Is there enough assessment of the development impact of volunteer tourism?

Much has been written about volunteer tourism (or “voluntourism” as it is widely known) but there are very not many articles or research papers about the development impacts of this form of volunteering.  We have all read the negative stories about inexperienced gap year volunteers spending a few weeks helping to build a school where it isn’t really needed and the irresponsible organisations which sell volunteering experiences at inflated prices.  But there aren’t many articles questioning the long term impacts of volunteer tourism projects or whether the presence of volunteers is really helping the local community to develop.

A recent article by Ossob Mohamud on the Guardian Africa Network questions the sustainability and effectiveness of volunteer projects in developing countries. She writes about her own experience of voluntourism when she was a College student and concludes that these kind of placements are short term interventions which have little impact and are primarily serving volunteers’ desire to “give something back”.

She also argues that volunteers and sending organisations should be putting more time and effort into lobbying their own governments and advocating for changes to the policies of the rich countries which are creating global injustice.  This is an extremely good point and one could argue that by going off and volunteering in a developing country, most people return home with a better understanding of the causes of poverty and will hopefully go on to campaign and support charities which aim for long term change.  However, it is important that volunteers are given training by the organisation they volunteer with so they understand development issues before they go on their placement and they are given support and encouragement to raise awareness of the issues faced by people in other countries when they return home.

Another interesting piece of research which I read this week which also questions the long term impact of volunteer tourism is Hanna Voelkl’s summary of her field work in Ghana which was published by the website (which publishes some interesting research on the whole volunteer tourism sector).  Hanna spent 5 weeks at an orphanage in Ho, Ghana and observing volunteers who spent 2-5 weeks there.  She found that although there was a steady flow of volunteers, providing constant support for the orphanage both in terms of helping care for the children and providing finances to sustain the local NGO who ran the volunteer project, there was no evidence that volunteers were providing sustainable improvements to the children’s lives and the development of the community. This type of volunteering therefore seems quite pointless because it is also disrupting the lives of the children, causing them to get attached to the volunteers who then leave them, and it also perpetuates images of wealthy Europeans coming to “help” Africans, giving presents and love to the children but then leaving to return to their comfortable lives.

This type of research is really interesting as it examines volunteering from the perspective of the local community and looks at how much they really benefit from hosting volunteers and what the actual development impact is of this kind of volunteer tourism.  It would be great to see more of this kind of research and some models for measuring development impact which organisations could use to monitor their own projects and publish the outcomes. If they can then take this to the next level and publish their findings on their websites, prospective volunteers could clearly see the impacts of volunteering with an organisation and it will help them to feel they are actually doing something useful, rather than reflecting Ossob Muhamed’s experiences of a volunteering experience which only benefits the volunteer.

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Another perspective on volunteering – “Does Voluntourism do more harm than good?”

Here is another interesting article from last week, “Does Voluntourism do more harm than good?” which appeared on the Travelmole website and in the Vision on Sustainable Tourism newsletter. Gopi Parayil gives a local perspective on the dangers of volunteer tourism and argues for local solutions by for example volunteering in your own community. Although I am not sure I agree with the main argument in this article, that volunteer tourists can’t be of use in developing countries or are potentially holding these countries back, I do think the article makes some interesting points about the expectations of volunteers and what they can achieve.

Gopi also presents an example of a network of palliative care clinics which are run by local volunteers in Kerala. The project also hosts international volunteers but the emphasis is on them learning from the local people and taking that knowledge home with them and using it in their country. This idea of an exchange of ideas is something that I think is central to volunteering and contributes to making volunteers global citizens who can return home from their time overseas and raise awareness of other countries and cultures. And what they are sharing is not the negative perspective of “these people are so poor and need our help” but more “look how they do it there, we could do it more like that”.

I also really appreciated the comment “They wouldn’t expect a bunch of us Indians to come over on holiday to ‘fix their problems’…” in relation to European countries having their share of issues! Turning volunteering on its head like that is a good reality check. Interestingly, VSO ran a programme called Global Exchange where a group of young volunteers from the UK were teamed up with volunteers from a developing country and they would all spend 3 months volunteering as a team in each of their countries, working in a deprived area of the UK and in the developing country. This is a good example of how two cultures can learn from each other and of how volunteering projects don’t have to be about people from the global north going to the south and sorting out their problems.

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Host destinations need to benefit from volunteer tourism

This is an interesting article from Green Futures magazine, published by Forum for the Future, who work in partnership with TUI Travel, owners of i-to-i and Real Gap on sustainability issues.

