Voluntourism: A Journey Toward Intercultural Sensitivity?

IDR LogoOn 24 March 2015, the Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing posted an article online entitled “Volunteer Tourism and Intercultural Sensitivity: The Role of Interaction with Host Communities.” Co-authors Ksenia Kirillova, Xinran Lehto, and Liping Cai introduce us to the work of Dr. Milton J. Bennett at the Intercultural Development Research Institute and the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).

Rather than dive into the results of the work of Kirillova, Lehto, and Cai, let’s take a closer look at the DMIS in order to better understand how such a model could guide the voluntourism sector toward crafting experiences that lead individuals along the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism – the six-step journey outlined by Milton Bennett.

The DMIS At A Glance

The DMIS consists of six steps, three of which are associated with Ethnocentrism, and three of which are associated with Ethnorelativism. The first three steps are: 1) Denial of Difference, 2) Defense Reversal, 3) Minimization; the final three steps are: 4) Acceptance, 5) Adaptation, and 6) Integration. From “Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory” comes a brief explanation of the DMIS [p.423]:

“The underlying assumption of the model is that as one’s experience of cultural difference becomes more complex and sophisticated, one’s potential competence in intercultural relations increases… The crux of the development of intercultural sensitivity is attaining the ability to construe (and thus to experience) cultural difference in more complex ways… The DMIS assumes that construing cultural difference can become an active part of one’s worldview, eventuating in an expanded understanding of one’s own and other cultures and an increased competence in intercultural relations….

Each change in worldview structure generates new and more sophisticated issues to be resolvedin intercultural encounters. The resolution of the relevant issues activates the emergence of the next orientation. Since issues may not be totally resolved, movement may be incomplete and one’s experience of difference diffused across more than one worldview. However, movement through the orientations is posited to be unidirectional, with only occasional ‘‘retreats.’’ In other words, people do not generally regress from more complex to less complex experiences of cultural difference.”

[Source: Hammer, Mitchell R., Bennett, Milton J., and Wiseman, Richard (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, p.421-443.]


The Six-Steps of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

Ethnocentrism: Steps 1-3

Step 1: Denial of Difference

Denial of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only real one. Other cultures are either not discriminated at all, or they are construed in rather vague ways.” [p.424]

Step 2: Defense

Defense against cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only viable one. People at Defense have become adept at discriminating difference, so they experience cultural differences as more ‘‘real’’ than do people at Denial.”

“A variation on Defense is Reversal, where an adopted culture is experienced as superior to the culture of one’s primary socialization (‘‘going native,’’ or ‘‘passing’’). Reversal is like Defense in that it maintains a polarized, ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ worldview. It is unlike Defense in that it does not maintain the other culture as a threat.” [p.424]

Step 3: Minimization

Minimization of cultural difference is the state in which elements of one’s own cultural worldview are experienced as universal. The threat associated with cultural differences experienced in Defense is neutralized by subsuming the differences into familiar categories…People at Minimization expect similarities, and they may become insistent about correcting others’ behavior to match their expectations. Particularly for people of dominant cultures, Minimization tends to mask recognition of their own culture (ethnicity) and the institutional privilege it affords its members.” [p.424]

Ethnorelativism: Steps 4-6

Step 4: Acceptance

Acceptance of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. By discriminating differences among cultures (including one’s own), and by constructing a metalevel consciousness, people with this worldview are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human… Acceptance does not mean agreement—some cultural difference may be judged negatively—but the judgment is not ethnocentric in the sense of withholding equal humanity.” [p.425]

Step 5: Adaptation

Adaptation to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture. One’s worldview is expanded to include relevant constructs from other cultural worldviews. People at Adaptation can engage in empathy—the ability to take perspective or shift frame of reference vis-a-vis other cultures.” [p.425]

Step 6: Integration

Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. Here, people are dealing with issues related to their own ‘‘cultural marginality’’; they construe their identities at the margins of two or more cultures and central to none.” [p.425]

Final Thoughts…

Looking over these six steps, one cannot help but see some of the themes regarding the negative impacts of voluntourism. The issues described in blogs, tweets, and other social media, as well as articles by journalists and undercover reporters, nevertheless, seem to fall into the “Ethnocentrism” category. Reversal, an alternative to Defense, and Minimization appear regularly in the media and via social media.

