Bold Voluntourism Move by Carnival: Will Critics Sink Its Fathom Bid?

Fathom LogoCruise Lines have been toying with voluntourism for nearly a decade now. I first covered this story back in 2007 when I interviewed Jeff Krida, head of Cruise West at the time, who was responsible for launching the line’s voluntourism program. Sweet, a travel company catering to Lesbians, had a six-year run (filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the US in 2014) with voluntourism cruises starting in New Orleans with ports of call in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and Roatan, Honduras. Crystal Cruises launched their voluntourism program – “You Care, We Care” – just around the turn of the most recent decade, and has continued to build on this with each passing year – adding volunteer shore excursions at different destinations. And now, the latest entry on the list, Carnival Corp.

According to the press release on this, Tara Russell will be heading up this truly bold voluntourism move by Carnival. It will not be an easy task.

Enduring the Criticism

The social media vitriol will be difficult to ignore. Academics & students, NGO practitioners, aid & development workers, and a host of others will take swipes at Carnival, as they have at just about every effort the travel & tourism industry has made to integrate volunteering into their product and service offerings. Since Ian Birrell landed his punches against the tourism sector with the anti-orphanage voluntourism piece in The Observer back in 2010, the condescending, withering tones of the better-informed have been directed towards the travel & tourism field, any for-profit company really, advancing into the helping business. The barrage has been incessant, unwavering, and filled with good intentions gone to Hell.

How well Ms. Russell and Carnival handle this pressure will go a long way into telling us to what degree this is a true social investment for the brand.

Unlike the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, which launched its voluntourism program – Give Back Getaways – prior to the 2008 Global Economic Meltdown – April 2008 to be exact, Carnival is a latecomer to the world voluntourism stage. Seven years later, Give Back Getaways is still a corporate cultural expression of its Community Footprints social responsibility effort. The company has not deviated from this. Carnival, on the other hand, is stepping into a very different environment, one that features great skepticism regarding the outcomes and impacts of short-term voluntary service. Will we see Fathom seven years from now, despite the criticism the company will endure?

Will Cruisers Pay?

And, of course, there is the bigger question: Will clients pay to volunteer on a cruise?

Most cruise-based voluntourism programs have engaged travelers in free, half-day and day-long volunteer activities in different destinations. Instead of participating in other shore excursions, cruise passengers have elected to volunteer in numerous roles – refurbishing schools, construction, environmental projects – the list is long and varied. Payments, however, have been minimal. Individuals have most often paid money in the form of donations to support projects into the future. The scheme being used by Carnival’s Fathom looks to be quite different, perhaps taking some inputs from Mercy Ships, among others, which have engaged volunteers in longer-term, at-sea experiences.

These trips will not be free. They will be an estimated $230 per day/per person. In our research at, we found the price point for voluntourism to be somewhere between $100 – $150USD per day/per person, all-inclusive. Of course, this is an average, and not necessarily representative of higher-end travelers willingness to pay. But, this price tag could cut out the Millennials who are the audience most likely to participate in voluntourism according to the latest research from Chase.

Final Thoughts…The Importance of Transparency

In the 15 years I have covered voluntourism, I have seen many programs launched by the travel industry. Often, these programs are put forth in response to market-driven forces – consumers, after all, want to give back. It is a rare few which are put forth as a socially responsible integration with holistic sustainability objectives established at the C-Suite level.

If this is indeed the latter, then Carnival may be onto something. It will be an endurance contest in the beginning – Ms. Russell and the Carnival Team will be front-loaded with skeptics. The good news is that Carnival has a number of ways to approach skeptics as the days, weeks, and months progress.


From the very beginning, Carnival can track the social impact footprint of their efforts. These results can be published for all to review. They can follow this with testimonials from the host communities and from participants alike. They can be utterly and completely transparent from the start – how many jobs are they creating for local residents? What socio-economic outcomes stay within the communities? Does, for example, a greater percentage of their revenues find its way into the host communities, as compared to those generated by other product & service offerings in other markets?

Reporting of results will be what consumers and critics and host communities will want to see. Is Carnival ready to share these details with the planet? It may be the only way Carnival can ensure that the company and its clients truly make a difference.

The Race To Avoid Haiti In Nepal

room to readI have been watching social media and journalists over the past couple of weeks clamoring to warn the Planet to avoid another Haiti in Nepal. The humanity in me that has the privilege to observe and speculate as to what is happening to the people on the ground there is like a claustrophobic cataclysm, churning with the compulsion of compassion and not knowing. “Nepal does not allow volunteers into its borders without the proper paperwork,” I say to myself. “How on earth will they be able to handle the onrush of individuals seeking to quell the tide of not knowing, the compulsion of compassion, the inextricably inherent call within each and every human (which can be, and often is, ignored) that cannot witness the suffering of another and sit idly by?”

As a collective humanity, we are poorly equipped to bundle the emotional outpouring from our individual beings. We fear, on some level, becoming desensitized, dissociative, and utterly numb to the suffering of others. Yet, with each passing natural disaster, being asked again and again to sit idly by and leave the work to be done in the hands of professionals, are we not running the risk of realizing our worst fears?

Is There A Plan?

