitoring and evaluation phase, it is clear that the system runs better because of the services the volunteers provided.

  • Karina

    I’m REALLY looking forward to seeing Voluntourism101.com up and running;)

  • http://lessonsilearned.org daniela
  • http://www.volunteerglobal.com Sarah Van Auken

    Glad someone’s coming out and saying this stuff :-) I think it really comes down to the individual, the community, and the program, and how they’re all working together. I’m very supportive of groups that take on individuals for short-term activities that positively impact the community (such as construction, trail maintenance, etc.) where the volunteers don’t need much background experience or training. I’m not at all a fan of groups who take volunteers to an orphanage for two days, as I can’t see a) how that helps the children in any way, and b) how it encourages their development, and c) what exactly the volunteers are doing for their tax write-off.

    For programs to work with children, animals, businesses, etc — things that will have a long-term impact on development, I’m of the strong opinion that volunteers should be there longer than one month, and should have necessary (and proven) skills, background, and interest in what they’re going to do, and the programs should have quality, well trained staff to be on hand at all times.

    That said, I’m also not really sure if Illich’s thoughts on the Peace Corps is being presented here as a valid argument about American colonialism. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I have to clarify the following:

    Peace Corps does not “invade” any country. They are invited by the host country, in fact — and they will leave at any time if they are no longer welcome. Countries ask the Peace Corps for help because their governments feel the volunteers are needed. Peace Corps doesn’t just go where they think help is needed; they go where they’re asked and where it’s safe for their volunteers, and they’ll leave if there’s unrest, if they’re asked, or if the volunteers are in any kind of danger. They are a government agency, but are in no way affiliated with the armed services, and operate vastly differently from the military. If there’s any sign that the volunteers can be in danger, they pull out immediately.

    I apologize for the long comment — just wanted to clarify the thing on the Peace Corps, as I know many, many people don’t realize how exactly the group operates :-p

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    Thank you for the comment, Sarah! No apologies ever needed for long comments here…. clearly you didn’t see how long my own comment on my post was! :-)

    I agree with you on the negative impacts (and very few positive impacts – outside of tourist’s own warm fuzzies) of short term child teaching projects or orphanage visits, etc. Here, we refer to those as “pet the children” trips, as the bus tours to orphanages seem a lot more like trips to the zoo than mutually respectful human interactions, especially in the cases when financial support is going to the tour companies or corrupt groups (post on orphanage tourism coming soon as a group of friends and I are fed up with the corruption surrounding orphanage tourism in Cambodia and we want more people to be aware of these issues).

    As for Illich’s piece, I clearly don’t agree with it all or I wouldn’t be working in development in Cambodia. I do though think everyone who goes abroad “to help”, myself included, should read it. Even if we don’t agree completely or at all with his point of view, I think it is so important to know that his point of view EXISTS, and reflect on the reasons why it might. For me, it serves as a good reminder that just because some foreigners have higher formal education than the people in the communities they are visiting does not mean we can come in and teach. We have to learn first. I know this, as PEPY Tours started as “we are here to teach you about the environment” tours, when we clearly knew very little about the Cambodian environment and the communities we were working in.

    I appreciate your comments re:Peace Corps, and as I said, I surely want to clarify that I don’t agree with all Illich has to say, or I couldn’t do the work I’m doing. His use of the word “invade” is clearly biased, and not at all how the Peace Corps intends to be viewed.

    In a place like Cambodia, where America had little interest in resources until oil was found off-shore here a few years ago, an observer watching the US officially give money directly to the Cambodian government for the first time since UNTAC, bring in the Navy for the first time to hand out gifts in port, bring in Fulbright, and also the Peace Corps, all within a very short time frame post-oil discovery, could in a some ways, view that as an “invasion”. I’m not saying I do, nor am I saying any of those groups and their individual motives are wrong, but sometimes it is good to put ourselves in the shoes of a local person looking at all that is being brought into their country, even if their politicians invited it in, and to think what questions/assumptions/accusations we might have had, as Illich did. We might disagree with them or him, but the act of reflecting on why they might feel that way can only help us improve our actions, in my opinion.

    Thanks for commenting, and please continue to do so when you feel moved to!

  • http://www.voluntraveler.com Jason Kucherawy

    We at Voluntraveler come from an NGO background (Para el Mundo), rather than tourism and our volunteers in the past have tended to stay in Peru with us for weeks, if not months, and have had skills desperately needed by the impoverished community of Mancora.

