North-South No More! The Global Emergence of Volunteers, Volunteer-Travelers, and Voluntourists

ICOHT LogoAt the 2013 International Conference on Hospitality and Tourism Management, Usep Suhud presented the findings from his doctoral dissertation entitled “A moment to give, no moment to take: A mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism.” In this study, a mixed-methods study, there were two aspects to Mr. Suhud’s research – a qualitative study and a quantitative study.

For the qualitative study, Mr. Suhud interviewed 33 individuals via focus groups, in-depth interviews, and online interviews; for the quantitative study, 542 individuals responded to an online survey. The combination of the qualitative and quantitative methods resulted in different responses that are certainly helpful for individuals who are planning to participate in a volunteering-travel experience as well as those who are, or plan to, offer these experiences – be it an NGO, a tour operator, what have you.

Although we could build a strong case regarding the unique socio-cultural background of the researcher, in this case, Mr. Suhud [Indonesian (developing world), Muslim (religious background expressed in his dissertation)] being one of the first such individuals to conduct research on volunteer tourism, there are two items that are specifically worth considering from the results of this study.

First, Mr. Suhud uncovered clear motivations for “taking/receiving” and “giving” from the 542 respondents that were part of the quantitative, online survey (more on this in a bit). Second, and even more important to the world at large, the responses to his qualitative study, combined with results from other studies on volunteer tourism, afforded Mr. Suhud the opportunity to present the following table (Table 9.1, from page 274):

A moment to give no moment to take _ a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism-291

SOURCE: Suhud, Usep (2013) “A moment to give, no moment to take – a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism” (p.274)

“North-South” No More!

We are fully aware that a shift has begun over the last half-decade: volunteering-travel is no longer “owned” by the developed world. The “North-South” paradigm of the earlier iterations of volunteering-travel is giving way to “South-North,” “South-South,” “North-within-North” and “South-within-South” volunteering, volunteer-traveling, and voluntourism. This is something that should be of great interest to journalists, researchers, practitioners, and even participants themselves.

As a volunteer, volunteer-traveler or voluntourist, you are no longer bound to be in the presence of a group of “do-gooders” from the “North” as the default group of participants. What’s more, depending on the entity with which you engage to organize and coordinate your experience, you may very well have a degree of control over the inter-cultural experience available to you through differently-created cohorts of participants. (In other words, a “South” or emerging country volunteering-travel specialist may afford you an opportunity to engage with a cohort of emerging country participants.) The idea that participants could begin to consciously select programs that enhance the inter-cultural experience, not merely in the context of the destination, but also in the context of the cohort of participants, is a brand new prospect for volunteering-travelers.

Motivations: Giving, Taking/Receiving, and Taking/Receiving & Giving (TRG)

Mr. Suhud’s mixed-methods study provides us with clear evidence that we really are dealing with three different audiences, or categories, of individuals who are drawn to the intersection of volunteering and travel. Group 1 represents those folks who want to travel and just “give.” These individuals, according to Mr. Suhud, are motivated by “environmental” and “public” motivations. Group 2 represents those folks who are looking for what they can get from the intersection of volunteering-travel. The three motivational categories presented under this banner are: 1) “social interaction,”  2) “physiological,” and 3) “religious” (“God” will give me a reward for being a volunteering-traveler). And, finally, Group 3 represents those individuals who are truly “taking/receiving & giving,” or, in the author’s approach, (TRGers).

A moment to give no moment to take _ a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism-286

SOURCE: Suhud, Usep (2013) “A moment to give, no moment to take – a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism” (p. 269)

In the figure above, we can visualize the three different groups – The “Givers,” the “Takers/Receivers,” and the “Takers/Receivers-Givers.” What is interesting is how half of the “religious” and “environmental” motivations can hold, on the one hand, a “giving” aspect, and on the other hand, a “taking/receiving” aspect. And, we can see how this would be possible. As it pertains to “religious” motivation, we could see someone who “gives” just for the sake of giving, as part of their spiritual practice, if you will. Likewise, we could see someone being “religiously” motivated so they could “take/receive” a blessing from her/his “god.” On the “environmental” motivation side, we could envision someone who “gives” to benefit the environment – conserve it, preserve it, what have you. Likewise, we could see someone being “environmentally” motivated so they could interact with lions and tigers or rainforests in the Amazon.

Final Thoughts…

Mr. Suhud adds to the existing literature and research on volunteering, volunteer-traveling and voluntourism by taking what previous researchers have covered – the motivations behind integrating volunteering and travel – and drawing our attention to the distinctions between the “giving,” “taking/receiving, and “taking/receiving-giving” approaches exemplified by different individuals. We could call the first group (“giving”) the “volunteer” group. These individuals would be likely to balk at being called “voluntourists” or having any association to the term “tourist.” The second group (“taking/receiving”), we could call the “volunteer-travel” group. They would likely also balk at any term that connects them with tourist; for, in such a case, we would conceivably be drawing attention to the “taking/receiving” nature of what they hope to get out of the experience. The third group (“taking/receiving-giving”) really probably are the “voluntourists” in the world. These folks are conscious of the entire grid as presented by Mr. Suhud in the above “Figure 9.2.” They have integrated volunteering and travel, see themselves as having done so, and are likely more open to the notion that they really are (“TRGers”) to use Mr. Suhud’s term.