One of the first people who came to mind following this disaster was John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, and founder of Room to Read. I then thought of Dr. Hari Bansh Jha, an Economics professor known for his deep interest in the intersection of spiritualism and Economics, and with whom I have corresponded over the years about voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of Social Tours, one of the first company’s I ever wrote about regarding their unique approach to voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of all of the Nepalese individuals who have contacted me over the years, and what this might mean to them. I thought of all of the voluntourists who have been to Nepal and what they might be experiencing during these days and weeks following.

As it is, Nepal is made for voluntourism. This is a fact. It may not be a fact that many people like. Orphanage voluntourism in Nepal has received negative reviews from Western media. And, although volunteers are required to have the proper paperwork to volunteer in the country, oftentimes these regulations are circumnavigated, or utterly ignored.

So, we know voluntourists will go to Nepal. The question is, what are we going to do to assist them in the process? And what will it take for the United Nations to come up with a global plan to respond to natural disasters that incorporates voluntourism?!?

Integrating Voluntourism Into Disaster Response

In the years that have followed the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia, we have had many natural disasters throughout the world. The death tolls may vary, the damage, too; what does not seem to vary, however, is the growing interest to do more than send money. More and more people want to do more and more to help with their own two hands and feet and with whatever skills and passion and mental capacity they can infuse into the situation. Yet, all too often, we spend more energy convincing these individuals that what they have to offer is meaningless and should be limited to whatever they can give financially. We are grossly underestimating what contributions may be made by these individuals by dismissing them so blithely.

For more than a decade, I have been consistently questioning our collective inability to birth a conceptual framework for integrating voluntourism into the recovery of destinations. The socio-economic impact of voluntourism can be extraordinarily beneficial for destinations. This does not mean that we begin the voluntourism train running to Nepal immediately – of course not! What it means is that we can begin to assess the situation on the ground and utilize our growing capabilities around GPS mapping,  and video, audio, and photographic technology, to determine where voluntourism groups could initially be deployed.

Final Thoughts…

The desire to respond to natural disasters will not disappear as humanity moves forward. We need a plan to harness this energy.

Just as Tesla has given us a solar-powered battery to power our homes, so, too, should we be able to develop a systematic process to harness the growing energy for assisting ourselves in the aftermath of disasters. Money is NOT the only answer. Humanity is what is most needed in these disaster zones. Recovery is inextricably linked to our humanity. I have seen and heard this in New Orleans, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s get busy designing our own power source that harnesses the human energy that wants to soften the blow of natural disasters for the residents impacted thereby. We cannot keep falling back on old arguments and old paradigms for why it needs to be done the way it has always been done, and by competent professionals alone. At some point, we can’t keep relying on the old electric grid, as Elon Musk has pointed out. We need to create change, be fierce in our discovery and R&D phases.

Let’s avoid another Haiti in Nepal by crafting a plan that truly harnesses the power of voluntourism. There are enough interested parties to do so. We have the creative capacity to make it so.

U.S. National Parks 100th! — How Will It Change Voluntourism Forever?

25 August 2016.

If you haven’t done so already, mark your calendars for the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. National Parks.

In the meantime, the lead up to the Centennial may prove to be one of the most significant milestones in the ongoing evolution of Voluntourism. If there was ever a time for the “Developed World” to show humanity that Voluntourism is more than just a sport for Northerners going South, then this may be that moment.

I would wager that pretty much every large multinational corporation and hospitality & tourism company will be aligning itself with the U.S. National Parks Centennial Celebration – – demonstrating its own form of corporate social responsibility. Billions of dollars in cash and in-kind (e.g., volunteering) contributions will likely be earmarked over the next 16 – 18 months for brands and their employees to share in all that the U.S. National Parks represent – the environment, recreation, memories, iconic scenery – and so much, MUCH, more!

We will see an unprecedented wave of volunteering reverberating throughout the United States as people from all over the world will be drawn to do their part to pitch-in and infuse these heritage sites with maintenance, renovations, and even new structures and trails, as well as leave a legacy for the next 100 years’ worth of visitors. Voluntour groups with their commemorative Centennial t-shirts will be heading to National Parks in swarms, generating selfies with historic structures, trees, cacti, geysers, mudpots, mountains, bisons, and bears that will make the orphan voluntourism selfies on Tinder envious beyond measure.

Voluntourism critics will be hard-pressed to wrangle support for ending anything related to voluntourism in U.S. National Parks. And, when all is said and done, we should have an abundance of contributions for voluntourism (and voluntourists) #worthyofimitation.

Lest we get carried away here, let’s take a moment to explore how this Centennial could shift the global perception of voluntourism. There are really three central points that come to mind when we consider the implications. First, Voluntourism will have a new geography – the Global North. Second, Voluntourism will be aligned with the environment, nature, preservation, and legacy. And third, Voluntourism may have a significant chance to quantify its socio-economic contribution to communities.

Voluntourism in the Global North

One of the great voluntourism myths of the past decade has been that voluntourists move from the North to the South only. It simply isn’t true. Probably the most comprehensive study on voluntourism was conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics back in 2008. The findings revealed that of the approximately 4.7 million Americans who volunteered more than 120 miles from their home in 2007, roughly 3.7 million of them did so domestically – a mere 1.056 million did so internationally. So 3 out of every 4 American voluntourists didn’t show up in orphanages in Cambodia or South Africa or Nepal, or anywhere else in the world. They showed up in places like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and, as you might have guessed, in U.S. National Parks.