Hammer, et al, conclude the section on the description of the DMIS with these words:

“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.” [p.426]

What might make for an interesting exploration is to uncover whether voluntourism potentially serves as a bridge across the Ethnocentrism-Ethnorelativism divide. Many of the complaints logged against voluntourism appear to be generated from the position of “avoiding cultural difference.” What would voluntourism look like if it was developed from a place of “seeking cultural difference”? If the development of Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration were aligned with these experiences, incorporated into the fabric of the pre-trip, during-trip, and post-trip elements thereof? What might we see from participants, from host communities, from all stakeholders if each stakeholder group held intercultural sensitivity with the same regard as the sustainability of the projects? Could we see a greater relevance for voluntourism in our 21st Century World?

Why Volunteerism Needs Tourism And Vice Versa

voluntourismI wrote the terms “VolunTours” and “VolunTourism” for the first time back in June 2000. Before that time, “voluntourism” was used twice with any significance – by author Alison Gardner in an article she wrote about “volunteer vacations” in the mid 1990s and by the Nevada Board of Tourism (1998) to honor residents of Nevada who volunteered to support travel & tourism in the state. Google didn’t recognize the terms; neither did Yahoo, or Netscape, or any other search engines for that matter. The terms simply didn’t exist. [FYI: We trademarked “VolunTours” in 2001.]

Fast forward to 2014, “voluntourism” has become one of the hottest topics in the travel & tourism field, the aid & development field, the third sector, the world of academia, and beyond. (Many of the people who use the term “voluntourism” today – on blogs, social media feeds, etc. – were still in elementary school at the turn of the millennium. I find that kind of interesting, actually.) Philippa Biddle writes a blog post on “voluntourism” and has 1 million+ page views, 10K+ likes & tweets, and over 300 comments, as well as a re-posting on the Huffington Post Blog. Welcome to the world of social media!

However, just because you can write a term, just because you can generate a post that wends its way through cyberspace, does not necessarily translate into you having even the slightest inkling of what it is. I also find this to be interesting.

So, What Is VolunTourism?

Truth be told, I have nary a clue as to what “VolunTourism” or “voluntourism” is. Though I have been intensely studying the intersection of voluntary service and tourism for the past 14 years; participating in it on four continents; discussing it and sharing insights regarding its potential with people on seven; interfacing with community residents, academics, governments, NGOs, travel & tourism professionals, journalists, and travelers, I am consistently humbled by the fact that I still don’t understand what it means for humanity. What I can tell you is that it means something – something that I think we still cannot even see, something incredibly important for us all.

Anything that can move us the way voluntourism does – just look at Philippa Biddle’s post and so many that have been written in response to it here, here, here, and here – we cannot simply ignore that, dismiss it, say it should be eliminated from the planet. We have to learn to deal with the tension around voluntourism. Fortunately, we have a tool that can help us do exactly that.

Polarity_Map Volunteerism Tourism

VolunTourism Polarity Map – based on work of Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management

Working With The VolunTourism Polarity Map

Now, there are a few things I can tell you about voluntourism, and this is where the term “VolunTourism” may actually help, so we will use that term for the following exercise.

VolunTourism represents the combination of voluntary service AND travel & tourism. In our current, collective view of the world, volunteerism represents (in the positive sense) what we might describe as “social responsibility” or “social beneficence.” Tourism, on the other hand, represents (in the positive sense) “economic impact.” We also know that the people of our planet cannot survive if we emphasize one of these things over the other. And this is what makes VolunTourism a “polarity to be managed” according to the work of Barry Johnson and Polarity Management.

I have taken the liberty to build on Barry Johnson’s work and develop a VolunTourism Polarity Map (above) – a representation of two poles – “Volunteerism” (left) and “Tourism” (right). You will see that there are four quadrants in the above diagram. “Values” – “positive results of focusing on” a given pole (“volunteerism” or “tourism”) – are on top. “Fears” – “negative results from over-focusing on” a given pole (“volunteerism” or “tourism”) – are on the bottom half. I have added some items that I think capture some of the “Values” and some of the “Fears” where both volunteerism and tourism are concerned. There are certainly others which can be added, and I would encourage folks to design their own polarity map for VolunTourism.