One of the most important conclusions we can draw from Mr. Suhud’s research, therefore, is that the world will begin to produce more and more of each group, from the North and the South, who will be volunteer-traveling the globe. We should also be aware that because we have two groups who will dissociate themselves from any descriptor which includes the word “tourist,” we must be aware of the audiences for whom we are writing, or, at the very least, be clear that we are talking about three different audiences.

Would-be participants and participants should also be aware that they will be interacting with individuals who see themselves through the lens of one of these three groups: a volunteer (“giver”), a volunteer traveler (“taker/receiver”), or a voluntourist (a “taker/receiver-giver”). We must be sure that pride or a sense of “evolved-enlightenment” be not adopted as we uncover the dispositions of our cohort members. We must learn to accept all of these perspectives and embrace them equally. We may realize, even during our own experiences, that we find ourselves inclined to identify with each of these approaches at different times – one moment, we are a “giver”; one moment, we are a “taker/receiver”; one moment, we are a “taker/receiver-giver”; one moment, we are all of the above. Hopefully, this will become the goal for all of us.

If we take the time to honor the approaches, personalities, and motivations of each of these groups (seeing, in essence, that all of them are “right”), we may very well be able to establish a bridge of cooperation across the practitioners who cater to these audiences, as well as between the audiences themselves. As this will be necessary if we are to move the volunteering-travel sector forward, let’s hope that this research will be a foundational component upon which we may begin to do so.

Voluntourism 2014: What to Expect in the Year Ahead

2014It is that time of year again. Time to pull out the crystal ball, the prognosticating diving rod, the tarot cards, the ouija board – anything we can get our hands on to figure out what lies ahead for voluntourism in the 362 remaining days of 2014.

It won’t hurt, however, to start by looking back at the things that we identified for 2013 and whether they came to pass, if at all, and to what degree. The five items on the 2013 List were:

  1. Shifting Demographics Means More Discernment
  2. Family Voluntourism To Continue Its Surge
  3. Geo-coding & Geo-mapping: A New Role for Voluntourists
  4. Higher Education Stressing Global Education for Students
  5. Domestic & International Voluntourism In/To The Developed World

Discernment – check. We definitely saw more discernment from working professionals connecting with voluntourism in 2013. Family voluntourism – check. More families than ever before determined how to engage in voluntourism in 2013. Geo-mapping – has not materialized on a broad scale. Higher education stressing global education – check (I took a Dean and a group of students throughout Bolivia discussing the challenges of voluntourism and the experience has now been incorporated into a course at the university – SDSU.). Domestic & international voluntourism in/to the developed world – check. (Italy, SaveVernazza to be exact, served as host to voluntourists who went to the village and volunteered to help in the restoration following the October 2011 mudslides there – we will showcase SaveVernazza in the upcoming issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter. We also saw the launch of Habitat for Humanity’s VolunTourism Center in Central Florida.)

Alright, so not too bad for 2013 – four out of five solid items, with one still in the works – geo-mapping. As for 2014…

Voluntourism in 2014

1) #TMOMs Voluntourism Year – this is an easy one because has already made it official that 2014 is the Year of Voluntourism for #TMOMs. What we do not know is what the ripple effects of this adoption will mean. We saw families really start clamoring for voluntourism in 2013, but with #TMOMs emphasizing voluntourism for moms – those lovely ladies who make most of the travel decisions for families throughout the world, it could seriously raise the participation rate for families beyond what we saw in 2013.

I also get the sense that #TMOMs will take voluntourism in new directions, uncover new territory, and will likely emphasize the importance of giving money, not only time, to causes and issues that are important. We may see a particular focus on children’s charities, for example. And because many #TMOMs engage in U.S. domestic travel, we could see a significant surge in voluntourism in the U.S.

Pay attention to how #TMOMs reshapes voluntourism in 2014.

2) Anniversaries for “Gen-2” Volunteer Vacation Companies & NGOs – As we enter the middle of decade #2 of the 21st Century, many of the second generation volunteer vacation companies and NGOs will be celebrating two decades worth of offering products & services. For example, i-to-i, which was bought out by TUI five-plus years ago, will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. While some of the voluntourism companies will only be celebrating their 1-decade anniversaries, the NGOs and companies which first brought us the “mission trip” sans religion in the form of (as an example) teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) back in the mid-90’s will be recounting their respective histories and rallying alumni to spread the word and draw new recruits to the fold.

