23 September 2009 ~ 1 Comment

Travel Operators & Development Work

Most of us who criticize, publicize, support, or question “voluntourism” follow that word on google alerts, and so we were all alerted when Abercrombie & Kent (a high-end tour operator) announced their philanthropy tours.  Alexia, aka Voluntourism Gal, put up a post about this topic which sparked a lot of discussion and asked for my opinions to be added.  As I started to write,  my thoughts got way too long, so I only put my key ideas up on my comment.  The full thoughts are below (highlighted for those who prefer to skim).

Here are some of the key points I want to highlight regarding this issue:

A) OPERATORS need to educated themselves on effective ways to support development work and then they need to choose to USE that education and act responsibly (not just by the market’s demand). Randy, I agree with you that “It is NOT the volunteers responsibility to make certain what he does is sustainable.” It is the OPERATORS responsibility to research, plan, and monitor their programs responsibly and ensure that they are not causing harm. I hope some day we get a majority heading in this direction. On the part of the traveler, I think it is like the Hippocratic oath: if they are well educated on the issues of international development, capacity building, and responsible travel, then they should start asking the right questions of their operators and I hope they would be better prepared to choose a responsible volunteer organization.

A team of us (including Alexia at voluntourismgal) have contributed to this self-check tool to help operators consider their impact: www.voluntourism101.com/guide Volunteer placement agencies and tour operators getting into traveler’s philanthropy should read these questions (and add more of their own!) as they design their trips as they include lessons and reflections from volunteer placement groups and voluntourism organizations looking to share their most effective practices.  (Operators, please add stories and reflections in the comments section before we officially launch the site if you like!)

In regards to A&K, it’s great that they want to support good work, but bad things can happen if they don’t do step A: find a responsible partner and make choices which put the community or program needs first.  Even when we do find partners, we might not know how to find the right ones or how to speak properly about our work.  For me, one of the red lights I saw on the A&K website was the fact that they equated “providing wells” with “providing clean water”.  As many people working in Cambodia (the place where this A&K program is listed) will tell you, “wells” provide access to water, but they do not necessarily provide clean water as this post seems to claim.  Actually, in Cambodia, most pumps emit water which should then be filtered and some vacuum producing pumps themselves can cause natural arsenic to be leached from the bedrock. (Read about how UNICEF was blamed for causing arsenic poisoning through untested wells in Bangledesh, and this is a big problem in Cambodia still today.) Some studies have shown that, in certain areas, a clean water source at a pump has little to no effect on a community’s water born illness rate.  Why?  Because if people are still putting that water in unclean and contaminated buckets, if that water is sitting at their home uncovered in said bucket, and it is then being poured into an unclean glass, who cares about the waters cleanliness to begin with?  Home water filters combined with EDUCATION have proven much more effective.  Minerals, bacteria, viruses, arsenic…. So much to know about!  How is a tour operator, whose number one goal is to take people on fabulous trips, who probably spends little time in the areas they are looking to support, supposed to know all of these things? And how are they supposed to have the time to do it right?  The way they can do it best, is by finding the best groups who DO know these things, and working with them.

B) Length of stay doesn’t matter if the trips are not responsible in the first place! I also agree with Randy that it is absolutely RIDICULOUS that so many critics of voluntourism deem length of stay as a determinant of positive impact.  Sadly, the LONG-term volunteers working “in the field” that I have seen in Cambodia are usually the ones doing the most harm!  They would only do a little bit of harm if they stayed for a day, but instead they aid corruption, fund irresponsible programs, and displace the potential for local labor development for 60 days rather than one because their agent or operator was trying to sell them the experience they were demanding, and perhaps make more money off of the exchange.  If that operator followed step A) and provided a responsible travel option to begin with, then yes, their 10 day trip might have been 10 times more valuable than a 1 day one, but sadly, most operators do not.  (Here is an article in WorldChanging which highlights a lot of my thoughts on this topic.)

C) Plus, who are we to say that people who would have just gone to the beach for the week because they needed a vacation from their busy lives are bad because they only gave one day of their trip instead of all to some project?! I think that is a backwards way to look at things – we want people to IMPROVE their tourism impact – and if trips are designed well then who cares how long it is for!  It is the trips that are NOT designed well which should be avoided – be they one hour or one year.  Now, if the 10 day $6,000 trip with 1 hour of service work is being sold as “volunteering”, if people are getting a tax write off, or if people think the tour fee is going to support these causes when little to none of it is, then I of course disagree with it – but once again, this is the OPERATOR being unethical, and the travelers being uneducated.

