Non-profit organization facilitates service learning programs all around the world Combining cross-cultural education, community service, and off-the-beaten path adventure Our programs explore various social justice issues from human rights to peace and conflict, from environmental issues to education and health We are part of and often clumped under the volunteer travel industry, also known as the “voluntourism” industry
SHOW OF HANDS Show of hands, how many of you here are interested in going abroad to volunteer? How many are here to share insights about volunteer travel on their blog or with your audience? How many are here just out of interest?
The fastest growing trend in global tourism Now worth 173 billion dollars annually In America alone, there were nearly 1.6 million voluntourists in the last year It speaks to the mindset of our generation, of all of us in this room Want to explore the wider world while genuinely doing good and making an impact in other people’s lives Moved from a calling for the select few to a rite of passage for the majority
In recent years, voluntourism has been heavily critiqued as an industry rife with ethical issues but also seen as one that’s bursting with opportunity So the key question is this:
Is volunteer travel really helping these communities in need or is it actually doing more harm than good?
Excited to break this down all of you
BUT BEFORE MOVING FORWARD, CLOSE YOUR EYES
This is exactly what is happening all around the globe in many developing communities. Western volunteers or interns are going into communities for short volunteer stints and it’s creating a lot of ethical challenges and issues. It’s ludicrous to think of that scenario happening here at home. So why do expect it to work anywhere else?
Perpetuating systems of exploitation and oppression Orphanage tourism 2-3 weeks at a time to take care of orphans, forming strong emotional bonds with these kids…only to leave. Again and again. Parachute effect Creates long-term attachment problems and psychological disorders for children Let’s not forget that these are children who’ve been separated from their parents – pre-existing issues that we’re exacerbating But beyond that, businesses and orgs are making money out of this exploitative practice DYK that 77% of children living in orphanages in Cambodia have at least one living parent Families in poverty see this as an economic opportunity so they send their child to these orphanages to make a few dollars a day No school This doesn’t really solve the problem, but just perpetuates it through a lucrative, profit-making model
Imposing Western ideals instead of listening to local needs
This doesn’t just happen in the volunteer travel industry but also in with international development organizations or other institutions Building schools as a classic example Best of intentions No consultation or minimal collaboration with the local community No one bothers to ask if a school is needed. No textbooks, no desks, no curriculum, no teachers. Other fundamental elements of an education is not considered So what do you have? A make-work unnecessary project Again, a band-aid solution that does not get to the root of the lack of access to education Even if a school is needed, taking work from locals with young Westerners who often have no education or training in construction
Unskilled and untrained volunteers Medical voluntourism involves medically untrained individuals traveling to a community abroad to set up health education workshops, basical clinical tasks, or even performing medical procedures HUGE ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS - not only dangerous, but deadly. Don’t speak the language and offer simple short-term solutions for individual patients with rarely any follow-up
Perpetuates stereotypes of dependency How many times have you seen this image We are so used to seeing the same images of squalor and destitution Poverty porn Tugs at the heart strings but tells an incomplete, one sided story that entirely neglects the agency people have in their lives Working abroad, I’ve connected with some of the most inspiring, tireless, and dedicated individuals pushing for change in their communities
That’s the dark side. And it’s a very real, serious side. So what do we do? We could criticize the industry all day but volunteer travel is here to stay. It’s only going to get bigger and more popular as the years go by and it’s crucial that we make movements to start doing it right. This is why I’ve dedicated the last four years of my life to an organization striving to do better. Seeing this from the frontlines, I honestly and genuinely believe that there is a massive opportunity to do better, to be more ethical, and to be responsible global citizens through volunteer travel. Voluntourism programs are an opportunity for cultural exchange Gives individuals a new perspective on the world and themselves that they may never have gained without this experience And through this process, creating positive social change
Key elements Think about these things before going abroad/share these insights with your audience who may be thinking about going abroad to volunteer OG model
Volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months Set realistic expectations of what you’re going to accomplish while abroad You’d be surprised how many volunteers going abroad expecting to save Africa. You’re not going to save africa. Or Asia. Or Latin America. Or anywhere else for that matter. Your time there is brief and individuals, governments, non-profits, charities and international institutions have been working for decades to do just that and here we still are But it also doesn’t mean that you won’t accomplish anything. You’ll accomplish a great many things You’ll likely gain a much deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change. You’ll make a deep connection with a handful of people in the community who hopefully you stay in touch with It most likely means leaving with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process Change doesn’t happen over night or over a couple of weeks WE NEED TO REMEMBER TO HAVE HUMILITY WHEN WE TAKE PART IN WORK LIKE THIS.