Although many of these Gen-2 Volunteer Vacation companies & NGOs have changed their models and approaches since their respective inceptions, this has not necessarily resonated with all of the stakeholders. Will we see some clashes over idealism in 2014? Stay tuned.

3) The Rise of Voluntourism Centers – As we saw nations launch national campaigns around voluntourism in 2013 – see Thailand and Malaysia as examples, it is predicted that in 2014 we will see the first of its kind voluntourism centers launched around the world. These centers will likely be of two types.

The first type will be an NGO model whereby visiting voluntourists will be able to directly coordinate their desires to volunteer in a given destination through a non-profit organization that specializes in offering such a service. The second type will be a destination marketing organization (DMO) model. DMOs will elect to have a dedicated voluntourism center within their operations to meet the needs of business & leisure travelers seeking to volunteer within a given destination. Both models will be able to guide voluntourists through the visa process, planning their trips, identifying organizations with which they can volunteer, etc.

What is not known at this point is how many of these voluntourism centers will be developed in response to natural disasters, say in the case of the Philippines, for example. What may also be surprising is whether we see such centers spring up in the developed world as opposed to the emerging world. 2014 should provide us with insights as to how these will play out.

4) Higher Education & Voluntourism – Just as Stanford University has launched its D.School for designing solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, 2014 is likely to see the launch of a Voluntourism Institute that focuses on bringing together the various schools of thought on the intersection of voluntary service & travel. Service learning, volunteer tourism, international volunteering – to date, academia has split-off these silos to keep the grand cycle of publishing (not perishing) possible for academics seeking tenure. As integral & interdisciplinary theory starts to wend its way through the academic hierarchy, we will see a greater concentration on how students engaging in voluntary service and travel – regardless of what it is called – have similar motivations, similar expectations, similar impacts on communities, and participate in similar experiences via many of the same stakeholder channels – the travel & tourism supply chain, the public sector, the NGO sector, and local communities.

Despite these similarities, however, there is very little focus on integration – each academic institution is grasping for its identity amidst a new world order. With any luck, perhaps a lot will be necessary, we will see academics crossing lines and crafting a model for incorporating all of these points of view under one umbrella.

***Voluntourism Center/Voluntourism Institute Combination – It may very well be possible for a voluntourism center/voluntourism institute to be combined in a given location – thus offering a space for researchers, academics, and students to conduct research and at the same time engage in voluntary service and travel within a given destination. Other visitors would also have access to this same space, an available database, etc. The combination could be even better than having two separate entities as outlined above.

5) The Public Sector & Data Under Duress: 2014 The Year of Collective & Cooperative Data Publication – We have discussed the perils that voluntourism may face in the near-term as governments begin a crackdown on what we are calling “grey-black market aid.” If the public sector does move forward, as it did in Namibia in 2013 (see pages 17 – 21 of the referenced document), we may see a rush to cooperative data collection and publication by voluntourism outfits in 2014.

So far, we have seen no such organized, collective & collaborative publication of voluntourism data. NGOs and companies simply do not see the importance of it. If countries like Namibia, however, make it more difficult for individuals to acquire a visa to volunteer in a country, or crackdown on infractions, as will likely be the case in Nepal and Cambodia in 2014, we could see the impetus for publishing data.

In either case, 2014 is shaping up to be the year for a collective & cooperative data publication on voluntourism.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism has grown exponentially over the last decade. Despite the growth, voluntourism has never formalized itself and this is going to pose some serious challenges in 2014 and beyond. Instead of partnerships and collaborations, we simply get more fish in the sea – great if you are a shark, not so great if you are a fish in search of food.

As voluntourism continues to move out from under the umbrella of “alternative tourism,” there is a chance that countries and key decision makers will take it more seriously. If this be the case, then we can count on voluntourism centers and a voluntourism institute cropping up in the very near future. 2014 appears to feature the initial ingredients for making this a reality.

Student Research on Voluntourism: Creating “Real-Time” Benefits for Practitioners

Final Poster, Emma Redfoot, Lewis & Clark College

In case you were unaware of the burgeoning body of research on voluntourism that is being generated by students across the globe, you may want to take a moment to celebrate – it’s truly expanding!

What’s more, there is growing emphasis being placed on students’ sharing their research experiences and results in “real-time.” Why is this so important for the voluntourism community? It significantly reduces the timeline between research being conducted and results being published – a tremendous breakthrough for practitioners.