What is happening, at least what I think is happening presently, is that we have a skewed vision of VolunTourism. We are, essentially, equating VolunTourism with volunteerism (see the left-hand side of the diagram), which means we are focusing all of our attention on the “social beneficence” side of VolunTourism. Can you see what starts to happen, however, when we over-focus on volunteerism? We start seeing things such as “parternalism/colonialism” emerge. We start questioning whether volunteerism will lead to “resident dependency,” “outsourcing local jobs,” “poor craftsmanship,” and “over-emphasizing the poverty & lack in a destination.”

On the other side, if we focus all of our attention on impacting destinations economically through tourism, look at what we can run into: “environmental degradation,” “price-hikes for local goods & services,” “natural resource depletion,” etc. Even though tourism can bring positive “economic development” – jobs, support for artisan crafts & products, income to marginalized populations, etc. – if we over-emphasize the economic impact, destination residents, visitors, and all stakeholders will be adversely impacted.

Managing & Balancing The Polarity Across Multiple Stakeholder Groups

I recently discussed the importance of balancing the polarity between responsibility and profitability. Here, we are building on that work to emphasize the importance of blending and balancing volunteerism and tourism, through VolunTourism. You will note in the above diagram, I have concentrated on what occurs in the local destination. We could also consider managing this polarity for travelers, for governments, for tour operators, for NGOs, for destination marketing organizations (DMOs), in fact, any stakeholder. The poles would remain the same, but the “values” and “fears” would change, depending on the stakeholder group.

When we look at Philippa Biddle’s post, for example, we see the over-emphasis on the “volunteerism” pole for a traveler. It is evident throughout her post – talking about “white” people, “guilt” and so many other terms which signal to us that she has over-emphasized the “volunteerism” pole. But, if Philippa had also, and equally, emphasized tourism, then we would see that her “volunteerism” could have included people of other colors, creeds, and nationalities, if, for example, she had met some of those folks through her touristic engagement with the destination prior to her voluntary service and had invited them to join her efforts with the help of the local community. She would not be a representative of a “Global North” going to a “Global South”; she could have been part of a team of humanity representing many cultures, creeds, and nationalities instead.

Final Thoughts…

The management of polarities is ongoing. To suggest that we could have “solved” Philippa Biddle’s situation, or that of any other traveler for that matter, is preposterous. But, if we gave Philippa and other travelers a tool like the VolunTourism Polarity Map above, I’ll bet that Philippa could manage her entire VolunTourism experience differently. She, or any other traveler, could recognize these polarities going in. She could manage them better. She could put that knowledge to use in real-time, rather than suffusing herself with guilt and regret. She could become a true “VolunTourist.”

These tools are available. I have been writing about Barry’s work for years. It appears, however, that as a new crop of voluntourists emerge on our planet, it is important to reiterate this knowledge, re-purpose it, and push it out into the world through the social media outlets that seem to garner so much following, particularly from the youngest generation on the planet. So be it.

Here is an attempt to do just that. Hope it will find an audience which is ready and eager to put it to use!

Addressing The Assumption: Development Good, Voluntourism Bad

The good the bad and the ugly

Photo from HonestBlue.com

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.

#TravelingMoms and Voluntourism

TMOMlogo_WebLast evening (16 December 2013) #TravelingMoms ran a Twitter Chat on voluntourism. Twitter chats on voluntourism are not new – #TravelDudes has run them, among others, with the #TTOT hashtag associated with the discussion. It should be noted, however, that 140 characters can do wonders in terms of delivering a concentrated question to which one will need to deliver a concise response. In some ways, this may lend itself to a more informed kind of voluntourism, and, in the case of moms, this is something to which we should pay very close attention. More on this a bit later.

To begin, let’s look at the questions asked last evening.

#TravelingMoms #Voluntourism Twitter Chat Questions (16 December 2013):

1) How do U give back when U travel?

2) What is your dream #voluntourism vacay?

3) How do you find family #voluntourism opps?