In the next 18 months, the U.S. National Parks will give us a chance to remind our planet once more that voluntourism is as much (if not more so) a Global North-North phenomenon as it is a Global North-South phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this will not be an easy myth to dismiss. Nonetheless, this may be the best opportunity, sans the gravity of a natural disaster, to ever present itself for those who see real value in Global North voluntourism.

Voluntourism Aligned with the Environment, Nature, Preservation, and Legacy

Voluntourism in the U.S. National Parks is another chance to do some myth-busting, with a shift from the global perception that voluntourists are orphanage-bound and child-assistance-centric in their motivations. In all of our research over the past decade, we have found that more voluntourists are interested in supporting the environment than any other cause or issue. Certainly, one would think this would have some sex-appeal, given the state of the world’s natural habitats, global climate change, and the rise of environmental disasters. Yet, it seems to go unnoticed in social media and in the media in general.

Having the U.S. National Parks as a major focus for voluntourism over the next 18 months will give bloggers and journalists, tweeters and likers, Mashers and Redditors a chance to shine some light on Mother Nature, U.S. history, and some really amazing stories about some significantly beautiful expressions of what humanity can do when it puts its mind to preservation and the establishment of legacies for future generations.

Socio-Economic Impact of Voluntourism?

This third item requires a question mark. Why, you may ask? The only way that we will be able to know to what extent voluntourism really is a socio-economic contributor is by measuring it. The U.S. National Parks, along with all of the stakeholders that move voluntourists in and out of National Parks over the next 18 months, and voluntourists themselves, will need to measure the socio-economic footprint of all voluntourists. Besides just some general demographic information, we want to know answers to some really important questions:

  1. Where do voluntourists go?
  2. What do voluntourists do when they get to these parks?
  3. How long do voluntourists stay?
  4. How many jobs are created as a result of their presence in the Parks and surrounding communities?
  5. Do voluntourists volunteer in places other than the Parks, i.e., do they volunteer in a nearby community as well?
  6. How much does a typical voluntourist spend?
  7. Do voluntourists volunteer and tour?
  8. How many voluntourists design their own experiences and how many utilize the services of a coordinating entity?
  9. What impacts are felt as a result of their presence (positive & negative)?
  10. Are there notable distinctions between voluntourists and regular tourists?

And, of course, there are many more rich questions which can and ought to be explored. The BIG question, obviously, is this: “Will the stakeholders, including the U.S. National Parks, take the time to set up a mechanism for measuring the influx of voluntourists and all that accompanies their influx?”

Final Thoughts…

The Centennial Celebration of the U.S. National Parks really can change the way we attend to voluntourism across our planet. The chance to measure, to prod, to poke, to inspect, to dissect voluntourism, and to engage numerous stakeholders in the process, is beyond unprecedented!

Most U.S. National Parks, for example, will have cellular telephone service which provides us the option to use GPS location, instant messaging, blogging, and social media in real-time to garner a broad-spectrum snapshot of what is happening in the context of voluntary service and travel. With 401 U.S. National Parks to choose from, voluntourists will be able to adjust their movements, especially, if we keep a running tabulation of which Parks are receiving more support. We can, in essence, develop a comprehensive, fully-aware system of voluntourism that can literally learn from itself. Running tabulations of service and expenditure can be shared across the entire gamut of individuals, families, corporations, nature clubs, social networks – anyone interested in voluntourism in U.S. National Parks –  and the global community at large.

The effort must be comprehensive, it must have the support of stakeholders – ALL stakeholders, and it must have the collective vision of a planet interested in seeing what voluntourism can do when we do it consciously, seamlessly, with a sincere interest to unleash its potential!


Ending Humanitarian Douchery: Can Voluntourism Become #worthyofimitation?

endhumanitariandoucheryWell, I must admit that I didn’t see this one coming. Nope, totally missed the tea leaves that foreshadowed this contrivance of social media-driven, voluntourism call-out.

Earlier this week, The Guardian brought our attention to the latest (yet another) branded campaign around voluntourism – one to #endhumantariandouchery (#mendnotend, #thinkchildsafe, being other examples). Undoubtedly, Millennials are taking us on a self-deprecating journey through our own collective, short-sighted, ethno-global altruism. Pippa Biddle most recently relaunched this party on the heels of the work of Daniela Papi, Ian Birrell, and numerous others, and it has been a steamroller ever since.

What do we make of all of this?!?

The Social Media Anti-Voluntourism “Bully” Pulpit

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the United States. As a youth, I made regular appearances in Baptist and Methodist churches on Sunday mornings. The ministers would regularly stand in front of the church-goers and talk about heathens and people who were going to Hell for failing to believe!

“Bible thumping” and the “bully pulpit” were the terms often uttered as descriptors of this prime directive delivered by certain ministers. It wasn’t so much the message as much as it was the vehemence with which the message was communicated.

Social media has taken the bully pulpit metaphor (did Theodore Roosevelt really bring this term to life?), augmented it, and given it an infusion of global peer pressure. Social media does not merely serve as a platform for voicing a specific agenda; social media has become a place to utilize one’s social media cache and “bully” individuals into believing that what they are doing is actually harmful, racist, colonialist, and, expletive-deleted, wrong!