And, why is this information so valuable? Take a look at the following excerpt from a Master’s Thesis, which discusses the motivations of voluntourists interested in volunteering with aboriginals in the Eden Valley Reserve in Alberta, Canada:

The main question for this study was: What motivates volunteers to participate in volunteering trips into The Eden Valley Reserve? And based on the research conducted thus far, this study responds: seeking authenticity, community development, the search for unique experiences, predilection for cultural keenness, and catharsis together shape the motivations of tourists seeking volunteering through travel. Further analysis of the data provided by this study notes that voluntourism does contribute to socio-cultural sustainability.” [Source: Alomari, Thabit (2012). “Motivation and Socio-Cultural Sustainability of Voluntourism” Master’s Thesis, University of Lethbridge, p.90]

Since the majority of the research being conducted by students is experienced through actual participation in voluntourism engagements and/or getting out into host communities, even the subtle insights provided in the descriptions of their experiences can be incredibly beneficial for voluntourism practitioners seeking to improve their operations – – not three years from now, but TODAY!!

Is there a way to bring academics on board with this same approach?

Part of the Problem: ‘Publish or Perish’

“Publish or Perish” – remember that notion? It has been a standard-bearer in academe for the better part of a century and has focused on peer-reviews and editorial review boards. The timeline has become so long in the voluntourism space, for example, that the average time between field-based participatory research experience and publication is nearly three (3) years in duration! Is this information even relevant by the time it hits the pages of a journal? Whether the underlying purpose of a research study is meant to assist practitioners or not, the insights and commentary from researchers participating in voluntourism experiences could be quite valuable for all voluntourism practitioners.

Discover Magazine’s Neuroskeptic Blog produced a post earlier this year (2013) entitled “What’s Wrong With ‘Publish or Perish’?” The author provided an interesting description of this reality and how these two things have become inextricably linked:

Perishing is an inevitable consequence of the demographics. It’s linked to publishing only by accident, as it were; today, scientists happen to be assessed mostly by their publications, so it’s publications that save you from perishing. But you can’t blame publishing – there’s just not enough room for everyone. Some people will drop off the science ladder, until we either stop awarding so many PhDs, or until we create more senior posts. It’s simple arithmetic. So we shouldn’t expect reform of publishing, or alt-metrics, to save people from perishing. These reforms could certainly make the system fairer and better, but the fundamental problem is one of recruitment.”

Even if publishing and perishing are not as tightly bound as they appear, the current approach of scholarly publication is not helping practitioners as it could. Is there another way?

A Possible Future Landscape of Academe

The Neuroskeptic post links to an insightful piece in Nature – – “Scholarship: Beyond the paper.” Author Jason Priem offers a lengthy description of the future of academic publication and how the real-time generation of scholarly work will become the norm. He concludes:

We now have a unique opportunity as scholars to guide the evolution of our tools in directions that honour our values and benefit our communities. Here’s what to do. First, try new things: publish new kinds of products, share them in new places and brag about them using new metrics. Intellectual playfulness is a core scholarly virtue. Second, take risks (another scholarly virtue): publishing more papers may be safe, but scholars who establish early leadership in Web-native production will be ahead of the curve as these genres become dominant. Finally, resist the urge to cling to the trappings of scientific excellence rather than excellence itself. ‘Publication’ is just one mode of making public and one way of validating scholarly excellence. It is time to embrace the Web’s power to disseminate and filter scholarship more broadly and meaningfully. Welcome to the next era of scholarly communication.

Will this approach swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction? It is hard to say. Those who conduct academic research in volunteer tourism and voluntourism may regard it as being unacceptable. However, utilizing what Dr. Priem references in the Nature article for publishing research notes, particularly those which discuss actual experiences of participating academic “voluntourists,” could be invaluable for practitioners. Is there a middle ground?

Student Scholarship: A Middle Ground for Learning in REAL-Time?

Emma Redfoot, of Lewis & Clark College, is one of the first students who discussed her voluntourism research in a “real-time” format. In fact, she may be the first such student to do so anywhere. She shared the entire process of developing her research question, structure, methodology, experience in the field, results, and presentation of her results. Any practitioner who wished to follow her efforts could have done so. Doubtless, those who did learned quite a bit about Cusco, Peru, and the state of voluntourism within the surrounding community.

Now, imagine multiplying the effort of Emma Redfoot across hundreds of students who are conducting research on voluntourism across the planet. Afford each of them an opportunity to report on their studies today, to share that information with one another, with peers, with academics and practitioners and generate real-time awareness and real-time feedback. What if students discovered that another student was in the same city or a nearby village conducting voluntourism research? How much smarter could we be? How more quickly could we be improving our understanding of voluntourism and, therefore, improving it?

Final Thoughts…

The “Situating the Global Environment” (SGE) Initiative at Lewis & Clark College is testimony to breakthroughs in scholarship that can be modified with technology. I enjoyed following the situated research work of Emma Redfoot over the course of nearly 18 months through a social learning network – the dual combination utilized through the SGE program. Though I might not know the first thing about situated research, the social learning network made it possible for me to follow along.