For decades now, billions upon billions of dollars have been poured into aid, development, and other volunteer projects without ever consulting the very communities they aim to “help” and “develop”. So when you’re looking for a volunteer travel organization, do your research and understand who you’re working with on the ground and on what projects Make sure that you’ll be working in partnership and collaboration with local organizations on community-requested projects, meaning projects they have asked your help for And remember that needs change from one community to the next depending on the political, economic, or even environmental issues at the time You might not end up working on the volunteer project you’d hope to or intended to but it’s important to do the work where you are needed.
EAST AFRICA EXAMPLE This was a big lesson for me and my team when we traveled to East Africa. Our program focus was LGBTI rights and we planned to volunteer with local advocacy organizations to learn more about these issues in a region where it is largely taboo and incredibly dangerous to identify as LGBTI. In 2009, a bill was proposed in the Ugandan Parliament that criminalized homosexuality to the extent that it would be punishable by death. The international community, particularly Western nations, spoke out against this grave violation of human rights by cutting millions of dollars in aid from Museveni’s government. What do you think the reaction was on the ground? It wasn’t one of change as the West would have hoped, but an increase in hostility against the gay community who was now vilified and blamed for the aid cuts. Another classic case of good intentions and its unintended, but dangerous consequences. Working in this context and environment, we quickly learned that LGBTI groups in the region were sceptical and hesitant to partner with us. This was a hard lesson, but one that was crucial in understand the harsh realities of this fight for rights. So what did we do? We pivoted entirely. We didn’t actively volunteer with any LGBTI organizations as we had originally hoped. Instead we met with a few who were willing to share their experiences and perspectives with us and we listened, eager to learn about their struggle and stand with them in solidarity. And we focused our efforts instead on a partnership with a community development organization that was working on dialogue programs that challenged youth to question gender binaries and gender stereotypes In this sense, it was even better because we working on addressing the root causes of the stigma around LGBT communities – rigid views on gender
SOLIDARITY, NOT CHARITY
If we really want to make an impact, then we need to stand in solidarity with these communities instead of perpetuating systems of power and dependency.
But volunteer travel is so much more than just the hands-on volunteering, or at least it should be more than that. It should be an educational experience that aims to understand the context and history of local issues before attempting to find its solutions. It should be an educational experience that forces us to confront our own assumptions and perspectives, and challenges us to reflect on our role in this process of social change. When looking for a volunteer travel organization, see if you will be learning before serving, if you will have resources to learn more about the region you’re going to as opposed to just being plopped into a place with no context which happens so often Even during your trip, there should be facilitated discussions to give you the opportunity to reflect on your experiences. At OG, for example, we have frequent discussions on the ground about what our role is as volunteers, as tourists, as partners. We have a core-curriculum where we address four core themes: power and oppression, cultural literacy, moral relativism, and environmental sustainability Our goal is to challenge our volunteers to think critically about the issues they’re dealing with on the ground and how that all connects to their lives back home. Ask about this. Find out about the organization’s educational programming and if there even is one. Volunteering does not exist in a vacuum but should be a constant questioning, a constant dialogue.