One family of five voluntourists recently published a blog post regarding a series of tweets that spoke to this very experience. A member of the Twitterati gave “Mel” (Melissa) a reason to ink the following:

“Recently, I had my first social media ‘heated discussion’.  A follower (let’s call them Fran*) offered some advice to travel responsibly by not voluntouring, because “most volunteering overseas is irresponsible”. She implied that voluntourists are motivated by, and would likely only positively effect, their own emotional state (i.e.: feeling good about themselves).  She had some genuine concerns about the commercial voluntourism operators and seemed well-versed in some of the problems with international development efforts.  But, she lumped all voluntourism together saying that any promotion of the concept is unethical and promotes child abuse.  I thought that was a bit extreme, to say the least.

*I want to protect the identity of this person as much as I’m able, because I would never condone anyone trying to argue with another person on my behalf, nor bullying nor any on-line or real life nastiness.”

Is what we think about voluntourism and how we proselytize our thoughts, beliefs, and convictions to others about it becoming worse than voluntourism itself?

Defusing Anti-Voluntourism Bullying

Whether we are “ending humanitarian douchery” or claiming that little white girls and boys are muddying up the development waters of our planet, it seems that, for the most part, the majority of social media critics are interested in bringing to an end the irresponsible elements surrounding voluntourism. (Kudos to all!) What is slightly intimidating about social media, however, is the speed and breadth with which beliefs can spread across the internet. Campaigns are launched in milliseconds and viral appreciation can take the ramblings of a neophyte and transform them into the irrefutable facts of the moment.

Does this make the opinion a fact? The contents of that opinion factual? Not at all. What it does do, however, is provide such an individual with a sense of knowing, a sense of perceived awareness regarding a topic. Compounding this are the individuals who read these words and begin to propagate them as though they represent the “gospel” (can you see where this is going?) on voluntourism. The “Bully Pulpit,” in essence, has gone virtual; cyberspace is the new church and followers are the new congregations. Missionaries of this anti-voluntourism gospel are insistent and incessant when it comes to spreading the word. They deliver anti-voluntourism propaganda as a new breed of proselytes, never questioning whether they even know what voluntourism is. They are believers in the crusade and, therefore, will be saved from ever being a voluntourist (read: heathen).

One of the challenges of our day is to stand up to any social media-driven anti-voluntourism bullying, just as we would stand up to harmful practices being perpetrated by the most ignorant of voluntourism operators. The world fields a significant collection of unregulated and/or poorly-crafted voluntourism programs – no one denies this – and “ending humanitarian douchery” is a provocative approach to eliminating such practices. On the other hand, the world fields some remarkable voluntourism programs (and some amazing human beings who indeed see themselves as voluntourists) that are worthy of our respect and the highest form of flattery – our imitation. Are we doing enough through social media to recognize these programs (and individuals)?

worthyofimitation1Final Thoughts…

Perhaps we need a social media campaign with this hashtag: #worthyofimitation

I have been at this long enough, come into contact with enough programs and enough individuals, to unequivocally state that there are some truly remarkable approaches to voluntourism (programs AND people). Yes, I realize that the negativity, the sarcasm, the snarky is what lifts the social media likes and re-tweets, but isn’t there a little something about that which seems counter-intuitive? If one is attempting to bring value into existence, is it likewise necessary to dismember something (or someone) else in the process?

#worthyofimitation definitely requires individuals to do their homework, to really take a hard, long look at what they are honoring and respecting about voluntourism via a small grassroots organization in Cambodia, or a large operation in Ghana – any size, anywhere, across the globe. (It takes an equal, perhaps greater, amount of courage to recognize an individual or family traveling and serving thus.) A significant part of what most individuals are reviewing is the impact on the host community, the impact on participants, the impact on the hosting organizations – how are each of these stakeholders being influenced by the very existence of a voluntourism program? What we may not be prepared to do is to evaluate these programs with an awareness that maybe, just maybe, the most important impact for host communities is an economic one, NOT a socially benevolent one. Are we prepared to face that reality? And is this impact sufficient enough to warrant imitation?

Nobody wants to be a douchebag, especially a humanitarian douchebag, right?!? And nobody wants to recommend something that perpetuates the creation thereof. The question of the day, then, is this: “How many of us are actually willing to step forward and use our social media cache to identify voluntourism programs AND voluntourists #worthyofimitation?

Voluntourism: A Journey Toward Intercultural Sensitivity?

IDR LogoOn 24 March 2015, the Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing posted an article online entitled “Volunteer Tourism and Intercultural Sensitivity: The Role of Interaction with Host Communities.” Co-authors Ksenia Kirillova, Xinran Lehto, and Liping Cai introduce us to the work of Dr. Milton J. Bennett at the Intercultural Development Research Institute and the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).

Rather than dive into the results of the work of Kirillova, Lehto, and Cai, let’s take a closer look at the DMIS in order to better understand how such a model could guide the voluntourism sector toward crafting experiences that lead individuals along the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism – the six-step journey outlined by Milton Bennett.

The DMIS At A Glance

The DMIS consists of six steps, three of which are associated with Ethnocentrism, and three of which are associated with Ethnorelativism. The first three steps are: 1) Denial of Difference, 2) Defense Reversal, 3) Minimization; the final three steps are: 4) Acceptance, 5) Adaptation, and 6) Integration. From “Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory” comes a brief explanation of the DMIS [p.423]:

“The underlying assumption of the model is that as one’s experience of cultural difference becomes more complex and sophisticated, one’s potential competence in intercultural relations increases… The crux of the development of intercultural sensitivity is attaining the ability to construe (and thus to experience) cultural difference in more complex ways… The DMIS assumes that construing cultural difference can become an active part of one’s worldview, eventuating in an expanded understanding of one’s own and other cultures and an increased competence in intercultural relations….