The voluntourism community could benefit tremendously from accessing scholarship in real-time. Collaborating with students to create something along the lines of what has been developed at Lewis & Clark College could be a fantastic start. Students are interested in voluntourism and we would do well to afford them a “space” to share what they uncover in their investigations; the collective benefit will be an immediate impact to say the least.

The True Value of Voluntourists – Creating New Histories?

Chris Christensen 2380The work that is being undertaken in the arena of gross national happiness (a replacement for gross domestic product) in Bhutan is certainly inspiring and worthy of discovery if you have not ventured into that arena. Consideration of the overall psychological wellness of a society, as but one indicator of gross national happiness, speaks to the importance of such activities as volunteering. If volunteers are happier and healthier people, as has been detailed in academic literature over the past several years, then we might want to consider a different concept of the valuation of the volunteering tourist. In striving to discover the measurable value of voluntourists have we been essentially undervaluing their real contribution?

Under 25 = “No Value”

If you are under the age of 25, and you pay attention to the Media, you will likely be sitting in your room right now wondering whether you will ever amount to anything, particularly if you are considering becoming a voluntourist. You have no skills, you are virtually worthless when it comes to professional experience, and doubtless you will be more interested in drinking and partying when you arrive in a destination than lending a hand. Well, that at least seems to be the general consensus of who you are and what you represent to the media.

So, is there another way of measuring your value?

In the October 2013 issue of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we will take a look at a Master’s Thesis written by Ms. Kimberly Ann Tranel, a student at the University of Iowa. She discusses her experiences volunteering with her sister on two farms in Brazil. She writes:

My personal experiences as a volunteer tourist indicate that while the volunteer work I performed was subpar in comparison with the work performed by the salaried farm workers in Terra Nova, the work contributed to the farm’s progress and success through sharing laughter and stories. Such contributions show that the findings from the study on WWOOF Canada by Ord and Amer (nd) can be applied to the benefits that volunteers bring to host farms in Brazil. The other volunteers and I shared a piece of the world with the farm workers, with the community, and learned irreplaceable knowledge and techniques associated with coffee harvesting in Brazil… I went to Brazil hoping to learn about coffee production, which I did. I learned the importance of the coffee workers and I gained a great respect for the men who labor all day in the field to harvest the beans that I grind and drink each morning. But I also learned the importance of that human connection. The honesty of the farm manager and the compassionate traits of his wife helped my sister and me to feel at home in Brazil.”

It seems that Ms. Tranel has introduced a new valuation schema for voluntourists – the contribution that is made via “sharing laughter and stories” and who one is as a person in the context of your voluntourism experience. Is there a chance, then, that voluntourists actually contribute to the Gross National Happiness of a country outside of their own? Do those Under 25 have a value that is not currently being considered or measured?

Stories, Laughter, and Life Experience = Interaction – the REAL Value of Voluntourists

For those who spend their waking hours trying to measure the voluntary contribution of voluntourists to communities – whether it is sustainable, makes a long-term, measurable difference, what have you – perhaps you would be better off measuring the contribution that voluntourists make to the overall psychological well-being, happiness, and joy of a place and its people. No academic research has been conducted to measure how voluntourists contribute to the Gross National Happiness of either their home country or their host country; such intangible measurements, alas, have thus far escaped the realm of academic inquiry. But Ms. Tranel introduces us to this notion that the value of the voluntourist, and what they value from the anticipated promise of participating in these experiences (their motivations) is far from understood.

Further to this point, Ms. Tranel alludes to, in the description of her participation and experience, the fact that the interactive nature of voluntourism allows for demonstrations of “compassion,” “honesty” and “humor” as natural occurrences brought on by the simple placement of human beings in one, common setting. Is the potential for such demonstrations magnified because of the differences between the voluntourists and the local people? Does that very difference amplify the value of these qualities in the minds of the actors? Does it help them to appreciate these qualities to a greater degree? And does this help to galvanize in their minds the experiences they have in common, i.e., their shared experiences?

The True Value of Voluntourists: Creating New Histories

When talking about the value of voluntourists to communities and the interactions and occurrences that naturally flow from the introduction of voluntourists to the space, my colleague Fernando and I have hypothesized that the “New Histories” that are created from these interactions could, in fact, be the most important contributions that voluntourists can make to communities. The “Voluntourist Legends” that will be shared amongst the people of the community have never been valued, and yet, they contribute to these communities. These Legends may be positive or negative; regardless, they become part of the Living History of the community, and, therefore, may be the most sustainable contribution that voluntourists can ever offer.

Final Thoughts…

To date, voluntourists have been valued solely on the direct, voluntary-based contribution that they make, or fail to make, to communities. No research has made an effort to realize the value of the “voluntourist legends & histories” that spring from the interactions between voluntourists and the local people and the surrounding environment. I have been part of some of those stories, so I know. I remember them, and, when I see members of those communities again, we have a good laugh, or a sober moment. I have been there, for example, when a community honored the death of a voluntourist who had come to the community two years in a row, and had planned to come the third time, but had died in advance of his trip.

