people and places are proud to be supporting WTM World Responsible Tourism Day again this year.
This is a blog post I have just written for the WTM Blog –
We are particularly keen to get comments and feedback from organisations that host volunteers in destination and volunteers – and it would be just wonderful to hear from projects themselves – but we know that the vagueries of internet connection makes that pretty tough most of the time – please do post here or on the WTM blog
Bullied Communities and disappointed volunteers
There is much debate in responsible travel circles about the ethics of and need to police volunteer travel – and rightly so.
It is particularly good news and not before time! that the WTM Events will include debates and workshops on responsible volunteering and Tourism and Child Protection this year.
Whilst there are ethical operators, all too many operators still sell a smoke and mirrors volunteer placement, using emotional marketing speak to hide poorly conceived projects and talking vaguely about money into communities – obscuring the details, and making the volunteer feel uncomfortable about asking pointed questions. Too often volunteers are told money goes into the community, only to find that 75% of the money stayed with the inbound operator!
So, like any travel transaction, there needs to be an education of the consumer. They need to be encouraged to ask questions.
There should be clarity.
There are two “beneficiaries” of volunteer travel – the volunteers themselves and the communities they seek to serve. Obviously in order to be sustainable the volunteers’ needs must be met BUT these needs should be met within the context of what is right and fair for the community.
For these host communities, there are a number of issues that need to be considered in order to minimise negative impacts. Too often communities, who are often eager for assistance, and vulnerable, are bullied or exploited by volunteer service providers. All too often a project receiving volunteers has little say in the volume or experience of volunteers placed. The result is sometimes a school with 10 or 12 “volunteers” hanging around with little to do other than get in the way of hard pressed local people. I have witnessed this in the townships of Port Elizabeth where our volunteers work.
The Cape Town Declaration states that tourism should ‘actively involve the local community in planning and decision-making, and provide capacity-building to make this a reality.’ This approach should also be applied to volunteering.
The most effective and sustainable projects originate in the local community – NOT with inbound operators! Many volunteer organisations justify the lack of community involvement in the design and monitoring of a project, by asserting that often communities cannot identify their development needs do not have the capacity to monitor and manage the projects. I do not buy into this – it is challenging to work with grass roots projects but there are local people who know their communities far better than inbound operators ever could .
The needs and concerns of the community should be paramount – volunteer programmes should help local people build the future they want for themselves.
Skills need to be matched to community need – these may be life skills not professional qualifications – but they should be appropriate.
I have serious doubts about volunteer projects that require no skill, but only labour. Most countries that attract voluntourists have high unemployment rates – cheap labour is not needed.
Another sensitive but critical issue is the screening of volunteers. Volunteers often work with children and with vulnerable adults. It takes real courage for commercial organisations to reject potential customers. To run a responsible programme – this must be a given.
Many volunteers appear to want “work with children” and many organisations market opportunities to provide individual attention to “needy children” – some even offer opportunities to “counsel “ the children – an appeal to the reader’s heart. After all, who wouldn’t want to ease a child’s suffering?
But, it can never be appropriate, responsible or ethical for short term volunteers to replace long term care and nurture – it is irresponsible and fraught with danger to support or create such environments.
Despite potential negative impacts, a well prepared, screened, skilled volunteer can make a positive impact in host communities.
Well-run volunteer placements can develop a level of social interaction and understanding that is profound. It can result in the humanising of poverty, it can give a face to poverty and vulnerability that is real.
It is often a life changing experience for the volunteer.
An experience that shapes purpose and belief, and can shift consciousness towards the understanding of a shared humanity. It can and does lead to an understanding of our interconnectedness as people.
Well managed it can be a win win situation for all the stakeholders – be they profit making commercial operators, travellers, and most important – the communities themselves.