4) Have U had to travel for medical reasons? who helped U?

5) How can hotels/resorts make it easier for families to give back?

6) How much of a family vacation should be #voluntourism? why?

For those in the voluntourism space, the answers to these questions are certainly worth reviewing. What I found most interesting, I think, were the answers to question #3. The women who responded began to recognize that as #TravelingMoms they can begin sharing amongst themselves what is possible for other moms interested in voluntouring – this could mean identifying projects in their home destinations, experiences they had had elsewhere, what have you. It was as though I was observing the birth of a new type of voluntourism – a “Mom Voluntourism” – that will be defined by mothers who can see themselves in multiple roles – participants, advisers (to and amongst themselves), and hosts.

The “Morality of Justice” & the “Morality of Care” Dilemma and Balancing Family Leisure & Giving Back

Whether moms are being drawn to voluntourism because of the personal moral growth & development that occurs for them, or to nurture the moral growth & development of their children, or neither, or both, or something else, is yet to be discovered. No research has been conducted in this area, but I certainly hope that researchers are able to explore it in the future. And the #travelingmoms would be a great group to speak with about such research.

Clearly, there is some sense that moms are aware of the importance of voluntourism as a moral growth & development tool – not just a “let’s give back to the poor children/people/environment in the world.” They know their families need vacations; they also know their families need to give back. It is not an either/or proposition – voluntourism seems to fit well within this integrated thinking.

Moral development in young people is incredibly important. In many ways it can determine to what degree an individual will develop in her/his lifetime, or not. Theories around moral development have been evolving for the better part of the past century, dating back to the work of Piaget (1932). Building on the work of Piaget, in 1958, Kohlberg introduced his theory of Moral Development as it pertains to rights and justice – what we will refer to as the “Morality of Justice.” A couple of decades later Gilligan introduced what she felt had been overlooked in Kohlberg’s work, which was a female-gender perspective in the context of Moral Development. To this end, Gilligan introduced us to the concept of the “Morality of Care.” Most recently, Wilber has discussed Moral Development in the context of Integrally-informed Development. (See figure below.)

Moral Development

Stages of Moral Development from an Integral Perspective – Brian McConnell

Creating a Working Voluntourism Model for Moms

What is of interest to us, in particular, is how moms are able to navigate the Morality of Justice, the Morality of Care, and Moral Development from an Integral Perspective for themselves and their families, especially their children, through voluntourism experiences. Whether this is done consciously or unconsciously, it would be better if we were able to create a map of how these experiences can enhance the overall moral development of children. Could a certain type of experience at a certain age be more meaningful for children? A certain location? A certain cultural interaction?

If researchers could begin to unpack voluntourism and the different developmental features of these kinds of experiences, we would do far better in developing the experiences. What’s more, if we knew about these things we could also begin to work with the moms of host communities who would be interested in similar types of growth & development opportunities for their children. Seeing voluntourism as a catalyzing learning engagement and opportunity, we can start working from both perspectives – that of host communities’ moms and voluntourism moms who take their families on these types of experiences.

Final Thoughts… No More Missed Opportunities?

I have often stressed the importance of being consciously aware of the integration of voluntary service and travel & tourism. As an experience, there is no question that growth & development is possible on the part of participants. What we have not done, and I am certainly at fault in this regard, is take the time to explore exactly what this growth & development is and how it may be transferred to all stakeholders and, most important of all, how it may be expanded upon.

We would do well to get some developmental psychologists out into the field engaging with voluntourism experiences, to speak with moms in host communities and moms who take their families out as voluntourists. As voluntourism becomes more of a life practice for moms across the planet, not merely a “what are we going to do on vacation this year” kind of experience, we may uncover some items that move voluntourism from the discussion of what is missing or incomplete about it to a discussion of its intrinsic and extrinsic benefits.

If moms need not rely wholly on their intuitions to convince their families of the value of voluntourism, we could see a significant shift in the number of voluntourists in the world as well as host communities taking greater ownership and desire to have voluntourists come into their communities. “It takes a village…” the saying goes; it might take a village of moms and researchers to help us realize what voluntourism may do for our individual and collective advancement. Nevertheless, we seem to be gradually moving in that direction.