These stories, these experiences, have immeasurable value. They come from interaction, especially interaction that is grounded in an affirmation of wanting to contribute. The well-intentioned may be more likely to generate these stories, because they will often go further, try harder, and, as a result, create the circumstances that will manifest such legends and the physical and/or emotional responses which may be catalyzed therefrom.

Voluntourists and communities are making community legends & histories everyday. Start measuring these, and we may actually discover the true value of voluntourists.

Does Voluntourism Contribute To Or Reduce Poverty Porn?

Handsup15300Lina Srivastava offered a post on recently entitled “Poverty Porn and A New Way to Regard Social Impact.” The opening salvo reads:

A camera pans onto a young black girl from a perspective slightly above her. She stands alone in a field in an unnamed, unidentifiable location, looking away with a forlorn look on her face, never meeting the camera’s gaze. The voiceover: “This is Daniella. She’s nine. And her body is racked with pain from parasites; the same kind that killed her sister. Without help, Daniella could be next.” A single tear falls down Daniella’s face, as she now sits in a concrete doorway with no door, looking down.”

Decades of appeals to the well-off, all focusing on the devastation of natural disasters, societal ills, public health challenges, and the like through the use of images and videography, like the one described above, have certainly done their part in raising awareness and funding equally. Voluntourism operators, much like charitable organizations, have followed their own path in using photos and videography to draw would-be voluntourists to spend thousands of dollars, pounds, or euros to travel to destinations across the globe. When placing these different approaches side-by-side and analyzing them, there is good reason to question whether voluntourism is exacerbating poverty porn by creating its own form of “voluntourism porn,” or whether it is reducing the relevance of traditional forms of poverty porn. Is it more of the same, just differently clothed? Or is voluntourism raising the bar and therefore supporting the eradication of poverty porn?

A Closer Look at the “Gazes” of Voluntourism and Voluntourists

In the Study & Research column for volume 8 issue 1 of The VolunTourist Newsletter, Lisa Sink and Dr. Nancy Gard McGehee presented the findings of a research study which reviewed photographs posted on Facebook by volunteer tourists. The authors looked at two sets of photographic images – those portrayed on the websites of organizations which send volunteers abroad and those portrayed on the Facebook pages of voluntourists. Interestingly, they discovered that the photographs on the sending organzations’ websites revealed what was described as two types of gazes while the Facebook pages reflected three types of gazes.

For the sending organzations, the gazes came in the form of two traditional gazes described by researchers as the “tourist gaze” and the “family gaze.” The former of these is described thus: “The tourist gaze has been widely utilized, and may be defined as a gaze that is focused on the landscape and icons of a destination.” The latter of these is described thus: “This is when we place value on images that include the members of the travel party within the focus of the gaze. This does not include a strict definition of “family” but rather refers to the travel party in general.” The authors conclude:

In the context of volunteer tourism, the tourist gaze would include the landscapes and icons of the community in which the volunteer experience takes place. The family gaze would include the other volunteers participating in the experience.”

For sending organizations, either the tourist gaze or the family gaze appeared on the websites.

The authors discovered in their review of the photographs posted on Facebook, however, that there were three basic “gazes” demonstrated through the photos – the tourist gaze, the family gaze, and a combination of the tourist gaze and the family gaze. The first “gaze,” or “Drifter Gaze,” epitomized the tourist gaze, as described above. The second gaze, or “Narcissistic Gaze,” demonstrated the family gaze. The authors write:

The dominant family gaze was titled “the Narcissistic Gaze.” For this volunteer tourist, capturing the uniqueness of the foreign destination was not as important as capturing the relationships made with others sharing the experience, particularly fellow voluntourists.  Additionally, it was more important for this participant to exhibit their power by including themselves in the destination iconic sites, scenic views, and members of the host community rather than capturing these images on their own.”

Finally, the authors discovered what they describe as the “Zen Gaze” – an equal depiction of the tourist gaze and the family gaze. The authors quoted a participant as saying:

I definitely wanted, I remember wanting to put pictures of the country itself and how beautiful it is because I feel like people might be like ‘it’s a poor country and the desolate place’ but its honestly one of the most beautiful places I have been to, so I definitely wanted to show those pictures.  Probably like volunteering, like us, the beginning and after pictures of what we did at the playground.  I remember taking pictures of what we did at the school with the local people.  I wanted to show pictures that symbolized Ecuador and resembled something that, and not just random pictures that didn’t really mean anything.”

Voluntourism: Poverty Porn Or Something Else?