    With the growth of voluntourism, we are getting more interest from people who want short-term stays, sometimes as little as a week. We recognize that the benefit to the community from short term unskilled volunteers is not anywhere close to that of the long term skilled volunteers. However, working in a very disadvantaged community, we require the funding that short term visitors contribute to the operation of the NGO.

    Our recent challenge has been to develop a way for short term volunteers to make a meaningful contribution and feel good about what they are doing while not creating dependency within the community. The bulk of our first volunteers were trained medical professionals, social workers and teachers who stayed for weeks or months. Now, it seems the bulk of our future volunteers will be university students who will stay for less than a month.

    We have Peruvian staff who manage the volunteers and are key players in the community. We trust their guidance and leadership when it comes to the projects these short term volunteers take on. They know the community’s needs and how to best use the volunteers based on their individual skills and interests.

    Our primary goal with the short term volunteers is to turn them into advocates for volunteer travel and to help us continue to support the NGO and the community they worked for. Most of our volunteers come to us through word of mouth (since we lack the funds to advertise like the big companies) and having 10 short term volunteers return home and spread their story is certainly good for everyone. It brings us more volunteers, more funding, and a greater awareness of the challenges faced by people in the developing world.

    I really believe that international travel will eventually lead us to a peaceful future without poverty, and volunteer travel – even short trips – is essential to realizing that.

  • Anna

    This idea definitely has potential and as any new idea needs to be tested and monitored in the field before any definite conclusions can be drawn.

    I agree with Daniela that it’s not the same as sending an English teacher. In this case people will be there to share their ideas, knowledge and experience but in the end it will be up to the tour operator and the community to chose whether to adopt them or not, so their impact can be carefully controlled. However, having said that, it doesn’t mean there aren’t risks involved. Though each tourist is good at being a tourist, that doesn’t mean they are attune to issues and considerations in Cambodia/that specific project/community involved/etc. A marketing expert from a Conglomerate Inc. does not necessarily know what’s best for a small homestay in rural Cambodia.

    It is the responsibility of the tour operator to work together with the community to filter through the tourists’ advices/initiatives to insure the proper fit to that specific situation. The purpose should be to put many minds together from diverse backgrounds not to leave tourists in charge of solving all of the local community’s issues.

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    Thank you Jason and Anna for your posts. I appreciate the descriptions of how your program works. I would love to learn more.

    One thought I have: we are all aware that we should prevent communities from becoming dependent on volunteers, but I think it is important to try to prevent our organizations from being reliant on funding from volunteers as well. I have struggled with this myself and find that if there is someone or some project that I want to say “no, sorry, that is NOT what we want to do here” – I need to make sure that I do indeed say that rather than thinking about their money and saying yes. This has sparked some reflections which maybe I will put into a further post. Thank you!

  • http://www.pepyride.org Daniela Papi

    PS- I want to clarify how we operate PEPY. We do indeed take volunteers for many months at a time (typically 6 months minimum, unless there is a specific skill set that fits our office needs like web design or graphic design). The volunteers who join us as interns are unpaid, nor do they pay for the position, and are provided with a free place to live. They are not, however, employed to work on our programs in the village nor are they giving power to administer programs. We have had foreigners work on our programs, but those have been paid staff offering specific teacher training skills or consulting and technology advice for things like our solar power installment. Our goal is for the foreign staff’s role to be ones that improve the systems and the capacity within our team so that we can operate better than we were previously once they leave.

    For our long-term volunteers, we do indeed look to match skills with needs, as those with good matches are the most successful internships. Typically, with our programs as well, the majority of applicants are young recent college graduates who have less expertise than we would be looking for in one taking an advisory or capacity building role, though we do occasionally find those people. For those with more general skills, we are able to benefit from their English fluency, writing skills, and business acumen to help improve the systems of how our office runs, to communicate with people who are interested in PEPY, and to manage our newsletters/Web 2.0 communication.

    For short term visitors (a few weeks or less), we instead offer paid tours (www.pepytours.com). These tours are typically not volunteer experiences, they are tours of Cambodia, which have a required fundraising fee above and beyond the costs and which provide a chance for travelers to go where their money goes to learn about the projects they are financially supporting. In this way, the long term volunteers and their skills are matched to multiply the impact of their time while short term visitors are providing the majority of their impact through their money.