The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) focused its Encounter program this past weekend (22 March 2014) on voluntourism. The question: “Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?” was addressed by a number of individuals including Dr. Stephen Wearing from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Daniela Papi, Learning Service & PEPY Tours, and Roger O’Halloran, executive director of PALMS, among others. The following quoted material from the broadcast sums up the overarching theme of the program as it pertains to voluntourism:
“‘It’s done for the experience of the volunteer’, says Roger O’Halloran, the executive director of PALMS, an NGO that was born out of the Catholic social movement of lay missionaries. ‘It’s all about the volunteer, with the pretence of helping someone, and I don’t buy it.'”
Doubtless, the opinions of individuals like Roger O’Halloran are quite valid. His organization sends volunteers abroad for two years and they must have a very good reason for that. Time commitment is one of the strongest arguments against voluntourism, along with taking away the dignity of local people, absconding local jobs, padding CVs, encouraging the exploitation of children – the list is long as to the manner by which voluntourism and voluntourists are taking advantage of local communities.
What we rarely hear, however, is the counterpoint on all of this – how is voluntourism being exploited?
The Exploitation of Voluntourism
Arguably, voluntourism has become one of the most exploited terms in the world today. It is seismic with the cacophony of vitriol which surrounds it, much like the arguments against other controversial subjects of our day, including religion.
And, speaking of religion, an article in Crains recently suggested that Millennials see CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) as their new Religion. One in four Millennials, according to the article, do not have an affiliation with an organized religion – 1 in 4! If this is indeed the case, it would appear that quite a number of Millennials, and those who may be catering to the 86+ million of them in the United States and 100’s of millions of others worldwide, are utilizing voluntourism as the Anti-Religion for Millennials (those roughly between the ages of 12 and 33).
If you are a journalist, travel writer, blogger, anyone, really, who is trying to build a following from this audience – the most social media & hand-held device savvy audience in the world, it would behoove you to reach them with a “new religion.” Barring that, finding something, a term, for example, that will take folks who have dismissed religion unlike any generation before them – a generation which is instead adopting what may be the most holistic life practice ever assembled from East and West (yoga, meditation, exercise, organic food, social media, travel, volunteering, etc.) – and use that term to rally their attention around “how not to be,” you may have uncovered a veritable treasure trove of followers.
Voluntourism has become the villain for those Millennials who are seeking an “anti-religion” as their “new religion.” The depiction of voluntourism as this dark, sinister force (which exploits villages, children, women, men, indigenous people, the environment) is a prime target for a generation which is driven to undo the wrongs of previous generations. Voluntourism, therefore, has become the poster child for how “not to live.” By presenting what one does as the opposite of voluntourism, or by drawing attention to the ugliness of voluntourism, an individual or organization or media outlet can, in essence, build a strong case for the efficacy of whatever they are proposing.
There is just one problem with this – none of the individuals whom I have come across, and who strive (vociferously or otherwise) to align voluntourism with the most unseemly aspects of exploitation at the host community level, appear to have any broad-based, global experience with voluntourism. Doesn’t that seem a bit strange?
The manifestos against voluntourism are proliferating worldwide. I have taken note of this exploitation of voluntourism for more than a decade. It has simultaneously increased as more and more individuals have traveled and volunteered across the planet. Journalists, bloggers, travelers, NGOs – all have used voluntourism to build their respective SEO presences in cyberspace by pointing out the flaws, failures, and shortcomings of the intersection of travel and voluntary service. The undercurrent of social media relevance and social desirability has become the bane of voluntourism on many levels, causing us to spend our energy condemning it, rather than uncovering how it may provide substantive evidence of an evolving planet and the development of its inhabitants.
For years, I have patiently maintained a fairly stand-offish approach to the criticisms of voluntourism. This may not have been the best policy. You may not agree with voluntourism, you may not like what it represents, you may not like the term – there may be hundreds of reasons why you are averse to it. But, it is the first attempt to bridge the divide between cultures, between for-profit and non-profit, between wealth gaps – spiritual, mental/emotional, wisdom-based, and economic – by accessing the largest industry in the world and the well-meaning of social society organizations as the delivery systems thereby. We are a long way from completing that bridge, yet the effort deserves more than our maligning condemnation.
I predict voluntourism will eventually become the step in human history which everyone will look back on and say – “That movement changed travel on this planet and much, much more.” But, don’t take my word for it. Spend less time exploiting voluntourism and more time getting at the root of why this movement has come on this planet at this juncture in our collective human history. Ask more questions, sit in those questions, seek not immediate answers – reflect more and expound less.
Target practice is easy, anyone can throw stones. It takes a far more integrative approach to stand amidst the stone-throwing and continue to draw attention to what is really at work underneath it all. The bumps and bruises may be painful; what is yet to come, however, from a generation that has mixed its formative years with travel & voluntary service, the world has not even begun to realize.