Thursday, August 7, 2008

Volunteerism or Voluntourism?

Judith Timson wrote an article in the Globe and Mail on-line on July 29 about what she calls "voluntouring." (I'm not providing the link because there seems to be a cut-off point for accessing back articles for free - if you want to read it try searching for it on the G&M website to see if you can still access it - I cut and pasted the text to save it for myself).  Basically she says that most international volunteering is done by recent high school or university grads, is short-term, and almost always incorporates a few weeks of holidays in an exotic location, completely or at least the majority paid for by mommy and daddy.  She cites the upsides as bragging rights for parents, and learning and resume boosts for the kids.  And she laments the unfairness that less affluent youth don't have the same opportunity and corresponding benefits.

She's not really wrong.

And she's hit on an issue that many people are starting to be interested in.

A recent study by an Irish volunteer organization, Comhlámh, explored the impact of international volunteering on host organizations.  The organizations involved in the study (half of which were from Tanzania), echoed Timson's position that many volunteers are more interested in being tourists in the country they are working than in devoting their time to their host organization.  The study also confirmed that most volunteers are short-term (less than 3 months) and come from Europe and North America.  Comlámh has developed a Code of Good Practice for volunteer sending organizations and a Volunteer Charter for volunteers to help avoid common mistakes and problems.

Another site, Ethical Volunteering, "offers advice and information for people who are interested in international volunteering and want to make sure what they do is of value to themselves and the people they work with."  It was started and is still run by a woman who did her PhD on gap-year volunteering.  

A researcher at Dalhousie is also currently conducting a study on the impact of learning/volunteer abroad programs.  The title of the study is "Creating Global Citizens?"  Yes, with a question mark.

This is all amid a wave of discussion on ethical and green tourism.  The Briarpatch ran an issue in late 2006 on Fair Travel and I even reviewed a couple of special travel guides for the issue, including one by a giant in the industry, Lonely Planet.  The idea The Briarpatch put forward is that fair travel is looking to apply "fair trade" principles to the tourism industry.  One of the suggestions most put forward by the guide books and implied in discussions on the subject as a way to diminish the exploitative effects of tourism is a volunteering vacation.  The Briarpatch even provided 4 links to organizations that could arrange ethical vacations.

But this is just what Timson, and host organizations themselves say is unfair and unhelpful.

In the past year and a half in Tanzania, it is one of the issues I have been trying to get my head around.  I have some questions.  What is volunteerism anyway?  It seems that volunteering is supposed to incorporate some kind of sacrifice - should volunteers suffer?  If so, how much?  Does suffering make the volunteer or the work more noble?  How?  What if suffering affects the quality of the volunteer's work?  What kind of financial and benefit support should volunteers get who devote their volunteering efforts full-time for a long period?  Should doing a job as a volunteer be any less credible or important than doing a job for pay?  What, exactly, are the negative aspects of incorporating vacation time and volunteering time?  Why is it different (and worthy of disdain) if parents (or anyone else) pays?  What about altruism? Solidarity?  Does/can international volunteering contribute to international development? How? 

I've collected in a folder on my computer articles and ramblings to try and sort out the issue.  I'm not convinced I have a good handle on it yet. It is kind of connected to the question of what am I doing here, anyway?  People are motivated to volunteer for all sorts of reasons.  I was recruited for a specific position and given a 2-year contract with a small stipend and modest benefits package.  The kind of volunteering I am doing is very different from short-term stints that the volunteers fund themselves.  I'm not sure if my situation can be compared to the other kinds.  I'm not ready to draw a lot of conclusions yet (but maybe a few).

One of the biggest issues is money.  The stipend I receive is just enough to live.  My organization does this very deliberately.  We are volunteers - not paid workers - and in no way are we given enough to save. It is hard to feel valued for many reasons with my organization, but especially because they discontinued an allowance they used to pay on return to Canada to help volunteers get re-settled. (Sorry, a small rant there).  Should altruism or solidarity expect nothing in return?  

But the potential benefits ARE huge.  Let's face it, international volunteering looks great on a resume.  There's a significant amount of learning a person does - about themselves, about problems of development (for lack of a better word), about cultures and lands different from their own.  Personally and professionally, volunteering provides amazing opportunities for advancement.  Is it going too far to say it could be called a university of life? (Notice I didn't say THE university of life - I'm sure there are plenty of other experiences that confer similar knowledge).  It is unique, however.  

Is it fair, though, to expect that volunteering should be 100% altruistic?  And is altruism, or can it be, condescending?  I get so irritated by doe-eyed  people with their heads tilted to one side who say they just want to help.  Fine, but be realistic about it.  And realize that if it's help and not solidarity, the problems are not really being addressed.  

So, back to the issue of being a tourist, a volunteer, or a hybrid.  I agree with Timson that international volunteering is of huge benefit and it is not fair when only the affluent can take advantage of the opportunity.  But do we outlaw exclusive private schools in Canada? That is essentially the same thing.  Of course we don't.  But many people still feel snide about that kind of privilege.  The reality is, it's unfair because it's not accessible to everyone.  And organizations like the one which sent me theoretically should help with balancing out the playing field since they offer a stipend and modest benefits, and even some shorter term placements.  But when nearly all the volunteers need a university degree to be competitive candidates for placements and it is now nearly impossible for most students in Canada to finish university without taking a student loan, reality trumps idealistic theories and we are back with only the affluent being able to afford volunteer opportunities.  After all, only having enough money to live means that it's not possible to pay student loans, or a Visa bill for that matter.  The student loan people don't like it when they have to wait or don't get paid at all (the Visa people either).  Long-term volunteer sending agencies need to incorporate this reality into their recruitment and programming plans.  No one can live for free - someone, somewhere has to pay.  How nice if mommy and daddy can do it.  It only adds to the credibility when the volunteer pays for him/herself.  

In sum, I see a few distinct issues in the argument:  
1. The work involved in the volunteer placement.  All volunteers have a responsibility to be realistic about the work they are doing, be aware of the context in which they are working and their own motivations.  While working in a host organization, a volunteer should give it their all - the same as a paid position. For sending organizations - they also need to provide adequate professional support to volunteers.  If we have to be professional, why not the sending organizations?    

2. The financial implication of international volunteering.  Volunteers who must provide their own funding ensure that their needs are met.  The same should be true for organizations that provide stipends - and volunteers in those organizations should be involved in determining the needs.      

3. Taking in the sights while away from home.  Anyone who doesn't take advantage of seeing and learning from a new country - or anywhere that isn't home - is a fool.  There's a lot to learn by observing beach tourist destinations, and safaris, and ruins, and getting off the beaten path.  In my opinion - who cares who pays?  And I don't think touring takes away from the work done as a volunteer, unless of course it actually does take away from the volunteer work (see point 1 above).    

4. Left out of Timson's article is the point of view of the host organizations.  Comhlámh has started to explore this, but there's a lot more to know.  

As for the rest of the issues around volunteering, it seems to me there's still a lot to be sorted out.


Luc said...

Good blog...I am currently working on a new initiative to leverage voluntourism & development. I reside in Ottawa and I am quite familiar with CUSO.

If you want I would like to know if you can email me at


Luc Lapointe

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just came across your terrific blog!

I am going to volunteer in India for a year come October! I came across a ton of voluntour companies, but in the end found the organization through that way you know they are legitimate and really need help.

I am so excited to be going and will be interning and volunteering for Drishtee. ( I will be working on micro-finance, education, women's empowerment, and accessible healthcare projects. I'd love it if you spread the word about my project ( as I'm currently fundraising. Any exposure would be absolutely amazing!