Can We Move Voluntourism Beyond Scale’s Reach?

logo-100-slimMichael Hobbes wrote a compelling piece for New Republic recently entitled “Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development.” Hobbes takes us down the proverbial memory lane of some of the development community’s most recent disasters – projects that appeared quite promising in local contexts and were then multiplied through the grand notion of “scale” – the economic lingo for a more significant return on investment, lower percentage of overhead costs, and the primary goal of alleviating suffering in the most efficient ways.  The article delivers some names that we are familiar with – Jeffrey Sachs, as an example – and a failed attempt in Dertu, Kenya – the Millennium Villages Project.

The complexities regarding scale and our grand efforts at “do-gooding” in international and even local settings is captured well in the following example from the United States. Hobbes writes:

My favorite example of unintended consequences comes, weirdly enough, from the United States. In a speech to a criminology conference, Nancy G. Guerra, the director of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Delaware, described a project where she held workshops with inner-city Latina teenagers, trying to prevent them from joining gangs. The program worked in that none of the girls committed any violence within six months of the workshops. But by the end of that time, they were all, each and every one, pregnant.

“That behavior was serving a need for them,” she says in her speech. “It made them feel powerful, it made them feel important, it gave them a sense of identity. … When that ended, [they] needed another kind of meaning in their lives.”

The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.

“Complex Adaptive Systems” and Voluntourism

The sheer complexity of the localized expressions of societal challenges is referred to by Hobbes, in the above example. as the shift from gang-involvement to pregnancy. It is a potent story. In each and every setting and community it will be different. There will be a trade-off of some kind. We are seeing this in Cambodia and elsewhere with the influx of willing volunteers and donors coming into places like Siem Reap and the subsequent multiplication of orphanages. It isn’t that voluntourists are bad. It isn’t that Cambodian orphanage proliferation is horrific. The complexity of the situation produces an outcome that is necessarily unwanted.

Around the world, in different settings, we can see that in some situations the insertion of volunteers, particularly on a large-scale basis, leads to many more challenges than it does positive, impact-filled outcomes. Orphanages and large-scale voluntourism, it would appear, do not mix – Cambodia, South Africa, and Nepal are proving this to us. Just like the failed efforts of Sachs in Dertu, voluntourism in these locations is producing more, not less, orphanages. So what can we do about this?

“Dreaming Voluntourism A Little Smaller”

Hobbes concludes his remarks with these words:

PlayPump International, the charity I started with, doesn’t exist anymore. The pumps, however, are still being installed by Roundabout Water Solutions, an NGO that markets them as a “niche solution” that should only be installed at primary schools in poor rural areas. Four years ago, the same evaluations that so harshly criticized the rapid expansion of the project also acknowledged that, in some villages, under the right circumstances, they were fabulously helpful.

In 2010, “Frontline” interviewed the director of PlayPump about its failures, and he said, “It might have been a bit ambitious, but hey, you gotta dream big. Everyone’s always said it’s such a great idea.”

And it was. But maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.

One of the original principles of my work with voluntourism was the simple conviction that any human being, regardless of age, talent, skill or net worth, who travels to a destination can, unequivocally, render service to that destination. This may have sounded to some like a grandiose dream; however, as it pertains to scale, it is, in my opinion, in alignment with what Hobbes is sharing with us – dreaming smaller.

The uniqueness of an individual’s potential contribution to a given destination in many ways is more readily introduced on a small scale. Where we may have faltered with voluntourism, therefore, is the manner to which we have attempted to scale it. Companies and NGOs and social entrepreneurs have stepped in with the business models of scaled activity in order to run multinational headquarters and satellite offices. We have taken the individual capacity of rendering service and handed that independently-guided initiative into the hands of those whom we think are likely to know better – the Jeffrey Sachs’ of the world, if you will. This is not to suggest that there is a lack of wisdom in consulting with those who know communities and have had relationships with them for decades. Perhaps, instead, we can take a first step of  holding discussion with these operations rather than simply giving them all of the power, and our power, to distribute as they see fit.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism gives us a chance to dream smaller; we need not see it, nor operate it, as a large-scale venture. In fact, I would argue that our capacity to engage voluntourists on a smaller scale is more readily available to us than ever before. Advances in technology and communications offer us an unprecedented means of interacting with host destinations well before we arrive, affording us an opportunity to explore what we may bring to a community and to focus our intention and attention on showing up with that offering. These offerings can be minutely simple, as simple as taking an hour to pick up trash along a hiking trail or in a neighborhood. The smallest of gestures may indeed prove to be the most vibrant and ultimately the most meaningful.

Of course, the convenience of scale makes it entirely attractive. If we realize that a one-size-fits-all approach can prove detrimental to destinations, however, we can become more selective, more informed, and more wise in our decisions of what to do and where to go. Most likely, we will discover that scaled and non-scaled approaches to voluntourism will result in a wholly more beneficial series of outcomes for host communities across the globe. Dreaming smaller, we may find a greater response from host communities and travelers alike, and subsequently better results for all.

Can NGOs, companies, and social entrepreneurs, as well as host communities, universities, and voluntourists, collaborate and cooperate to move voluntourism beyond scale’s reach and “dream smaller”? This is a question of great significance moving forward.


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