Four Ways to Build an ‘Anti-Voluntourism’ Organization

Stand Up Planet

Could We Have a “Stand Up Planet” for Voluntourism?

I read a great post this past week from @Reductress entitled “The Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children.” What are those four ways, you ask? Very concisely they are:

1) Cradling the child to your bosom

2) While playing sports with all of the village children

3) While wearing traditional native garb, and

4) The family portrait

[SOURCE: The Four Cutest Ways to Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children – Reductress.com]

The post from Reductress is, of course, satirical. But it really got me to thinking about what I could write along the same, satirical lines. And what I came up with is a list of “Four Ways to Build an Anti-Voluntourism Organization.” Here we go.

Way #1: NO PHOTOGRAPHS!!!

Building on the Reductress article, the first rule for your anti-voluntourism organization is no photographs. Any photographs that could be posted using social media, or shared with others via email or in a slideshow at home with family & friends, could be seen as a form of tourism. Observers and participants alike could get the wrong impression of your program. Your anti-voluntourism organization is only in the host community to help, to alleviate a social or environmental issue. You are not there to demonstrate people having fun, enjoying themselves with the backdrop of scenery that constitutes part of the destination, or in camaraderie with local residents smiling – this is tourism, after all. You want a very clear – “No Photographs Allowed” – policy.

Way #2: Kidnap Your Volunteers and Teleport Them to the Host Village

Another way to ensure that your volunteers are not motivated by anything other than the best, altruistic intentions is to kidnap them. Make sure that you get the black hood on before they notice that you have snuck up behind them. Use chloroform if necessary. Make sure they are unable to use a cell phone, talk to members of their family, friends, or co-workers in advance of their departure (Someone could suggest that they visit a particular place while they are in Mali, for example, and this would be tourism – YIKES!). Make sure that they have not read any blog posts about volunteering in another part of the world. Make sure they have no desire to travel. Interrogate them, if necessary, before you carry them off to whatever destination you have in mind.

Once you have them in the destination, ensure that they are, indeed, motivated only by altruistic intentions. When you remove the hood and let them see where they are, if there is any indication that they will assist the program only if there is some benefit to them, like not being kidnapped again, you will have to send them back. You only want people who are 100% altruistic. Otherwise, you guessed it, it’s a voluntourism program.

Furthermore, it is important to teleport your participating volunteers to the host community. Do not allow them to be transported by any vehicle that is associated with the tourism supply chain – no boat/ship, no taxi, no train, no airplane. Do not allow them to purchase a tourist visa at the border – only a volunteer visa – and do not stamp their passport – part of the fees go to support the tourism marketing budget for the host country. Do not allow them to stay in a hotel, eat in a restaurant, go to a bar – nothing that could even remotely be seen as connected to the travel & tourism sector. These businesses pay taxes and employ individuals throughout the entire tourism supply chain, and your program, frankly, does only one thing – help the local community. Any kind of economic activity, or anything that could possibly be misconstrued as having a connection to the tourism economic footprint is strictly forbidden.

Way #3: Rent A Host-Village

Another way to make doubly certain that your program is not a voluntourism program is to rent a host village. This is one of my favorites for sure. This approach guarantees that everyone in the village is paid. Each resident will receive a day’s wages during the time that your group is in the village to volunteer. No job is being taken from a local resident. The residents can come in, if necessary, after a day’s work, dismantle the poorly constructed aspects of your volunteers’ work, and have everything ready and waiting for the next day’s activities. You can’t miss!

Way #4: Marketing & Communications Mantra: “We Don’t Do Voluntourism!”

The final way to avoid being confused as a voluntourism organization is to include a mantra (or “disclaimer” depending on if you want to keep something that has an “Eastern-thought” slant associated with it) in your email signatures, on your website, in your press releases, in all of your social media communications, etc. – “We Don’t Do Voluntourism!” This will absolutely and unequivocally guarantee that no one of sane mind will ever confuse what you do with voluntourism. Your organization will be so clearly non-aligned with the intersection of travel & tourism and voluntary service that anyone who is even remotely motivated to see a destination or experience its culture, geography, history, what have you, will never commit the grave error of using your services. Your message will be so clear that host destinations who hope to encourage economic benefit through transportation services, guiding services, accommodation services, or other tourism-related services for would-be voluntourists will be sure to select another organization with which to partner. You will be working with communities which only want volunteers who provide a social or environmental service for the destination, leaving no trace of economic benefit associated with tourism.

Final Thoughts…

I suppose I should reiterate that these four items are meant to be satirical, as if that wouldn’t jump off the page anyway, but one never knows in the realm of today’s hyper-sensitivity about issues like these.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently put money into comedy as it pertains to development work – Stand Up Planet. I feel like Voluntourism needs a version of “Stand Up Planet.” The aforementioned post from Reductress, and hopefully the post I have inked here, will get people to start laughing about the absurdity of seeing some separation between voluntary service and travel & tourism – these things really go hand-in-hand. But, Oh, how we love to separate them!

When things start to fall apart, of course, is when we deny the relationship, the connection between these two, and how interdependent they are. Tourism & travel mean money for local communities; they mean jobs; they mean no hand outs, but tout earned income. Voluntary service is a way to potentially improve the overall “health & wellness” of a destination, possibly giving it a chance to attract new and different visitors because the service you have provided has contributed to that well-being. Voluntourism is meant to be holistic, when it is well-considered, and thus leads to unilateral benefits for all stakeholders. Denial, i.e., “anti-voluntourism,” is the death knell.

Perhaps comedy and satire can help us get beyond our sense of self-importance, self-righteousness, and superiority over the lesser-minded “voluntourism programs” out there. (I know I feel as though I could do hours worth of stand-up comedy related to voluntourism.) We have a choice; and, laughter might help us see it differently.

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