Each change in worldview structure generates new and more sophisticated issues to be resolvedin intercultural encounters. The resolution of the relevant issues activates the emergence of the next orientation. Since issues may not be totally resolved, movement may be incomplete and one’s experience of difference diffused across more than one worldview. However, movement through the orientations is posited to be unidirectional, with only occasional ‘‘retreats.’’ In other words, people do not generally regress from more complex to less complex experiences of cultural difference.”

[Source: Hammer, Mitchell R., Bennett, Milton J., and Wiseman, Richard (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, p.421-443.]


The Six-Steps of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

Ethnocentrism: Steps 1-3

Step 1: Denial of Difference

Denial of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only real one. Other cultures are either not discriminated at all, or they are construed in rather vague ways.” [p.424]

Step 2: Defense

Defense against cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only viable one. People at Defense have become adept at discriminating difference, so they experience cultural differences as more ‘‘real’’ than do people at Denial.”

“A variation on Defense is Reversal, where an adopted culture is experienced as superior to the culture of one’s primary socialization (‘‘going native,’’ or ‘‘passing’’). Reversal is like Defense in that it maintains a polarized, ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ worldview. It is unlike Defense in that it does not maintain the other culture as a threat.” [p.424]

Step 3: Minimization

Minimization of cultural difference is the state in which elements of one’s own cultural worldview are experienced as universal. The threat associated with cultural differences experienced in Defense is neutralized by subsuming the differences into familiar categories…People at Minimization expect similarities, and they may become insistent about correcting others’ behavior to match their expectations. Particularly for people of dominant cultures, Minimization tends to mask recognition of their own culture (ethnicity) and the institutional privilege it affords its members.” [p.424]

Ethnorelativism: Steps 4-6

Step 4: Acceptance

Acceptance of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. By discriminating differences among cultures (including one’s own), and by constructing a metalevel consciousness, people with this worldview are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human… Acceptance does not mean agreement—some cultural difference may be judged negatively—but the judgment is not ethnocentric in the sense of withholding equal humanity.” [p.425]

Step 5: Adaptation

Adaptation to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture. One’s worldview is expanded to include relevant constructs from other cultural worldviews. People at Adaptation can engage in empathy—the ability to take perspective or shift frame of reference vis-a-vis other cultures.” [p.425]

Step 6: Integration

Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. Here, people are dealing with issues related to their own ‘‘cultural marginality’’; they construe their identities at the margins of two or more cultures and central to none.” [p.425]

Final Thoughts…

Looking over these six steps, one cannot help but see some of the themes regarding the negative impacts of voluntourism. The issues described in blogs, tweets, and other social media, as well as articles by journalists and undercover reporters, nevertheless, seem to fall into the “Ethnocentrism” category. Reversal, an alternative to Defense, and Minimization appear regularly in the media and via social media.

Hammer, et al, conclude the section on the description of the DMIS with these words:

“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.” [p.426]

What might make for an interesting exploration is to uncover whether voluntourism potentially serves as a bridge across the Ethnocentrism-Ethnorelativism divide. Many of the complaints logged against voluntourism appear to be generated from the position of “avoiding cultural difference.” What would voluntourism look like if it was developed from a place of “seeking cultural difference”? If the development of Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration were aligned with these experiences, incorporated into the fabric of the pre-trip, during-trip, and post-trip elements thereof? What might we see from participants, from host communities, from all stakeholders if each stakeholder group held intercultural sensitivity with the same regard as the sustainability of the projects? Could we see a greater relevance for voluntourism in our 21st Century World?

Brokering Global Citizenship: Critique of the Language Surrounding Voluntourism

Global studies of childhood logoIn Volume 5, Issue 1, of Global Studies of Childhood, authors Margaret Zeddies and Zsuzsa Millei take us on a tour of United Planet’s website to exemplify the language of the voluntourism industry around the concept of “global citizenship.” The article entitled “‘It takes a global village’: Troubling discourses of global citizenship in United Planet’s voluntourism critiques the use of certain descriptive words & phrases and how these are likely to reinforce stereotypical power structures and relationships between the Global North and Global South. Here is the opening paragraph of the “Discussion” portion of the article to give you a flavor of the critique:

