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Voluntourism

In: Business and Management

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Voluntourism – The
Ethical Challenges of
Good Intentions
Professor Andreas Koestler
Practical Leadership in Development Aid Management
Marina Bittencourt Vasconcelos Magro
October 2015

A mindful, personal investigation into
Leadership, Development and Cooperation.

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Over the past few years a new form of tourism has become increasingly popular, and evolved into a true international trend, Voluntourism. While there is no single accepted definition of what constitutes volunteer tourism or, more recently coined as, voluntourism, generally it involves volunteering in an organized way to undertake holidays that may involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of local underprivileged communities.
Having volunteered since the age of nine, participating in over
30 local initiatives throughout my life, being currently board member of an
NGO and consultant for two others, as well as having worked as a field volunteer and project manager in
Cambodia for six months, has given me the paramount opportunity to dive into one of the biggest selfnurturing industries of incessant conceited behaviour. The pitch is simple, and frighteningly attractive.
Instead of another skiing trip to the
Alps or setting off to the Bahamas, why not a life-changing volunteer experience in a foreign, exotic country. The idea oozes with glamour and glorification, and it is not until one realizes that some volunteer projects may be at the risk of doing more harm than good, that we start questioning our inherent

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good intentions as volunteers, to give back to society, rather than as well-educated citizens capable of recognizing arguably questionable initiatives. In a globalized world where information is readily accessible online, people have become more and more aware of the disparities that engulf our planet as well as the exponentially available and widespread aid projects throughout developing countries; this is where voluntourism comes in, often depicted as a valid way to help those who are less fortunate.
However, the uprising debate of the real benefits of voluntourism cannot be understated: is it truly the sustainable form of responsible, alternative tourism it is intended to be, or does it merely replicate the conditions of mass tourism and exploit those it is intended to benefit? It is estimated that every year 1.9 million people participate in volunteer tourism projects all around the world, spending from
900 million to over 1.8 billion euros1.
A report by the UN estimates that in
2014 one of the major volunteer sending agencies reported to have had an annual turnover of 32 million dollars, making over 6 million dollars in profits2, it seems selling poverty and capitalizing on the magnanimity of volunteers has become an strikingly, alarming profitable business. Not only are these organizations taking advantage of the philanthropy oriented actions of volunteers, the mismanagement of this business is

actually in danger of becoming the pitfall of a preconceived good deed, by not only unsettling local economies and passively capturing jobs away from local people, as well as forcing unhealthy, patronizing cultural exchanges and disturbing the growth and development of children who become emotionally attached to volunteers, only to name a few threatening issues.
Working as a field volunteer in
Cambodia provided me with the necessary insights to question the very foundation of my own contributions. On my very first week as a volunteer I realized the toxic
‘conveyer belt’ scheme that these children undergo, as new unskilled
20-year-old’s, who call themselves teachers, decide to impose the same activities, followed by the same lessons 5, 10, 30 times in a row, simply to be replaced by other volunteers the week after. As if that did not suffice, for many of the volunteers I encountered, the opportunity for personal challenge, a stimulating experience, a good CV add-on and a perception of personal accomplishment as a reward for volunteering, appeared to surpass the priority of engaging responsibly in development cooperation. The lack of instituted leadership combined with set guidelines for procedures were the culmination of a few, potentially fruitful but, unsuccessful projects. By defying the very assumptions that these projects hold themselves credible and accountable for I began to truly question, and nonetheless, both personally and emotionally struggle with, the oxymoron of the selfishness in selflessness that is predominant in this industry. As volunteers we never forego the chance to speak out and claim to have the best intentions within the communities we address, only to arrive back home with pervasive social media coverage of our metamorphic, cathartic experience. I suggest that a complex interaction of the graphic codes of tourism, pretentiousness and the popular media converge into voluntourism’s photographs, resulting in images that simultaneously offer

Marina Magro

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potential volunteers the opportunity to do good in the world as well as to consume cultural difference as a commodity. I will go to the extent of daring to say this has become a new form of colonialism or, in a more diplomatic stance, a very patronizing form of help, as organizations and their volunteers spread clichés of Western-aid and preconceived ideas about poverty.
My place as a white European girl, being able to afford to come to
Cambodia for months at a time before returning to the luxury of my
European lifestyle created an uncomfortable dichotomy in the relationships between me and those
I initially envisioned to aid. This illfitting balance between having a heart-felt desire to help and simultaneously needing to be aware of challenges and tensions within volunteering triggered me to dig deeper into the roots of this predicament. I think the important question is: if we were unskilled workers/teachers back home, in
Brazil, Switzerland (or wherever home may be), would we be allowed to take over a professional teaching position? The answer is no, under no circumstance would it be acceptable to do so, so why is there a consciousness within the travel community that it is acceptable to do that in a developing country? Is it our inherent western self-awarded superiority, which misguides us into not actively discouraging unskilled and unprepared, short-term volunteering? Or is it our blunt ignorance to the harmful consequences of poorly managed volunteer projects?
However,
whatever the answers may be to these, it is important that we also allow ourselves to appreciate that not all forms of voluntourism are destructive, as part of the worldwide volunteerism spirit is actually correctly redirected towards effective and sustainable programs. We should leverage on this paradoxal reality check to shed light on a few crucial aspects, which need to be taken into consideration in order to design

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conscientious strategies for voluntourism. I believe these involve, but are not limited to the fact that: projects must be developed with the local communities’ best interests, and not the travellers’ needs, as the first priority; programs should be contributing to ongoing local efforts that can then be monitored and supported by invested long-term stakeholders rather than creating initiatives without the full support or buy-in of local people; the operations of such programs and entailed activities must not jeopardize the fundamental needs of the local community, including the necessity to be able to grow (post-project) independently of foreign help; volunteering initiatives must be developed based on a clear longterm vision that takes into consideration indispensable changes as progress is made, and realistically plans for achieving and adjusting long-run goals, so that these can be sustained and may continue to offer benefits to all parties involved while simultaneously producing tangible results.
The
challenge

and opportunity – of transforming good intentions into best practices is a priority for all those involved in voluntourism and while some questions remain unanswered, we can start by being the change we want to see in the world as we slowly advance towards better qualified leadership, accompanied by competent management, in development cooperation.

You may find yourself surprised at how quickly the most straightforward school-building project can become an exercise in selfanalysis. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also absolutely necessary. – Richard Stuppart

Marina Magro

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