The article includes comments from a Product Manager from Real Gap about how they work in partnership with host organisations to ensure their volunteering programmes benefit local communities and review feedback from people on the ground to monitor this.

It also highlights the ABTA working group for travel companies who run volunteer tourism projects which aims to understand the issues around volunteer tourism and develop guidelines for tour operators to ensure they are benefiting local communities. It is positive to hear that this working group is moving forward, although there are other issues around the practices of some of the more commerical companies, as mentioned in my previous post, that also need addressing.  The hope is that the involvement of ABTA and partnerships with independent organisations like Forum to the Future and Tourism Concern, along with the media interest in “voluntourism”, could ultimately help to bring improvements across the whole volunteering sector.

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The responsible volunteering debate rages

It has been a busy week for debating about “voluntourism”. I have about 8 tabs open with different articles, blogs and comments about responsible volunteering.

It all seems to stem from this article in the Independent newspaper’s Voices section, titles “The tragic rise of gap year voluntourism” by Ritwik Deo. The article is a bit of a polemic about gap year volunteers which includes all the usual stereotypes that they are naive white toffs called Rupert and Prunella who end up in the civil service boasting about their gap year experiences at cocktail parties. It is unfortunate that this is the overwhelming tone of the article, as if you strip this back, the underlying argument is actually quite relevant – the “hijacking” of volunteering by the profit making travel industry, the new colonialism of groups of western volunteers spending their gap years in developing countries for the experience or adventure, the impact on children of the endless stream of western volunteers in orphanages and the displacement of local workers by young volunteers doing manual building work.  The article ends with this comment:

“by allowing irresponsible volunteering to continue we are perpetuating the myth of white man’s burden. Today’s generation schooled in this myth will grow up exactly like yesteryear’s generation thinking that it is their moral duty to intervene in the darkest stretches of the planet.”

This is exactly what responsible volunteering should be moving away from but this article brings this right back to the centre of the debate.

There are lots of responses to this article and they tend to be polarised, from agreeing that volunteering is a complete waste of time to seeing the article as a rant from someone with a chip on their shoulder!  But it was nice to read some more balanced responses from young gap year volunteers about both the positives and negatives. For example, Josh who is doing an ICS placement in Kigali, posted a thoughtful, balanced response which shows a really good awareness of the issues and different sides of the argument about the impact of gap year volunteering. Very different from the “Prunellas” and “Ruperts” referred to in the article!

I could say so much more just about this, but the response generated by this article has been great. It is keeping the debate alive. I wanted to also share this post on the people and places blog. I think this really demonstrates that students and young people interested in volunteering in developing countries aren’t the stereotypes described in the Ritwik Deo’s article, they are self-aware and want to volunteer responsibly. They understand the issues and implications and want to find a project where they will be of some use and not cause any harm. I had a similar experience to people and places at a Global Health Fair at Oxford University earlier this week which was packed full of students who want to volunteer overseas. They were from a range of backgrounds, they were definitely not all white, British and posh and not all young as well – further education and gap years attract all ages! They asked lots of questions and were actively researching, trying to find the right organisation for them, where they could be of use.

I think the overiding message that has come across to me from all of the above is that stereotyping and viewing gap year volunteers as not able to contribute anything to development is not helpful. These are not the new colonialists, they are people genuinely wanting to doing something positive and beneficial in countries that are less well-off than their own while learning about how other cultures and societies live. Personally I would like to see more people taking such an interest in the world outside of their own bubble!

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It’s all about the preparation

For any kind of volunteer placement, whether it is 2 weeks or 2 years, preparation and research are essential. This could be something that is easily overlooked by volunteers when they can purchase a placement from a volunteering organisation with one phone call.

Researching a placement thoroughly before signing up is the first step. There is some great advice out there about questions to ask an organisation to assess if a placement is suitable – I really like this from Irish development organisation Comhlámh.

But once a volunteer has signed up, they may think they have done the necessary and can relax until they get on the plane and begin their experience. However, the more time they spend preparing, the better their experience of volunteering will be and it could lead to more positive outcomes for the host organisation.

The first thing a volunteer should do is read all the information provided about the project they will be doing. If the organisation hasn’t provided detailed information, a volunteer should request this and if they have questions, obtain the contact details for the host organisation so they can go direct to find out what is expected of them and how they can prepare.

