Arthur Frommer on Voluntourism

Did you see this post by Arthur Frommer? Pretty much saying volunteer vacations are trivial unless you go with Earthwatch – what do you think?

Volunteer vacations are currently a major vogue in travel, and people who attend travel lectures seem intrigued by the possibility of devoting their leisure time to a worthwhile cause. They soon find that the options are limited. To enjoy a volunteer vacation in which you engage in meaningful work, and enjoy free room and board while doing it, requires in most instances that you sign up for a full year of labor in an undeveloped area of the world. It is only that kind of major commitment that can lead to free-of-charge travel for the purpose of doing valuable tasks.

As for the shorter commitment — let’s say, a period of two or three weeks or so in a third world village or rural area — those so-called “volunteer vacations” are nearly always somewhat artificial and contrived. They involve — with some exceptions — a form of play-acting in which unskilled Americans purport to teach impoverished villagers how to improve their lives or agricultural production. You are given a well to dig, a creek to dam up — as if those villagers were incapable on their own of digging such a well or damming up such a creek.

You also pay a pretty penny to engage in such play-acting. You discover that the sponsor of the volunteer vacation has heavy expenses that must be covered by the participants. In short, the volunteer vacation doesn’t resemble the noble activity that you thought it would be.

Unless, that is, you engage in a research expedition sponsored by the Earthwatch Institute. Now in its 40th year of recruiting Americans to assist noted university scientists in valid, serious, research efforts or improvements in the environment, Earthwatch has an absolutely unassailable record. It is the real thing. Its participants perform valuable work assisting real-life scientists in ground-breaking projects, but usually for periods of two or three weeks at a time.

7 thoughts on “Arthur Frommer on Voluntourism

  1. Frommer is right about trivial volunteer vacations, I cant comment on earthwatch.
    I am currently (for the past 7 months) investigating volunteer schemes in Costa Rica and 90% charge “volunteers” what seems to be a flat fee of usdollars 500/month. Especially eco/environment volunteer schemes. Volunteers should be given free basic accomodation and food in exchange for their contribution. In many cases the fees dont go back into the scheme’s pot but straight into the pockets of the people who run such schemes…. Several volunteers I met in Costa Rica ( majority of them being from the USA ) dont even know exactly what they are doing. It seems to be a trend and such a cool thing to be a volunteer for a month…and getting charged for it.!!1

  2. In some respects, the Frommer’s writer is correct. That is, there are so many meaningless organizations offering “pile on” meaningless projects. It’s true. And we can all identify those guys who have simply jumped in to just…jump in.

    It goes on and on with leading materials about “$100/day” the lowest volunteer experiences.” They offer nothing substantial and they belong and do not contribute to any leading global organization like WYSTC, for example. They are there to make a buck. They take money, slap a person on a project (maybe) and they leave them to fend on their own.

    But Frommers should also be held accountable for what they wrote about an entire industry, using the Frommers name. I think it’s very dangerous to take an entire industry to task. You can never win.

    I think of the many ways Voluntourism has changed over the years. Today, there are governments studying the impacts of volunteering in their countries and trying to take some kind of measure of it…to make sure volunteers are in the right places, doing the right things. Jordan and S. Africa are two that very quickly come to mind. Just last week, there were medical projects just shut down in S. Africa by the government until there are more studies. And those volunteers were directed elsewhere, certainly not run out of the country.

    Does that mean the Frommer writer was right? He was absolutely wrong. Completely upside down from reality. Governments are now involved in directing voluntourism. IBM turns 100 this year and they are square in the middle of it. And then you have Habitat offering building projects in other countries rather than just the U.S. and that has grown 15% a year over the last few years. And as for sustainable benefits to a local community, I’d put Habitat up against Earthwatch any day.

    It’s irresponsible to write that. All Frommers did was provide a huge advert for Earthwatch, and Earthwatch should come out and repudiate 100% of what Frommers wrote. As an Executive Director of a Voluntourism organization, as a person highly involved in a global organization that offers Best Practices, and as a person who writes and speaks on this subject, my advice to Earthwatch would be to make sure the public knows they always appreciate kind words. But that Frommers does not represent their views on Voluntourism. Absent that, they continue to move away from the industry they ultimately need.

    What Frommers also did was make sure I also Blog about their idiocy. And to make sure our 1000 volunteers this year never buy a Frommers book again. And to make sure the volunteers we send in 2012 never pick up a Frommers book, ever. And 2013, and so on. We’ll remind all of our volunteers that they have been slapped around for doing good. And I’ll make sure the 200 volunteer sending organizations meeting in Barcelona in September know exactly what Frommers wrote. And so on.

  3. Wow, that was ridiculous from someone who promotes all kinds of travel. I teach classes on voluntourism and I find so many good grassroots organizations that foster cooperation and understanding through volunteering. Maybe Frommer’s has been drinking from the dark, negative well and has forgotten everything he first learned when he traveled. To point out Earthwatch as the only good organization??? Goodness, me. I am disappointed.

  4. From someone who emailed me a comment instead of posting it:

    “I’ve heard that Earthwatch scientists have become glorified tourist guides. They put up with the voluntourons to finance their research, but they’d much rather work with a cadre of graduate students. Have you heard similar opinions?”

  5. I agree the AF post missed a huge opportunity by not saying that there are many other wonderful organizations offering volunteer opportunities not just Earthwatch. Any informed reader would know that. In no way was this an advertorial and we were frankly as surprised as anyone to see what has become an annual small mention in this publication turn into this overt ringing endorsement. I am sure the author has already received feedback on the matter from some industry leaders! Earthwatch is one of the largest private sources of funding for environmental field scientists who find it increasingly difficult to find reliable sources of funding. Our researchers are committed to the volunteer model because it not only provides critical funding but accelerates their research and because they fundamentally believe in the value of citizen science and the benefits it brings to scientists, volunteers and communities both in country and back at home. One of the key benefits of Citizen Science is the multiplier effect it produces when inspired volunteers return home. The anonymous emailer is way off base on her/his observation about our scientists suffering the volunteers. Of course some scientists in a perfect world might prefer to have limitless funding and hand pick their support staff but they typically don’t become EW Scientists as we carefully vet all Earthwatch scientists and make sure that the projects we are funding provide meaningful and rewarding interaction for our volunteers. You can’t please everyone all of the time but 93% of our volunteers rate their experience Very Good or Excellent so something is going right. I think it is a matter of understanding that not all travel journalism is perfect depsite best intentions. These are my personal opinions and are not intended to be an official Earthwatch response to this storm in a tea cup.

  6. I repeat that I can’t comment on earthwatch specific programs as I am not aware HOWEVER A. Frommer just pointed out the uselessness of a large percent of volunteer schemes that aim only at your wallet. He’s right, unfortunately it has become a trend to go back home and say “I’ve been on a volunteer scheme holiday” doing what ? most of the cases nothing meaningful. Several months of my own private investigation in just one country (Costa Rica) have produced SHOKING results….(big boys included here as well)
    So A. Frommer is not that wrong, is he ?

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