“Without generalizing our analysis of the website to other similar sites and organizations, we argue
that United Planet, by adopting dominant discourses of Global North childhoods and modernist
development discourses in relation to children and world economies, and by homogenizing and
depoliticizing communities, constructs particular “desired” relations and agendas for voluntourists.
Playing upon notions of the possibility of a transnational world and community, United Planet
attempts to present a particular worldview and trajectory to voluntourists looking to become global
citizens and partaking in social justice projects. By focusing on voluntourists’ individual relationships
with vulnerable children in need of development and a childhood like the one possible on the Global
North, United Planet attempts to position the voluntourist not as a new colonizer whose relations with
the children of the Global South are vested with particular power relations and global agendas, but
as a helpful “neighbor.” Depictions of voluntourists and children, however, are bound up with “the
cultural politics of images of Northern and Southern children and of the models of North-South
relations that underlie them” (Burman, 1994: 30). In fact, the website entrenches power relations
between Global North and South, rather than dismantling them. The concealment of power relations
happens particularly through visual and written representations that utilize paternalistic devices and
professing to be about equality (Manzo, 2008) while portraying and maintaining the Global South as
dependent.” [p.108]
united planetWhat To Do?
What would you do if you were United Planet?
Change the language of your website? Seek out other opinions? Shutter your operations? Ask a very simple question: Why Us?
Researchers and journalists have singled out voluntourism operators in reports, articles, and documentaries over the past decade-plus in ever-increasing numbers. Via “Cambodia’s Orphan Business,” for example, Projects Abroad was lambasted by Al Jazeera back in 2012. Most recently, there are questions swirling around a documentary which was meant to air on CBC because it may have portrayed Me to We in a less-than-stellar light.
Selling voluntourism is big business, a multi-multi-billion dollar business worldwide. Selling it requires language, language that motivates and compels individuals to participate. And, as the authors of this study point out, much of the language conveys a singular message: someone who is in a less powerful, more needful position, NEEDS “your” help AND by giving that help you will become a better person – “a global citizen,” no less.
Final Thoughts…
The authors suggest that global citizenship is a Global North construction and therefore runs parallel with colonizing. They write:
“…However, in this “geographical stretching-out of social relations” as Massey (1994: 147) describes it, to what extent does this transnational world “represent very much a western, colonizer’s view” (p. 147) and liberal notion of the agent as a separated individual from its nation and its histories or other social relations? In answer to this, the positioning of the voluntourist throughout the examples discussed below establishes a form of global governance in which the Global North is dominant but in a renewed form. United Planet’s “community” means a group composed of individual agents bound by similar interests or quest to make the world better. By emphasizing the hegemony of youths from the Global North as the main actors or citizens in the “community beyond borders,” the images foreground North America and Europe. Voluntourists’ responsibility to “better the world” this way is extended to the globe, while Global South children are denied the possibility and responsibility for action.” [p. 103]
Voluntourism becomes incredibly complex and undeniably provocative when critiqued in such ways. It raises many questions for those operating in the space. Is global citizenship only afforded to those who can, in essence, “afford” it? And is this global citizenship being extended to certain individuals at the “expense” of those who cannot meet that expense? Are we selling global citizenship, and, thus, perpetuating planetary inequality?
This study offers merely a hint of how academics and researchers are analyzing voluntourism. Yet, even amidst all of the research, we hear very little as to how voluntourism might be altered in order to address some of the issues being uncovered worldwide. Deconstructing the language of websites and social media to point out the flaws of voluntourism is as far as we seem to go at the present moment. Hopefully, researchers will start providing real advice to practitioners in order to assist them in delivering messages and programming that begin to eliminate inequality rather than exacerbate it!

Improving Voluntourism Impact: A Global ESN for Host Communities and Voluntourists?

IDS-VSO Report 2015Impact. We hear this word often in the context of voluntourism.

This past week, VSO released a report entitled “The Role of Volunteering in Sustainable Development,” which provided some insights into the impact that volunteers have on host communities – a notable shift from all that is discussed regarding the impacts of these experiences on volunteers.

You can review the executive summary of the report, of course, yet this opening salvo gives you an excellent taste of what is to follow:

This report summarises findings from the global action research
project ‘Valuing Volunteering’. The research explores how and why
volunteering contributes to poverty reduction and sustainable
positive change, and the factors which prevent it from doing so.
It looks at both the intended and unintended impacts of
volunteering interventions.
VSO Message on Voluntourism Impact Is Consistent
What might have drawn the attention of some of you, if you caught up with this report via The Guardian, were the remarks offered by Katie Turner, global research and advocacy adviser for VSO, who shared the following about voluntourism:
We don’t believe that all voluntourism is bad. It depends on the impact it has on the ground. From our point of view, if it’s purely a case of volunteering for the sake of the volunteer, that’s not truly volunteering. It has to be about the impact of the work on the ground.”
If we line these up with remarks given to The Guardian in 2007 by Judith Brodie, former director of VSO UK, we see marked consistency regarding impact:

“While there are many good gap year providers, we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious – ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them.

“Young people want to make a difference through volunteering, but they would be better off travelling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet.”

The impacts of the Voluntourism Sector on host communities are being singled out as the most important contributors and/or detractors – more so than what voluntourism does, or does not do, for participants.
ESN logosEnterprise Social Networks (ESNs): Can They Improve the Impact of Voluntourism on Host Communities?
One thing we can see from the VSO report is the significance of impact. Eliminating bad programs is certainly one way to approach this end-goal – – VSO, and numerous others, have adhered to this call-to-action for years!
Is there another way?
By the year 2016, IDC estimates that sales of social enterprise software will top $4.5 billion. As social media moves from the social space to the enterprise space (e.g., Twitter to Tibbr), the option of moving voluntourism from Instagram, Facebook, and/or WordPress, to Slack, Socialcast, and/or Jive, seems ever more doable. If such a move took place, could the impact of voluntourism change?
Enterprise social networks (ESNs) are beginning to eliminate email; they sync with mobile technologies; and, as some argue, they are enhancing productivity. Imagine having voluntourists self-organize into a massive online community focused on improving the impact of voluntourism in real-time. Whatever a group of voluntourists, or an individual, is doing in Zimbabwe could very easily sync with what a similar group is doing in Madagascar, or elsewhere. If these groups had a “voluntourism” ESN to align their activities and experiences, and host communities had a similar ESN, or the same one even, the amount of sharing and connectivity could increase exponentially!
And that must certainly contribute to improved impact, right?
Final Thoughts…
Are we ready for a Global Voluntourism ESN?
I do not know. Perhaps we could begin with a prototype?
I do think that giving voluntourists an alternative to existing interfaces with specific providers and NGOs (which in most situations, attempt to set up their own “closed” social networks) represents a fresh start. Bypassing the “branded” social media experiences crafted by individual entities and utilizing a worldwide ESN focused on improving the impact of volunteering – wherever, whenever, however – could definitely benefit host communities. Voluntourists and host communities could learn in real-time; they could shift activities, for example, by finding out something which is working in, say, Colombia (as an example), where they are training former death squad members to be yoga instructors.
Anything which could place such elements as relating, serving, learning, or other practices into a real-time experiential environment, coupled with reporting results, impacts, and modifications, through a collective, globally-shared medium, and we could be on the verge of a real difference-maker.
What would it look like? Which ESN platforms might work better than others? Is there an ESN platform that allows people in the field, without wifi or network connections, to store data that automatically uploads when they do? Would an ESN help to professionalize voluntourism? Enhance our communications around it? Better understand its impacts? Share those in a manner that would allow more people to be informed about these impacts, and thus be able to leverage them, modify them, and/or eliminate them?
Many questions yet remain to be explored; here is one worthy of the initial ask: “Are there any voluntourists or host community residents who would use an ESN platform to improve the impact of voluntourism?”