D) Funding IS important. Show me a place where an unskilled volunteer can add value to an organization, outside of their funding, and more often then not I’ll show you an office based filing/research/emailing job which is NOT what is typically being sold in international volunteer travel. Sometimes we give ourselves and those clients we place as volunteers way too much credit, thinking we are helping with our limited skills when we are often a drain on management and staff time to fill our long list of needs.  I think it is fine if people visit a new place and have a bit of cultural interaction with people who have invited them, do a little something (join a class or teach a class, “paint something”, help out with a building project which was already going on, “volunteer” to help with whatever project is going on etc), but that experience should NOT be sold as something that is the solution to the community’s problems. Which aids education more: thirty foreigners painting a school poorly using $150 worth of paint or a $150 teacher training course taught by a skilled local educator?  Which helps the overall system of a community having the ability to teach and learn new languages: a foreign volunteer coming in for a month, then a new one, then a new one, then a new one until the volunteer tour company decides to move to a prettier location, or funding to support the training of a local community member to be a teacher themselves?  So why cut out the funding part, if that, if applied in the right ways, IS what can help cause a more long-term change?  Back to part A) if we choose the right partners, we should WANT to fund them and their work, as we should have picked them for their responsible decisions in the first place. Plus,  having us there, skilled or not, does take their time and resources.  (Note: Tour operators or volunteer placement services who have decided to act like development agents rather than choose responsible community or NGO partners and who don’t have the time to research and follow up on their programs, should of course avoid giving money away…. but I would argue that they shouldn’t be sending volunteers to those places then either!)

I like Roberts point, that many of “the world’s elite” already think they can buy anything they want: fame, love, anything… and he doesn’t want them to think they can “buy” clean consciousness or a chance to change the world (I hear you Robert, don’t even get me started on ‘carbon offsetting’.)  But this attitude is once again focused on the travelers, not the projects.  We are worried that the “travelers” will get the wrong idea – thinking they can write a check and walk away and save the world.  I agree, that is not an idea we want to foster, but we need to change our mindset and put the PROGRAMS we are looking to support in mind first.  What do they need? Is the problem of clean water going to be solved by an A&K group coming through to build a well, or will a check for an organization building wells, selling filters, and providing education about clean water do more to support the cause?  I argue, it’s the latter.  And I once again argue – PICK THE RIGHT PARTERS!  I got into a discussion once with one of the heads of one of your big short-term volunteer placement companies who said to me “but we don’t give funds to these groups!  That could aid corruption!”  PLEEEEEEEEASE people, recognize that you are aiding corruption PERIOD if you send your guests to places you haven’t vetted, who are not doing responsible work, and who are not putting community needs first!  Your guests will give money, even if you don’t, and once again, I blame the operator for that poor choice.  If you pick the right projects, then you should WANT to fund their work. “But is that sustainable?” Read my next post soon on sustainability when I transcribe it from my brain to this computer, but for now, I just want to remind you that because something costs $ does NOT make something “not sustainable”.  Where and how that money is used is what makes that distinction.  Once again, refer to point A) – pick the right partner and design your program well, and then you wont have to worry about these things.

E) We need to know what we are selling: volunteer and voluntourism operators – we need to be aware and admit that we are NOT SOLVING THE WORLD’S PROBLEMS. We are selling learning and exchange experiences and we are supporting the people and systems which are making those changes. There is nothing wrong with that. Those helping to solve the world’s problems are doing it in more than a short-term stay, but we can help them – with our time AND with our money – different ways to help different projects and people.  (Don’t get me wrong, I think there is WAY too much money going to the wrong places, and I think if money stopped getting handed out by travelers and travel companies period, we might be better off overall…. But I don’t think that’s the BEST option. The best option, if we want to support development work, is to fund the RIGHT things, so start asking these questions below.