When reading through the work of Sink & McGehee, it is not readily apparent if voluntourism is contributing to poverty porn, eradicating it, or creating a new type of “voluntourism porn.” Clearly, sending organizations are appealing to voluntourists by using what the authors describe as the “Narcissistic Gaze” – drawing voluntourists to participate due to the relationships and interactions with fellow voluntourists and local residents. Rather than portraying the stand alone figures suffering from extreme poverty or disease (traditional poverty porn), sending organizations are focusing on the relationships with “others” – be they fellow voluntourists or local residents. With voluntourists, on the other hand, it seems that there are those who are aligning with the tourist gaze, the family gaze, and in some cases, a more “evolved” gaze in the form of a mixture of both (Zen Gaze).

In their commentary, Sink & McGehee do not put forth any documentation to support either sending organizations or voluntourists as focusing on poverty porn. It appears for the most part that sending organizations and voluntourists, those who do not demonstrate possession of the “Zen Gaze,” fall in line with traditional tourism operators and tourists – with a dominant tourist or family gaze representing the preponderance of images. However, the emergence of the Zen Gaze raises some points worthy of consideration as to whether voluntourism may, in fact, be contributing to the creation of a different mentality altogether – one that is interested in portraying a destination that is vibrant, alive, not filled with poverty, and an experience that is worth remembering through depicting the relationships which are fostered through it.

One could argue that for those who are demonstrating a Zen Gaze that voluntourism is more than just alleviating societal ills or merely seeing a destination. Through a healthy combination of volunteering and tourism, residents and destinations may no longer need “fixing” as depicted through poverty porn. Destinations may be unique, worthy of exploration and support, but not to be pitied. And such a shift may be expanded to sending organizations, helping voluntourism manifest a greater integrity – – one that is not based on poverty porn.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism has so much to teach us. There are reams of relevant knowledge and understanding being generated on a daily basis as individuals come into contact with destinations and residents all over the planet each and every day. Though voluntourism may be rooted in our collective response to poverty porn, we certainly have evidence to suggest that voluntourism may be moving us away from poverty porn to something else entirely. Nevertheless, if we want to prevent the development of “voluntourism porn,” it appears to be important to emphasize the balanced combination of volunteering & travel & tourism related experiences. For sending organizations, this helps them to avoid the creation of “voluntourism porn,” and for voluntourists, it assists them in seeing both sides of the experience, meaning that rather than thinking with a “philanthropic mindset” they may very well begin to see voluntourism and their connection to it as a socio-economic investment. Unlike poverty porn, therefore, we may be able to evolve — to make direct contributions to communities through our travel expenditures and, quite possibly, through social impact investing in support of micro-, small- & medium-sized enterprises.

Comprehensive Review of Academic Literature on Volunteer Tourism/Voluntourism Stephen Wearing and Dr. Nancy Gard McGehee have compiled a comprehensive review of the academic literature on volunteer tourism and voluntourism, stepping back almost two decades, at some points. The article entitled “Volunteer tourism: A review” appears in the October 2013 issue of Tourism Management, and is fully accessible for viewing through the newly redesigned Elsevier website.

Anyone who has been in the volunteer travel space for even a short period of time can benefit from reading through this ten-page article. Here are some highlights worth considering:

+ The “Introduction” provides a good overview of the growth and development of volunteer tourism/voluntourism in the marketplace and in the academic literature

+ The “Evolution of volunteer tourism” presents more in-depth coverage in the academic literature, recognizing the shifting views of academic thought on the subject, and similarities to the unfoldment of academic literature on tourism – a four-step process (Jafari 2001): advocacy, cautionary, adaptancy, and scientific platforms. What the authors point out is that volunteer tourism literature seems to be moving much more quickly through this process, at almost double the pace of tourism literature

+ The “Pre-trip motivations” section is quite helpful for voluntourism programming staff and those who are running voluntourism programs. The academic literature has done a solid job over the years of getting a sense of who the potential volunteer tourist/voluntourist is. Most important, not everyone is created the same and the mindsets of potential participants deserve some serious consideration. After all, as a provider of volunteer travel experiences, you may not want to attract a certain type of volunteer tourist.

+ “Agents of change? The role of volunteer tourism organizations in the journey” is a section worth reading for executive directors and owner/operators of volunteer tourism programs. The shaping of the sector originally came from NGOs, but the last decade has seen the influence of for-profit actors stepping into the space and changing the landscape significantly.

+ “At the destination: a community-centered approach” brings readers to the heart of volunteer tourism; arguably, without communities, there simply would be no volunteer tourism. The authors discuss some pretty heady subjects – decommodification, as an example, but taken in context, certainly understandable.

+ “Reflections and transformations: the return home” delivers some thoughts on what happens to volunteer tourists once they are back in their respective home destinations. Are they different? Have they changed their views of the world around them? Are there thoughts about the impacts they can make more realistic?

+ “Conclusion” builds the case for more academic research on volunteer tourism. There is ample room for additional research, as the authors point out. They also share some of the very pertinent challenges for the sector as it evolves and discuss, as an example, certification and criteria around best practices.