Voluntourism 4.0: Extracting Maslow from Voluntourism

MaslowI spent last week in the United Kingdom speaking with the Team at Complete Coherence in Romsey, England, and interacting with academics and practitioners at the first of a six-part seminar series funded by the Economic & Social Research Council held at the University of Brighton. Although the venues were quite different, the two discussions centered around one basic theme: Reconceptualising international volunteering.

Ironically, it wasn’t until later in the week when I was having dinner with my “Little Brother” and his friend who has been exposed to development in Latin America, that the conversation reinforced an insight that has been percolating in the background of my mind for some time. In essence, we concluded, that one of the best ideas for reconceptualising voluntourism would be to eliminate all projects which focus on basic human needs. By eliminating Maslow’s bottom row of the pyramid, we also eliminate a host of maddening challenges for the voluntourism space. [There is no need to get into the “development business,” as Dr. Anna Mdee (in her lecture at the University of Brighton seminar) pointed out the pitfalls of in its own right, and certainly not in the context of international volunteering and voluntourism.]

Moving Beyond Basic Needs…

The Voluntourism Space has spent the better part of a decade embroiled in the controversial, the debatable, the unskilled, the labor-replacing, the orphan-generating. Assuredly, some of this comes from a lack of understanding of the numerous projects and offerings around the world which have nothing to do with the bottom of the pyramid – assisting social entrepreneurs, refurbishing & reconstructing historic buildings, conducting environmental research – the list is endless!

If we simply move voluntourism beyond the reach of projects focused on meeting the basic needs of host communities, we can truly reconceptualise it. We can add dimensions that are rooted in the development of the individual. We can eliminate much of the sense of urgency around decoupling travel & tourism from voluntary service. And, everyone will be able to sleep better at night!

PrintThe Four Dimensions of Traveler Development – VolunTourism 4.0

Once we extract Maslow’s lowest tier of the pyramid from voluntourism, we can focus on the 4 dimensions which bring us more in line with the uppermost tier: Self-Actualization. These dimensions are present in the context of a VolunTourism experience (pre-, during-, and post-trip), it simply depends on to what degree each is acknowledged and then consciously integrated into the overall awareness of participants.

The four dimensions are broadly represented by: 1) The “Open Hand,” 2) The “Open Heart,” 3) The “Open Mind,” and 4) The “Open Self.” Let’s go through these briefly.

VolunTourism 1.0: The “Open Hand” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes “serving,” e.g., doing, performing, a task in an effort to be of support to the local destination. Quite often, this dimension is the most sought after aspect of the journey, as participants are eager to accomplish and leave a lasting, positive impression on the community. In addition, there is a great deal of “doing” involved in the preparation for a trip, engaging in the trip (just think of the travel alone to some of the more remote locations), and, of course, all that surrounds one’s returning to the home environment upon completion of a journey. The “Open Hand” can be experienced over “short-term” or “long-term” engagements and brings us into contact with the physiological aspects of our own being – our bodies and how they respond to the demands of VolunTourism.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I serve others.”

VolunTourism 2.0: The “Open Heart” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the interpersonal connections, i.e., “relating,” to others. The “others” are represented by members of the host community/destination and, of course, one’s fellow volunteers. This dimension brings into our awareness emotions and feelings regarding our responses to others.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I relate to others.”

VolunTourism 3.0: The “Open Mind” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the “being” of internal dialogue and discovery that occurs through the process of participating in such a journey. The catalyzing environment of the experience provides the necessary energy to dive within one’s own values, beliefs, judgements, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the world.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I explore my own being.”

VolunTourism 4.0: The “Open Self” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the growth & development, or “becoming,” of the individual throughout the process of the entire footprint of the journey: pre-, during-, and post-trip. It will naturally unfold if from the initiation of even the first hint of a desire to participate in such a journey that an individual realizes there is more at work than merely going overseas to volunteer. These journeys are a metaphor for the unfolding of the individual. If consciously approached, the experience brings forth a new iteration of the individual, one which will prove of far more service to any and all whom s/he may meet.

