Fake Orphans and Overpriced Altruism — My Thoughts on Voluntourism
In 2018, I considered taking out time to travel to learn and help people in need. While researching and discussing potential destinations and activities with friends, I stumbled into a fierce and ongoing philosophical debate surrounding the subjects of Volunteerism, Tourism and the recently coined mix of both words — Voluntourism. What started out as research into possible volunteer destinations turned into research about the philosophical — and even practical — issues surrounding Voluntourism. In this piece, I will present the substance of the argument on both sides, and I will offer my perspective on the subject.
First, a baseline of definitions.
Google defines Tourism as ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest’ and shows an increased usage of this word from about the 1950s and peaking in about 2010. It defines Volunteerism as ‘the use or involvement of volunteer labour, especially in community services’ and this word also sees increased usage in about the same period — the 1960s. Both Tourism and Volunteerism appear to have gained significant importance in the period post the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the establishment of the US Peace Corps, as commercial flight became more accessible, and as public sentiment around a universal oneness and interest in others and in culture became more common.
Google then defines Voluntourism as ‘a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity’, but this coinage only begins to see increased use in the 2010s. The Voluntourism website claims that the ‘…the first organization to use the word Voluntourism was the Nevada Board of Tourism (NBT) in 1998. The NBT was making an effort to attract locals to volunteer to support the development of rural tourism in remote locations of Nevada.’ It is significant to note that in its initial coinage, the word spoke to the good-naturedness of people and was even aspirational in use. This spawned an industry around it worth an estimated USD2 billion with 10 million vacationers in 2015 and expected to grow to 30 million vacationers this year (source).
People who take Voluntourism trips do so for two reasons: they want to see the world and they want to do good. So, they do good while travelling the world, which was my intention. In recent years, however, Voluntourism has come under a negative light. It sounds now almost like a ‘dirty word’, and this is the root of the fierce debate between Voluntourists and the Voluntourism industry who defend it on the one hand and those who castigate it on the other.
The substance of the debate against Voluntourism is perhaps best typified by the article ‘The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?’ by the Guardian. The article argues that although Voluntourism may be fuelled by noble feelings, it is built on perverse economics. That unskilled hands fly in to help build a school or dig a well at nearly 20 times the cost and yet better-skilled locals must fix the shoddy efforts overnight to protect the feelings of these tourists. That Voluntourism organizations are directing funds to making sure Voluntourists get the overpriced ‘emotionally charged’ experience they paid for instead of committing the same funds to helping the vulnerable they advertise. That Voluntourism perpetuates the institution of Orphanages even though there is established evidence that these institutions do mostly harm and little good. That it creates a black market for activities like fake orphanages with fake orphans. And that Voluntourism hurts the local economy and creates local dependency. This article, and more like it, lay out these arguments with compelling force and evidence.
In defence of Voluntourism, is the argument that a problem with the industry has been used to paint all of it in an unfair stroke. Proponents, typified by the article ‘5 myths about voluntourism’ argue that locals do benefit — as with Voluntourists teaching English in China and experts volunteering on missions — as not all cases of Voluntourism comprises inexperienced teenagers. That not every Voluntourism arrangement creates dependency and that the money spent by these tourists contribute to the local economy. The author of this and similar articles make the case that Voluntourism, when well-designed, does good, creates solutions, and improves lives. More so, it benefits the Voluntourist more in a time when populism and divisiveness are on the increase. In the words of the author: I came to see myself more as an intern than a volunteer: someone who did small but necessary work…while receiving education about a place and its challenges. This form of Voluntourism is very different from the perverted alternatives, they argue.
What this debate succeeded in doing for me was making me cancel any Voluntourism plans and stick with a traditional Tourism itinerary. Might my passion have been properly channelled for actual impact? Might I have been able to put actual skills that I have to use for people who need it? Might I have finished the year a better person for having learnt about a world and about people that have cultures and problems different from me? Perhaps. I have come to the conclusion that, indeed, impactful Voluntourism arrangements exist and this legitimate part of the industry suffers from the failings of its notorious younger sister — profiteering Voluntourism. We must not call it a village of cripples because we walked past one man who lost a finger.
Personally, I see parallels between the debate about the benefits or otherwise of Voluntourism’s evolving industry and that of Sustainability: a rich and storied history, a starting point to do well for society, a difficult concept to define, the evolution into a trend, the creation of a profitable industry around it, and the accusations of green-washing and pseudo-impact. Also, just like how efforts to create a framework and put in place reporting mechanisms around Sustainability are saving it from devolving into an idea to be relegated to the past, so must the Voluntourism industry codify what is best-practice and institute a framework of accountability and reporting impact beyond the spin and tell. It must take into account the externalities of Voluntourism initiatives such as the opportunity cost of that trip, the carbon cost of that flight ticket, the loss in business to the local mason, the perverse incentive to cater to the tourist and not to those in need, and other side effects that do not show up in the picture of a high school student smiling down into the grimy face of a third-world child. The Voluntourism industry must hold itself up to a higher standard of rigour and accountability or face spiralling out of control from the activities of profiteers and the negative publicity they bring.
The positive thing is that the Voluntourism industry does not have to invent these controls from scratch as the industry holds significant similarities and overlaps to the worlds of NGO and Sustainability and it can leverage on firmly established frameworks of best practice in both of these industries to build out its own. For example, the Ford Foundation Centre for Social Justice has invested $1 billion in its five-year Building Institutions and Networks (BUILD) initiative which is an investment in the long-term capacity and Sustainability of up to 300 social justice organizations around the world. The BUILD Initiative is working to strengthen these institutions, making them more effective at achieving their core missions and reducing inequality in all its forms. Voluntourism organizations can benefit from such capacity building. The guardians of the industry will also significantly benefit from the book ‘From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth’ by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation which urges us to ‘…consider philanthropy as a tool for achieving economic, social, and political justice. [A] task that requires humility, moral courage, and an unwavering commitment to democratic values and institutions. [That] demands that all members of society recognize their privilege and position, address the root causes of social ills, and seek out and listen to those who live amid and experience injustice’. For the Voluntourism industry, it should read this as a call to Responsible Tourism.