Voluntourism – Right or Wrong?

Interesting press release from Planeterra – what do you think of their best practices??

Voluntourism – it’s been a hot item in articles, tweets and blogs lately. We define it as travel experiences that provide the opportunity to contribute to local community projects and development initiatives with some time off to visit the highlights of that particular destination or country.

This kind of travel creates opportunities for greater interaction with local communities, so it’s essential that we consider the impacts these trips can have to ensure there are benefits for local people and their environments.

Our friends in the media need to be as concerned as we are because the health and welfare of communities and cultures can be at risk when purposes and good intentions go awry.

Planeterra Foundation, (http://www.planeterra.org/) the global non-profit dedicated to sustainable community development through travel, challenges you to look closely at the following questions and insofar as possible, share our concerns – which we are sure you will be yours as well – with your audiences.

  • When is my need to “do good” potentially a selfish act on my part?
  • Am I helping or hindering by taking time and resources away from the community and project managers just so I have a “feel good” project to work on?
  • Are valuable time, effort and resources being wasted and misappropriated just to prepare for and accommodate a voluntourist?
  • Can I really make a contribution in a lasting, significant way in the short time I’m there?
  • What is the optimum duration for a meaningful voluntourism stay?
  • Is the project just a “front” for fundraising or attempt to generate exposure, creating contrived situations for my benefit and not really the benefit of the community?

Here’s how we at Planeterra think the growing voluntourism industry needs to address these concerns:

  • Programs must be set up to engage the voluntourist in task-specific scenarios so people can see the tangible results of their contributions.
  • Voluntourism programs are ideally no shorter than five days and optimally 14 days.
  • It’s vital to have a designated tour leader or guide who helps facilitate the volunteer experience so that project staff aren’t taken away from running their regular programs.
  • Designated projects are ongoing and sustainable; they are not simply there just to ‘entertain’ travelers. This being said, many of the activities would be taking place without travelers present, but it is because of the voluntourists that these tasks are able to be completed.
  • It’s important for voluntourists to have realistic expectations; while they won’t change the world by volunteering for a few days, they will open themselves up to learn more about a local community that can be shared with others when returning home.
  • There’s an overall need in the voluntourism travel sector to shift the focus toward sustainability. This enables projects to be taken over eventually by a community, thus minimizing dependence on outside help.
  • Everyone needs to recognize that the end game is total community control and quite possibly the disappearance and solution of issues and conditions that brought the original need for the project – and voluntourists — in the first place.

Here at Planeterra, where there is a need, we recognize it, and we act quickly to meet it. Whatever the voluntour project Planeterra has the insight, agility and technical and financial wherewithal to successfully see it through. Our goal is to empower local people and communities to strengthen their well being while promoting long-term, environmentally responsible growth.

Please call or email if you would like more thinking along these lines.

Richard G. Edwards

Director, Planeterra Foundation

Email: richard@planeterra.org



One thought on “Voluntourism – Right or Wrong?

  1. This is late…. but writing back to this has been on my “to do” list for a few months…. just getting through it!

    Richard, it was great to speak with you briefly at ATWS. I think it is great that Planeterra has a list of best practices and is working to improve your own work and the voluntourism sector through being open about these things.

    I do though disagree with this statement as a general rule: “Voluntourism programs are ideally no shorter than five days and optimally 14 days.” Perhaps, if you look through the lense of the the travelers desires, but I’m not sure that is the case from the program side.

    If we define what “voluntourism” we are talking about it would help define the boundaries I think. I think, when it comes to teaching kids, the optimal wouldn’t be 14 days but a full school year or at least a semester. 5 days or 14 day rotations are not ideal, in my opinion. When it comes to a building project, if there is a community led initiative that is ongoing and there are areas where there are needs for extra hands, two days might be all the help they need. It depends, right?

    Alexia, I think this would be a great topic for discussion. I find there is too much focus on trying to put an ideal length of time on “voluntourism” – and it is too difficult to do when the things that fall into that category are SO broad. The focus on WHAT the program entails and how it is designed is more important in my opinion.

    I think that the list above are great things to consider when it comes to giving the voluntourists the best experience and they do border into the community needs. I think if we are focusing on community needs first, then we would be asking the questions from a different angle. The statement “Everyone needs to recognize that the end game is total community control” begs the question – why don’t we start with projects which HAVE total community control to begin with, and support those, rather than making our own and then giving them away?

    Basically, I’m saying lets make two lists. One list which asks the questions from the voluntourist perspective: how can we make sure they are safe, learning, and contributing. The other list from the community perspective: where is the control, who determines the needs, how are boundaries set? That list might not include “it is because of the voluntourists that these tasks are able to be completed” but instead that they are completed faster, or that voluntourists are learning from the local communities so that skills are passed on etc.

    Both sets of questions are important.

    Thanks, Richard and Alexia!

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