Overall, it is recommended that everyone in the sector take a look at this article. Have a notepad ready, of course, you will need it!

Is Prosumption Fueling Voluntourism, Or Vice Versa?

Rufhus Voluntourism 22.05It is truly amazing how integrated the world is becoming. Sure, we have nation states proclaiming their territorial sovereignty by rattling their sabres and striving to gain the respect and recognition of the global community; but, underlying this is the reality that the virtual community is crossing every single cultural, ethnic, religious and physical boundary to such a degree that we may eventually give up border-tenacity altogether.

Voluntourism is one of the emerging expressions of boundary detachment, proliferating throughout social media and Web 2.0, that is, in contradistinction, non-virtual. We are talking about real people crossing real borders seeking real opportunities to explore AND make a real difference. The egg-chicken question, nonetheless, begs to be asked: Is the integration of virtuality through such mechanisms as prosumption fueling voluntourism, or vice versa?

A brilliant article – – “Crowdsourced cartography: mapping experience and knowledge” – – was recently brought to my attention by my colleague Luc Lapointe. Authors Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin take us on a three-part journey into the realm of crowdsourced geo-spatial representations on the Web via prosumption, “volunteerists” (or citizen scientists), and the “ignorance of crowds.” At one point in the article, Dodge & Kitchin offer a paragraph that will look eerily familiar to those of you who are following the ongoing volunoturism debate:

The apparent willingness of many people to participate for ‘free’ in crowdsourcing projects is undoubtedly based on the fact that they provide genuinely effective platforms to connect socially, communicate meaningfully, and contribute collectively. There are, of course, ongoing debates around the worth of these connections and communications, with critics arguing that they are superficial, lacking depth and obligatory commitment (Carr, 2007). There are also concerns over the unpredictability of crowds, their narrow demographic profile [the worry being that they are dominated by unrepresentative digital elites (see Crutcher and Zook, 2009)], the quality and consistency of content and metadata created across diversely skilled/motivated individuals, how to provide documented degrees of reliability and generate a sense of trustworthiness, and the extent to which the model is sustainable (will volunteers continue to give ‘free’ labour next week, next month, and next year; what happens when the crowd disperses?)” [p.20]

{Source: Dodge M, Kitchin R, 2013, “Crowdsourced cartography: mapping experience and knowledge” Environment and Planning A 45(1) 19 – 36}

The shocking similarity between the critical commentary on crowdsourced cartography and that of young people venturing forth to volunteer in communities across the globe deserves our attention. Is this because voluntourism is a form of crowdsourced development? Is voluntourism the result of prosumers entering a realm that has been reserved for aid & development professionals for generations? What is this prosumption that Dodge & Kitchin are referring to?

“ the producers of much that exists on Web 2.0 are simultaneously the consumers of what is produced and there is a fluid relationship between production/consumption and producers/consumers. In terms of the latter, this is the emergence of the ‘prosumer’.” Ritzer (2008, page 8)” [p. 21]

{Source: Dodge M, Kitchin R, 2013, “Crowdsourced cartography: mapping experience and knowledge” Environment and Planning A 45(1) 19 – 36}

In the realm of voluntourism, we are discovering that voluntourists are both “producers” of service to a destination and “consumers” of the touristic activities which are available to them in a given destination. They are, therefore, “prosumers” in the same sense that Dodge & Kitchin cite Ritzer as defining in the above quote. What is not clear, yet would benefit from some discussion among academics and other researchers, is whether voluntourism is an outgrowth of “virtual” prosumption.

Additional Questions: Is voluntourism the “reality”-version of virtual crowdsourcing? Are travelers advancing a form of crowdsourced, prosumer-based development that is integrating socio-economic impacts within destinations? Is crowdsourced virtuality leading us to collectively believe we can tackle the world’s real problems in the same manner? Has our 24-7 media cycle, filled with all that is negative and disconcerting in the world, catalyzed a generation of prosumer-voluntourists? Has the public sector’s and aid community’s inability to satisfactorily meet the MDGs lit a fire under our collective posteriors to get out there and do something, anything? All of the above?

Final Thoughts…

It may or may not be ultimately significant to know if prosumption is fueling voluntourism and/or vice versa. What we do know is, that in either case, determining the driving forces behind the voluntourism movement will definitely help us to better understand and truly meet the growing demand of individuals to travel the world and render service. What Dodge & Kitchin bring to our attention in reference to crowdsourced cartography could very well assist us in shaping the reality of the voluntourism environment. We know voluntourists are prosumers; we know voluntourists can make contributions as (“citizen servants”); and we know that if these contributions are not properly guided, we can have “ignorant” outcomes and impacts on communities.

Voluntourism is clearly a movement for prosumers, yet, we have not developed a functional crowdsourcing platform for voluntourism in real world destinations. Might be a good time to take this into consideration, however, as it won’t get any easier as the future becomes the present.