F) We can educate our travelers about how their money does not magically save the world. (and at the same time, we can support good projects). The way I voice the same concerns Robert has is by telling travelers “You can’t write a check, walk away, and think you are saving the world. You, like a responsible development NGO or tour operator looking for a partner, must do research, ask good questions, be educated yourself on what to look for, and then FOLLOW UP!  If you don’t know, then make friends with people who do!  Ask others who work in that field or in that city what they think of the NGO you have chosen to donate to.  Ask them to be HONEST with you – because you don’t want to be adding to the harm of the development sector!  LEARN, ask questions, follow up, and then CHANGE if you find out that you were donating based on false assumptions or a misunderstanding about the project.  A programs website is typically not going to tell you all you need to know to make the right decisions, but what you can find out is, WHO do they seem more concerned about?  You, or the communities they are meant to be serving?”

G) Tour operators should not be development agents, because it takes the right people, skills, and time to learn how to do it right – and these are different skills than those needed to run a good tour company. Supporting a development project via a tourism initiative is one thing. You can visit a project, learn about their work, give your time or funding, and go home, and that development project you visited, if it is a well-run one (as it should be if you follow step A!), will continue on doing great work once you leave. They will have started before you got there, they will continue once you leave, and they will make decisions and implement programs with the projects best interest in mind, because that is what they are there to do.  Having support from tourists is just a bonus side note.  When tour operators start to think they need to implement projects on their own, for whatever reason from wanting to “brand” it to being too lazy to find a partner, to thinking “development is easy – anyone can do it!”, that is when there are problems.

H) Community input and empowerment is important in development work. This is something I strongly believe.  If a tour operator is trying to identify community needs and implement programs on their own, why would they want to admit that they are doing something wrong and change it when they find out that they have, if they are selling their trips 6 months or one year out? Everyone will make mistakes in this field, like in any other, and the group with the power to change the development plan must be incentivized to change their actions when they realize they are causing harm.  Tour operators have less incentive to do that than development agents, though responsible people, no matter where they work, take this into consideration.

I) If operators design their trips simply by what is ‘in demand’ we will continue to have a problem unless we 1) change how operators act and think or b) educate travelers to demand responsible interactions on their tours. I wish we could say “All operators and agents need to be ethical and responsible, spend a year working in international development (or read at least one book on development best practices), have a monitoring and evaluation plan for any projects they support, and promise to really put the communities and programs who are supposed to be the ‘benificiaries’ first, before they can get into traveler’s philanthropy or volunteer placement work.” Unfortunately, we all know that there will always be people looking to make money who don’t care about doing something right and as such, in order for this to change, it has to come from both ends: travelers need to stop demanding things like orphanage visits, as Sarah pointed out, and operators and agents need to get their heads out of their bank accounts and wake up to the fact that if they are not designing their programs well they are causing more harm in the world than good. I think the CEO of every one of these expensive long-term volunteer placement groups should have to be required to sit around in a town like Siem Reap Cambodia and watch as their countless unskilled volunteers are ushered into English Teaching programs, often times in corrupt or irresponsible programs, for a few months followed by an intense course on development best practices before they wake up a bit.  They just don’t GET IT because what you see on a one day or one week “visit” is not the reality of what is happening in volunteer-filled towns.  Here there are indeed many “real” (dare I say that?) volunteers, the ones who applied to companies or organizations, had to be interviewed to match their skills to a job, who are placed in positions where their is a need for their work not just in positions paid to have created for them, whose work is typically in an office, doing something “boring” on a computer, and is not out “in the field” playing hero.  I would put those people under the category of the now-evilized “V” word (volunteer) simply because they are not paid. Outside of that, they are doing a JOB, that is needed, where they can add value with their time and skills, and are not filling a role that was created for them simply to make money off of them.

Unfortunately, the demand for what people are willing to pay for is not usually in line with what is needed to support development work.

Overall, my thoughts are that:

Volunteer program operators need to be better educated on development best practices.

Operators need to act on that education, not just in line with consumer demands.

Consumers need to be educated about effective development practices.

Potential volunteers need to start asking the right questions and demanding responsible volunteer opportunities.

If this happens, the paradigm will shift, demand will decrease as travelers stop looking for things like “pet the children” orphanage visits (which Sarah was complaining about), the less responsible projects which were used to getting volunteers like the fake orphanages I see here in Cambodia will cease to exists as the profit-seeking owners will have moved onto other more lucrative endeavors, and the groups looking to offer support to the development sector will have found a better way to do so.