Goodwill Poaching: Volunteering, Travel, and the Rise of Black Market Aid

The Honest Truth About DishonestyIn the upcoming issue (January 2014) of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we will be running a piece entitled “Goodwill Poaching: Volunteering, Travel, and the Rise of Black Market Aid.” (It will serve as the precursor for a “white paper” bearing the same title; and, who knows, perhaps a book.)

We hope to raise questions about how the combination of volunteering & travel is being run around the world: the systems which are currently in place, how well those systems are being honored, what could be changed, and how we might go about the process of doing so. We need to better understand the motivations behind circumventing, ignoring, and/or being ignorant of the current regulations that impact volunteering and travel, for example; and, recognizing just how many different approaches to hosting volunteers in each country actually exist (it can be incredibly confusing).

The article, as it turns out, could not be more timely.

Black Market Aid – – Unreported World: Orphanage Voluntourism in Nepal

Channel 4 in the UK recently carried a segment from Unreported World on Orphanage Voluntourism in Nepal. Building on the continued media feast that the work of Dr. Linda Richter and Amy Norman has become (as it pertains to Orphanage Voluntourism), Unreported World expanded beyond South Africa and Cambodia to include Nepal. Unlike the other print and video segments that have run (a la The Observer and Al Jazeera, respectively), however, Unreported World touched on an item that has brought at least one organization to pull its programming from Nepal. What was this item? Having the proper paperwork to legally volunteer in Nepal, for it is illegal to do so on a tourist visa.

Dr. Edgar Feige described the informal/underground economy that would be represented by those tourists who venture into Nepal to volunteer without the proper permit. He wrote:

“As a general proposition, an economic agent is regarded a member of the ‘formal’ sector of any economy when his actions adhere to, or are protected by the established institutional rules of the game. Conversely, when his actions fail to adhere to the established rules, or are denied their protection, the agent is regarded as a member of the ‘informal’ sector of the economy. Adherence to the established rules constitutes participation in the formal or aboveground economy, whereas, non compliance, or circumvention of the established rules, or exclusion from the protection of those rules, constitutes participation in an informal or underground economy. Since there are a variety of institutions (different sets of rules covering a wide spectrum of economic behaviors) there are also a variety of informal sectors. The characteristics of each distinct informal economy are determined by the particular set of institutional rules that its members circumvent.”

[Source: Feige, Edgar L. (1990). Defining and Estimating Underground and Informal Economies: The New Institutional Economics Approach. World Development 18(7), 989-1002.]

The informal economy (sometimes referred to as the black market) which is being created via volunteering & travel in countries across the planet, is pervasive. We do not know how large it is. We do not even know (we can only speculate as to) the motivations and circumstances behind it. We know that this black market involves individuals and groups volunteering without the proper permits/visas to do so. We also know that it involves local residents being paid and not paying taxes on that income. Is there an explanation?

Rationalizing Permit-Free Volunteering & Tax-free Income: Does Doing Good Make Breaking the Rules Justifiable?

In his book – – The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves – – Dr. Dan Ariely discusses cheating – how we cheat, the impacts of cheating, why it increases, and how we can curb cheating behavior. As it pertains to volunteering & travel, it appears that through a process of rationalizing to ourselves (we are, after all, the judge and jury of our actions and at the end of the day we must be acceptable to ourselves) we feel that bypassing regulations (volunteer visas, local residents not paying taxes on homestays, as  examples) is justifiable. What’s more, according to the research of Ariely, the more folks in our peer group who “cheat,” the more likely we are to do the same.

We can all agree that the current rules & regulations are likely unable to meet the growing demand for tourists’ responding to natural disasters, yet volunteering to support conservation efforts and socio-environmental challenges, and our overall heightened sense of responsibility to others and our planet, have been operating in a manner that is aligned with “black market” activity. Tourists who were in Thailand, for example, following the 2004 tsunami and volunteered to support in the immediate, post-disaster clean-up were, technically, acting illegally – their tourist visas did not cover the ability to volunteer. (Yes, this is perhaps a extreme example, but under the regulations of Thailand, anyone volunteering on a tourist visa is breaking the law.)

I think any of us would say those tourists who volunteered after the tsunami were heroic; the last thing we would consider is whether they did what they did illegally. In the work of Ariely, this would be one of those rationalizations we use to justify “cheating” the system. As we incorporate such rationalizations into the realm of volunteering & travel, we are indeed faced with an ethical conundrum and, doubtless, illegal activity, i.e., no wonder a black market is emerging.

Final Thoughts…

Our planet was not organized, systemically, for a large number of individuals wanting to move across country borders and volunteer. An informal economy is but one result of this, a demonstration thereof. Embarrassingly, we are entering territory that is beyond our current collective capacity to address – we simply do not have the systems for it. It is there, nonetheless, staring back at us – a shade-covered window which speaks of light and fresh air on the other side if we desire to open it, but also provides the ambiance for perfect slumber.

The Volunteering-Travel Black Market is certainly sizable. We do not know how sizable – faith-based mission trips, service learning, gap-year volunteering, corporate volunteering, voluntourism – so many to consider. If we started by measuring it on some level, would this lead us to action? policy changes? more meaningful discussions about crafting new systems to address it? There it sits, staring back at us. Shall we open the curtain, or sleep some more?

At some point, the media will push volunteering & travel to open that shade. I would rather we beat them to it!


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