Addressing The Assumption: Development Good, Voluntourism Bad

The good the bad and the ugly

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It is International Development Week in Canada. Annually, the first full week in February is set aside as a time to celebrate the contributions of Canadian development work to nations across the globe. Certainly, it is of great worth to recognize the efforts of those institutions which expend time, energy, and resources to improve the life-situations of people in destinations across the globe.

It seems to me that a similar approach could be taken with voluntourism. Dedicating a week to the millions of travelers who venture forth each year to benefit communities socially and economically through the combination of their voluntary service and engagement in travel- & tourism-related activities. Ironically, due to the unenviable positioning to which voluntourism has been relegated as of late, particularly over the past several years, we may find it quite difficult to gain traction in moving forward this idea. In order to accomplish such a feat, we need to build a stronger case for a week-long celebration of Voluntourists and Voluntourism. Where shall we begin?

Step 1: A Voluntourist App

Voluntourists need an App. Let’s face it, millions of folks are traveling the globe, pitching in where they can, seeking adventure, interacting with cultures, and interfacing with history, geography, and art. These individuals need a way of communicating with the world around them and beyond. “What are these voluntourists doing?” “What contributions are they making?” “On what activities are they spending their time and money?” “Where are they going?” “How long are they staying in a destination?” There are so many questions we could ask, but no way for voluntourists to give us a significant amount of group feedback. A Voluntourist App could definitely help to address the dearth in information and encourage voluntourists to report on their experiences, provide feedback, and share that feedback in real-time in one location.

Step 2: A Voluntourist Visa

Every destination needs to consider the development of a voluntourist visa. A maximum three-month visa that allows the holder of the visa to volunteer and travel throughout a country. This is not meant to suggest a country’s weakness or inability to address socio-environmental challenges. On the contrary, it is meant to emphasize the fact that we live in a world in which its collective citizenry is becoming more and more invested in the well-being of everyone – not just me, my family, my tribe, my nation. A voluntourist visa offers us, globally, a chance to position travelers as citizens of the world, of all nations. When they are in a given country, we want them to have an open invitation to contribute, if there be an opportunity to do so. This option to assist may come in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This option to assist may come in the form of a particular skill or offering which can alleviate human suffering. This may come in the form of supporting the preservation of historic and/or cultural treasures, conservation of the environment, or assisting a family with their annual harvest of olives or other crops.

The voluntourist visa is not an open invitation to take jobs from locals. It is an open invitation to be of service, to recognize the travelers who want to be of service, and to help destinations realize that an increasing number of travelers are interested and want to invest in the well-being of destinations.

Step 3: A Host-Community Voluntourist Report

A “Host-Community Voluntourist Report” is arguably the most important piece of information that could be created from this list. With today’s technology, it is not at all far-fetched to consider that we have reached the point at which communities can now express their opinions on voluntourists – “Do they benefit the local community, or not?” “How are voluntourists important for the local community?” “How can voluntourists’ impacts on the community be improved?” “Are there different voluntourists who work better than others?” Compiling a collective voice for communities and host-destination stakeholders can be an invaluable assessment tool and certainly one that will be well-respected from all audiences as they review voluntourism – its pitfalls and potentialities.

Step 4: An Annual Voluntourist Report

With a Voluntourist App, a Voluntourist Visa, and a Host-Community Voluntourist Report, it should not be all that difficult to compile some numbers, testimonials, and case-studies on a country-by-country basis so that we can formalize an “Annual Voluntourist Report.” An annual report on the socio-economic benefits derived from voluntourists moving about the planet could go a long way toward empowering destinations. Also, noting the failures and downsides of voluntourist engagement would help in generating greater transparency and awareness of what is not working. Having one document that represents the gamut of volunteering and travel across all lands affords everyone an opportunity to make smarter decisions without over-burdening stakeholders with the task of attempting to compile the information on their own.

Final Thoughts…

If voluntourism can become more transparent, whilst simultaneously demonstrating an overall net-positive impact, we may very well be on our way toward dismantling the collective-wisdom-mantra: “development good, voluntourism bad.” The steps outlined above are merely suggestions at this point; however, they definitely will contribute to a better understanding of exactly what voluntourism is and how it impacts the world. Much of our global view of voluntourism is notably skewed by the perversely over-conflated view of orphanage voluntourism. This oft-cited, easily-bashed form of voluntourism is so non-representative of the entirety of voluntourism that it verges on the absurd. The above steps could go a long way toward destabilizing this crowning nadir that has besmirched voluntourism over the past 3-plus years.

The culmination of an Annual Voluntourist Report would most assuredly represent a triumph in the development of voluntourism over the past quarter century. Regardless of the outcome, simply presenting the findings from such a study would indeed suggest that humanity is on a different track. No longer can development stand on its own as the only form of “good” to be manifested in this world. Voluntourism is making a contribution. When we start to measure it and put that contribution into print for the world to see, we may uncover just how “not bad” voluntourism really is.


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