Monday, October 26, 2009

Voluntourism: A sustainable practice or poverty tourism

As the third snow storm of the season hit Minnesota last week (three snows before Halloween!), I found myself contemplating a warm getaway. And due to the ever-growing voluntourism industry, there are now more travel options than ever. But is this boom in voluntourism a good thing?
Voluntourism combines travel with voluntary work through trips (oftentimes international) that usually last about a week or two. Instead of heading to a resort, a voluntourism trip sends people to Guatemala to build a house or to South Africa to teach English. While the specific objectives of these programs vary, an overarching goal is to cultivate global citizenship and cross-cultural understanding - noble goals indeed. Yet for some reason, the exploding popularity of these trips leaves me a little uneasy; this despite the fact that I have not only attended similar trips, but spent a couple years leading a variation of them.
My discomfort stems from concerns about the structure and impact of these programs:
• Informed Structures and Models: I often wonder how these organizations are structured. Specifically, are local people and local organizations involved in the decision-making processes of the voluntourism program, either as staff or board members? Are needs assessments done beforehand in conjunction with local people, and do the services provided align with what the community sees as a pressing need?
• Mutually Beneficial: Research on voluntourism often focuses on the affects it has on tourists - but what about the impact on the host communities? If the goal is to educate and enlighten people about global issues, at what expense does this newfound enlightenment come? What type of international development/community development skills are needed in creating programs that empower and work with host communities, ensuring that they too benefit from these programs? What program evaluation methods effectively gauge whether a program is mutually beneficial?
Beyond these structural questions, my most pressing concern with voluntourism is more philosophical in nature: Should volunteerism and tourism be melded together in the first place? Can voluntourism be a form of "poverty tourism" that objectifies people who live in abject poverty, even glamorizing unjust situations? Do these programs allow tourists to recognize the dignity, expertise and resiliency of the people they aim to serve? Moreover, is this a subtle form of cultural imperialism - whether intended or not?
These questions have broader implications for national and even locally-based alternative break programs offered at many high schools, universities, and religious groups. We owe it to the many people involved or touched by these trips to find the answers.
Posted October 26, 2009