The Mantra for this dimension: “The journey and I are one, continuous becoming.”

Final Thoughts…

One might argue that directing our service t0 the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid may lead us to self-actualization. However, the degree to which we can be effectual in addressing those needs has, at least thus far, proven elusive. Trillions of dollars in aid and billions of hours of service have netted us little advancement in overcoming the deficit. Could it be, by coordinating service beyond the lowest tier, we will be able to render greater service and far more meaningful development for all stakeholders?

The “Open Hand” has been the default dimension of service itineraries for decades. Introducing the significance of the other dimensions through a coordinated effort – providing participants with tools and practices to better prepare them to “Open Heart,” “Open Mind,” and “Open Self” – seems like a reasonable launch-point for reconceptualizing volunteering. It is anticipated that by doing so, we may see an overall increase in the sustainability of projects and the longevity of results for communities and participants alike.

Under this scenario, we can see the value of travel, of exploration in the context of a destination. Encountering different aspects of the destination will allow these other dimensions to open more freely, perhaps further than could otherwise occur simply through service.

It would appear that we have an important question to address: Can we free VolunTourism from Maslow’s lowest tier in order to explore its developmental potential for participants?

Unpacking the CV Sales Pitch for Voluntourism

Journal of SociologyColleen McGloin, of the University of Wollongong, and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, have generated an online article for the Journal of Sociology entitled “Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education.” One of the co-authors is inspired to delve into the subject after hearing a young man offer his voluntourism recruitment spiel to students prior to a lecture. She paraphrases:

Hey guys, there’s a meeting today at lunchtime for those interested, and I’d love to see you all
there. We have some awesome packages available for you to travel and get some experience in
developing countries helping out with projects designed to make these communities stronger.
Not only will you be helping others less fortunate than you, but you can use the experience on
your CV as an example of working to help communities abroad.”

Later in the paper, the authors offer the following in response to some of the language shared above:

The power relations informing the discourse of voluntourism mimic and reinforce those responsible for global inequality and poverty in the first place. Colonial paternalism is predicated on the notion that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and that this will always be the case, therefore one’s obligation as a privileged subject is to ‘help’ those less privileged. The certainty underpinning this view prevents volontourists ‘seeing’ or ‘engaging’ with the fact that poor people can, and do, resist their own oppression, and exercise agency when and where possible…

Dependency theory argues that development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin: wealth requires poverty. Voluntourism is part of a system of neoliberal development that requires inequality so that some may reap the beneficial effects of the market. Voluntourism is lauded as ‘a good thing’, and the point we make here is that it is difficult to speak outside of the discursive ‘logic’ of goodness that constitutes the ‘catechism of ethics’. Having better educated voluntourists will do nothing to effect structural change as voluntourism, as an activity, reinforces the paradigm of need without enabling agency by local communities.”

Broadening Perspective: Both-And Interpretation

Bayfield 1300

The Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race

If voluntourism is anything, it is constantly interpreted. The words of McGloin and Georgeou remind us that any time we narrow our perspective on voluntourism, our interpretation is sure to follow. Concentrate on vulnerable, “voice-less” populations, market-driven outfitters, and young students engaging in these experiences to pad their CV’s and you have the ingredients for dark interpretation. On the other hand, go to Bayfield, Wisconsin, in late January/early February and you could be staying in a B&B, supporting the local economy, having dinner with sled dog mushers, and volunteering during the day to help manage the dogs and sleds, or possibly be a timekeeper. If we only see voluntourism as represented in the first scenario, we forget entirely about the remarkable sled dog race in Bayfield, and the reality that voluntourists have been supporting this race for nearly a decade!

So which is it? Is voluntourism the hedonistic, self-serving, vulnerable-population-neglecting, “‘catechism of ethics'” described by McGloin and Georgeou? Or, is it the animal-fan-favorite, snow & ice-filled extraordinary adventure portrayed in a small town in Wisconsin?

Of course, it is both.

And… we need to cultivate an ever-deepening understanding of how to hold in our collective awareness the vast array of offerings, none of which fit neatly into a one-approach-equals-all!

Final Thoughts…

McGloin and Georgeou remind us that over-simplifying the voluntourism experience in the context of any destination is woefully uninformed, particularly when vulnerable populations and indigenous peoples are involved. What else can we take away from their article?

Certainly, the voluntourism sales pitch is not an accurate portrayal of the entire gamut of motivations which are expressed by individuals considering such a trip. Yes, they want to “make a difference.” Yes, they seek life experience and adventure which will translate into possibly a more vibrant CV. There are also a cluster of other reasons to say, “Yes,” to voluntourism. These involve camaraderie, living one’s values, and becoming more informed through cross-cultural interactions, just to name a few.

The authors also consider time frame and the relatively short duration of voluntourism experiences. This argument reverberates throughout the academic literature on voluntourism – suggesting that longer-term commitments are of greater value to all stakeholders. I think what we could be inspired to consider, following on the work of McGloin and Georgeou, is rather than the actual footprint of the journey – a mere week or two, in many cases – an elongation of the contextual footprint of the voluntourism experience. Could, for example, a participant, host community, and other stakeholders  benefit from expanding the lead-in and post-trip cycles? Could these periods include some of the experiential learning and development that naturally accrues from the trip itself? Could voluntourism experiences be crafted within a more robust learning and developmental cycle for the participants and the host community? What would this new iteration of elongated itinerary look like? How could each host community be on a similar journey of its own?