The next thing is to research the country and area where they will be living. Even for a short placement, it is important to understand the local culture, customs, appropriate dress code and what kind of food will be available. It is also advisable to learn a bit of local language, key phrases for introducing themselves and getting around, eating and drinking.

The final area of preparation that is essential if a volunteer is going to a developing country is to spend time learning about international development issues and become familiar with the current debates and the historical perspective for the country they are going to be volunteering in.  This will help them to manage their expectations and gain a deeper understanding of where they are going and the local people they will meet. Some organisations offer their own pre-departure training which introduces volunteers to development but there are also one-day courses available with organisations like Bond or even a free online course with the Open University.  Volunteers can also prepare by reading – there are lots of books which offer an introduction to development. The Guardian online also has a Development section which helps to stay abreast of current issues.

A bit of preparation can go a long way towards making a rewarding volunteering experience!

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Positive stories of volunteering

If I ever need to feel positive about the impact volunteers can have, I go to the VSO website and read the “life-changing stories” section. I worked for VSO for nearly 6 years and during that time I was responsible for advising volunteers hoping to go overseas and finding them a placement. I worked primarily with health professionals -doctors, nurses, midwives, biomedical scientists, pharmacists, NHS managers.  Reading their stories really inspires and enriches me.  These volunteers not only brought their clinical skills to hospitals in Africa and Asia but they also trained many local health workers and nursing and medical students in Universities, often leaving a lasting legacy.  Although my blog has mostly been about volunteer tourism rather than long-term skill sharing volunteering placements, I always seem to come back to this as the most effective model for long term development.

Here are some examples:

These are all volunteers that I supported and placed so it also gives me a personal sense of satisfaction that I helped to make these placements happen and that was my small part in helping to improve healthcare in developing countries!

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The ethics of organisations offering discounted volunteering trips

I received an email this week from i-to-i Volunteering and Inspired Breaks, promoting a discount on i-to-i projects. I have somehow got onto their mailing list (and I’m not entirely sure how or if this is something I can asked for!).  The headline of the email is “Make a difference for less. Get a massive 13% off”, which is offered on all of their volunteering holidays.

There is something distinctly distasteful about this and it made me question a few things. How much mark-up must there be on an i-to-i volunteering trip if they can knock-off 13% in the first place?  Are they still making money on their discounted projects? Does this discount affect how much money goes to the local project? Does this kind of offer really seem attractive to prospective volunteers when they are looking at the various options?

Pricing of volunteer tourism projects varies hugely. It is hard to see why this is when comparing like-for-like projects with different organisations. It is confusing and the cost often looks unreasonably high. A colleague asked me this week to recommend a sea turtle conservation project to volunteer with. I looked at various projects in Costa Rica and the costs varied significantly. 2 weeks with i-to-i costs £679, with the Sea Turtle Conservancy $1899, with GVI £1050, with OSA conservation $680 and with Earthwatch 9 days is £1750  (non of these include flights but do include accommodation and meals, and not all of these prices include transfers to the project from San Jose).

So should volunteers be attracted by the cheapest option or should they choose the organisation that offers the strongest project (and assessing this could be subjective – does this mean having the highest impact on conservation of sea turtles, most valuable contribution to scientific reseach or involving local communities and providing them with economic benefits?). You can see the dilemma faced by prospective volunteers!

Information on where money is spent is rarely transparent and often very general. i-to-i use this interesting pie chart to show how the placement fee is spent. 48% stays in the UK and a big chunk of this goes towards marketing to recruit volunteers. 8% is profit, some of which goes towards their Big Giving initiative, where they donate resources and equipment to their project partners.

I also find the language used by companies like i-to-i and Inspired Breaks in their emails and on their websites concerning. “Make a difference” is not necessarily the outcome of volunteering on a short-term placement. Further down in the email I received it says “sleep easy and know you can help and book for just £50”. Will a volunteer really be helping? In some senses yes, they will be doing tasks which support a project and could be perceived as helping people or wildlife. But do they need / want this kind of help?  And does this kind of help really make a difference? I hope that I am not the only asking these kind of questions and that volunteers are also critically aware of the marketing jargon used by volunteering organisations.

As you can probably tell, this email has bothered me greatly and really made me consider my position on the profit-making side of volunteer tourism.  Should an industry be built on profiting from people’s desire to do something altruistic with their holiday time?  The commercial strategies of direct marketing campaigns and discounting products that this email encapsulates seem completely at odds with the philosophy of volunteering.


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