This should go without saying but your volunteer experience abroad should really immerse you in the local culture. The problem with volunteer travel, and travel itself, is that we as travelers often exist in a sort of bubble. There are tons of programs out there that will simply shuttle you privately from Point A to Point B, feeding you a manufactured experience that’s often out of touch with the daily realities on the ground. Travelers in general, often stick with other travelers from the same places back home, without ever getting to know the very real people who live in this other part of the world. And when we’re so far removed from other people, we perpetuate stereotypes that are often one-sided and incomplete narratives. So when you’re volunteering abroad – or really even just traveling – be sure to take the time to meet with diverse locals and listen to their stories – both their struggles and accomplishments.
Voluntourism programs shouldn’t end the minute you hop back on that plane back home. In fact, that’s just when the journey begins. Now that you’ve got this wealth of experience and learning under your belt, it’s time to apply those lessons back home, educate friends and family, and stand in solidarity with partners across borders. This is where the real potential of volunteer travel lies, not JUST the work we do abroad but rather how we continue to live our lives back home.
Now I’ve gone through a lot of stuff here, but to recap...here are some of the key questions to ask yourself and look into before getting involved overseas:
What do they say you’ll be doing? What projects are you going to be working on? Any red flags there? Steer clear from orphanages! What’s the minimum time you can volunteer? Does it make sense in terms of what they say you’ll be doing or does it just sound totally unfeasible? Does this organization work with partners and how is that relationship structured? Do they clearly state where the money goes? Are portions of the fee going to the communities you’re about to work with or does it go entirely to the volunteer travel organization or business? Are you going to be learning before serving? Do they clearly state your values? And do those values align with yours? At Operation Groundswell, we have our “Backpacktivist Manifesto” that outlines all of the traits an ethical voluntourist – or as we like to call them, backpacktivists – should embody Humility, adaptability, respect.
voluntourism is here to stay. And where we take it, how we approach it will determine if it will be a force for "good” We’re at a critical point now where we can affect its trajectory And where we can be more ethical and to be more responsible volunteers and travelers I hope you’ll use some of these insights, questions, and tools to shape your own volunteer travel experiences and educate those around you.. I don’t know if all of you are already part of the WITS Attendee Facebook group but I’ve been sharing resources about the volunteer travel industry and I’ll continue to share some of that after this conference. And if you’d like to continue this conversation or if you have any comments, questions or concerns…I love talking about this stuff so feel free to give me a shout at
Backpacking with a Purpose: Voluntourism Workshop for INKspire
BACKPACKING WITH A PURPOSE:
PAVING THE WAY FOR ETHICAL
TRAVEL & RESPONSIBLE
is the fastest growing trend in global tourism and has
become a multi-billion dollar industry annually. It is a sector
fraught with ethical issues but also bursting with
CHALLENGES AND ISSUES
• Perpetuating systems of oppression and exploitation
CHALLENGES AND ISSUES
• Imposing Western ideals instead of listening to local
• Unskilled and untrained volunteers
CHALLENGES AND ISSUES
• Perpetuates stereotypes of dependency
CHALLENGES AND ISSUES
• Creating space for deeper and meaningful cultural exchange
• Gaining a new perspective of yourself and of the world
• Creating positive social change through a process
SO WHAT DOES ETHICAL AND RESPONSIBLE
VOLUNTEER TRAVEL LOOK LIKE?
Before anything else, set
Find partnerships for
“Solidarity implies a willingness to confront the
causes and conditions of suffering that persist in
destroying dignity, and to demand a minimum
respect for human life. Solidarity also means
recognizing the dignity and autonomy of others,
and asserting the right of others to make choices
about their own destiny."
- James Orbinski
“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage
properly with a place or a person without engaging
with all the stories of that place and that person.
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs
people of their dignity. It makes our recognition of
our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we
are different rather than how we are similar.”
- Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
THE REAL JOURNEY BEGINS
WHEN YOU RETURN HOME
It doesn’t stop there.
HOW DO YOU ASSESS A VOLUNTEER
• What do they say you’ll be doing?
• What’s the minimum time you can volunteer?
• Do they work with partners? If so, how is the
• Do they clearly state where the money goes?
• Are you going to be learning before serving?
• Do they clearly state their values?