Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Can Voluntourism Work?

Can Voluntourism Work?

Voluntourism = volunteer + tourist. Ironically the word itself seems to reflect the western or developed world’s voracious appetite to do it all and do it all at once. From all accounts the voluntourism market is a growth market and with that growth more organizations – both for profit and not for profit – are flocking to offer as exotic a destination and experience as possible so that westerners can `compete’ with their friends and family for the best `What did you do on your most recent vacation’ response at their next social gathering. Now as I read that… I do hear the cynicism coming through…

A few years ago my daughter and I read an article that differentiated between travel and tourism. Travel was the intentional way of visiting another place with a heart and mind open to exploration, risk, and getting off the beaten track. Tourism was about travelling to another country to experience my own culture in a setting that protected me from the culture of the country I was in. We decided that we wanted to be travelers. When I find myself in a conversation where someone will say ‘we are going to insert name of exotic developing country but we won’t leave the resort because it just isn’t safe’ – I think to myself `oh this person is a tourist’. I begin to wonder then about the consequences when we ‘commodify’ tourism to meet the market demands of the latest consumer trend and when we project our tourist perspective onto the communities we are visiting.

So let’s start with the position that voluntourism is a good thing. At its best voluntourism is connecting people to their global context, challenging world views, and uncovering deeper altruistic motivations to `make a difference’ when they return. But is it possible to overdo a good thing? I think it is both possible and probable. With any service or commodity that becomes `in’, the market can become saturated, the uniqueness of the experience can become commonplace, and in the search for the leading edge of trendiness people begin to look for something new to distinguish their services from what has become ordinary. In that search, ethical boundaries can become stretched and the focus can become too much on the `experience’ and less on what we, collectively, are actually trying to achieve for social and environmental good.

The question about voluntourism and whether or not it can work now has become much more complex in my mind. As I started to think about the question `can volunteerism work?’ I began to generate a series of questions to help me examine the issues from a variety of perspectives. Consider the following:

What is voluntourism?

What would voluntourism that works look like?

What would voluntourism that is not working look like?

Who is voluntourism intended to work for?

Who, in fact, is voluntourism really for?

How would we know if voluntourism is working?

Why do we want voluntourism to work?

What are the intersections between voluntourism and relief work or development work and what are the implications of the intersection points? (We are hearing many stories of individuals flocking to Haiti to lend a hand. There is an understandable desire to be doing something rather than just hearing about the devastating effects of the recent earthquake. Is this type of experience now going to become part of the voluntourism opportunities and is this a good thing…what are the consequences of inexperienced people entering into a disaster area? I suspect that in some situations they may be putting added strain on an already strained infrastructure)

Perhaps the starting point for considering the question of `can voluntourism work?’ is `Who are the stakeholders for whom volunteerism needs to work? Off the top four stakeholder groups come to mind:

Voluntourism Organizations – these are the organizations that make the connections between the person who is looking for the voluntourism experience and the host site. Within this group there are sub groups of stakeholders that can be differentiated primarily by their motivations for providing the services. Generally these subgroups would be: non-profits organizations motivated by a well intended desire to connect western resources and influence with important issues ranging from human rights, social justice, health and education, and environmental; philanthropic organizations with access to significant resources and that carry an issue specific focus; for profit organizations motivated by issues that are similar to the non profits; for profit organizations motivated by a love of travel and a genuine desire to share the experience; and for profits who have seen the trend and believe there exists a market to occupy.

Host communities/ countries – the places that we visit are significant stakeholders in voluntourism. With some agencies there is a commitment to the community or local issue that transcends the visits by voluntourists. What does `voluntourism working’ mean to the individuals and communities that are touched by tourist volunteers? Of all the stakeholders they may carry the highest risk when voluntourism does not work

Voluntourists – as stakeholders they pay the money and receive the experience. Does their measure of `did that experience work for me’ skew the delicate balance of a positive outcome for all stakeholder groups because the voice of the voluntourist may be the loudest for the organizations who are making or receiving money from the voluntourism marketplace.

Other agencies working in a community/ country – When voluntourism has a positive outcome for the local community, the respect and influence for all agencies in a community or country can benefit. However, if voluntourism has a negative impact on a community it may be the other agencies that experience the collateral damage to their own reputations.

From your perspective in the field of voluntourism – What is the outcome that you would like to see? What is the primary purpose of voluntourism? What is the outcome for each of the stakeholder groups? What other stakeholders need to be considered? What are the unintended consequences that we will be hearing about in a few years as the impact of voluntourism becomes clearer?


  1. Thanks Penny for a superb, thought provoking article.
    As a quick reply to your concluding questions:
    I am the founder of Hands Up Holidays (www.handsupholidays.com) and the outcome I would like to see is the point where there is no need for organizations like us to exist:
    - communities will have become sufficiently empowered to be autonomous, independent and self-sustaining...still welcoming to foreigners wanting to engage in meaningful cultural exchange and interaction, but not reliant on them for skills or resources.
    Now of course this is a big, optimistic dream, but it is the outcome I would like to see.

    To my mind, the primary purpose of voluntourism is for the visitors to be of benefit to their host community, and be so transformed by their experience that their lives change in positive ways as a result, which have direct and indirect benefits in the long term to the host community.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on the outcomes for voluntourism - it speaks to the need to be sensitive to the communities we are visiting and to the importance of understanding the `possibilities' that they want to create for themselves - and also to be explicit about our own assumptions about what autonomy, independence and sustainability means (to them and to us).