Voluntourism 4.0: Extracting Maslow from Voluntourism

MaslowI spent last week in the United Kingdom speaking with the Team at Complete Coherence in Romsey, England, and interacting with academics and practitioners at the first of a six-part seminar series funded by the Economic & Social Research Council held at the University of Brighton. Although the venues were quite different, the two discussions centered around one basic theme: Reconceptualising international volunteering.

Ironically, it wasn’t until later in the week when I was having dinner with my “Little Brother” and his friend who has been exposed to development in Latin America, that the conversation reinforced an insight that has been percolating in the background of my mind for some time. In essence, we concluded, that one of the best ideas for reconceptualising voluntourism would be to eliminate all projects which focus on basic human needs. By eliminating Maslow’s bottom row of the pyramid, we also eliminate a host of maddening challenges for the voluntourism space. [There is no need to get into the “development business,” as Dr. Anna Mdee (in her lecture at the University of Brighton seminar) pointed out the pitfalls of in its own right, and certainly not in the context of international volunteering and voluntourism.]

Moving Beyond Basic Needs…

The Voluntourism Space has spent the better part of a decade embroiled in the controversial, the debatable, the unskilled, the labor-replacing, the orphan-generating. Assuredly, some of this comes from a lack of understanding of the numerous projects and offerings around the world which have nothing to do with the bottom of the pyramid – assisting social entrepreneurs, refurbishing & reconstructing historic buildings, conducting environmental research – the list is endless!

If we simply move voluntourism beyond the reach of projects focused on meeting the basic needs of host communities, we can truly reconceptualise it. We can add dimensions that are rooted in the development of the individual. We can eliminate much of the sense of urgency around decoupling travel & tourism from voluntary service. And, everyone will be able to sleep better at night!

PrintThe Four Dimensions of Traveler Development – VolunTourism 4.0

Once we extract Maslow’s lowest tier of the pyramid from voluntourism, we can focus on the 4 dimensions which bring us more in line with the uppermost tier: Self-Actualization. These dimensions are present in the context of a VolunTourism experience (pre-, during-, and post-trip), it simply depends on to what degree each is acknowledged and then consciously integrated into the overall awareness of participants.

The four dimensions are broadly represented by: 1) The “Open Hand,” 2) The “Open Heart,” 3) The “Open Mind,” and 4) The “Open Self.” Let’s go through these briefly.

VolunTourism 1.0: The “Open Hand” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes “serving,” e.g., doing, performing, a task in an effort to be of support to the local destination. Quite often, this dimension is the most sought after aspect of the journey, as participants are eager to accomplish and leave a lasting, positive impression on the community. In addition, there is a great deal of “doing” involved in the preparation for a trip, engaging in the trip (just think of the travel alone to some of the more remote locations), and, of course, all that surrounds one’s returning to the home environment upon completion of a journey. The “Open Hand” can be experienced over “short-term” or “long-term” engagements and brings us into contact with the physiological aspects of our own being – our bodies and how they respond to the demands of VolunTourism.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I serve others.”

VolunTourism 2.0: The “Open Heart” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the interpersonal connections, i.e., “relating,” to others. The “others” are represented by members of the host community/destination and, of course, one’s fellow volunteers. This dimension brings into our awareness emotions and feelings regarding our responses to others.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I relate to others.”

VolunTourism 3.0: The “Open Mind” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the “being” of internal dialogue and discovery that occurs through the process of participating in such a journey. The catalyzing environment of the experience provides the necessary energy to dive within one’s own values, beliefs, judgements, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the world.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I explore my own being.”

VolunTourism 4.0: The “Open Self” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the growth & development, or “becoming,” of the individual throughout the process of the entire footprint of the journey: pre-, during-, and post-trip. It will naturally unfold if from the initiation of even the first hint of a desire to participate in such a journey that an individual realizes there is more at work than merely going overseas to volunteer. These journeys are a metaphor for the unfolding of the individual. If consciously approached, the experience brings forth a new iteration of the individual, one which will prove of far more service to any and all whom s/he may meet.

The Mantra for this dimension: “The journey and I are one, continuous becoming.”

Final Thoughts…

One might argue that directing our service t0 the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid may lead us to self-actualization. However, the degree to which we can be effectual in addressing those needs has, at least thus far, proven elusive. Trillions of dollars in aid and billions of hours of service have netted us little advancement in overcoming the deficit. Could it be, by coordinating service beyond the lowest tier, we will be able to render greater service and far more meaningful development for all stakeholders?

The “Open Hand” has been the default dimension of service itineraries for decades. Introducing the significance of the other dimensions through a coordinated effort – providing participants with tools and practices to better prepare them to “Open Heart,” “Open Mind,” and “Open Self” – seems like a reasonable launch-point for reconceptualizing volunteering. It is anticipated that by doing so, we may see an overall increase in the sustainability of projects and the longevity of results for communities and participants alike.

Under this scenario, we can see the value of travel, of exploration in the context of a destination. Encountering different aspects of the destination will allow these other dimensions to open more freely, perhaps further than could otherwise occur simply through service.

It would appear that we have an important question to address: Can we free VolunTourism from Maslow’s lowest tier in order to explore its developmental potential for participants?

Unpacking the CV Sales Pitch for Voluntourism

Journal of SociologyColleen McGloin, of the University of Wollongong, and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, have generated an online article for the Journal of Sociology entitled “Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education.” One of the co-authors is inspired to delve into the subject after hearing a young man offer his voluntourism recruitment spiel to students prior to a lecture. She paraphrases:

Hey guys, there’s a meeting today at lunchtime for those interested, and I’d love to see you all
there. We have some awesome packages available for you to travel and get some experience in
developing countries helping out with projects designed to make these communities stronger.
Not only will you be helping others less fortunate than you, but you can use the experience on
your CV as an example of working to help communities abroad.”

Later in the paper, the authors offer the following in response to some of the language shared above:

The power relations informing the discourse of voluntourism mimic and reinforce those responsible for global inequality and poverty in the first place. Colonial paternalism is predicated on the notion that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and that this will always be the case, therefore one’s obligation as a privileged subject is to ‘help’ those less privileged. The certainty underpinning this view prevents volontourists ‘seeing’ or ‘engaging’ with the fact that poor people can, and do, resist their own oppression, and exercise agency when and where possible…

Dependency theory argues that development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin: wealth requires poverty. Voluntourism is part of a system of neoliberal development that requires inequality so that some may reap the beneficial effects of the market. Voluntourism is lauded as ‘a good thing’, and the point we make here is that it is difficult to speak outside of the discursive ‘logic’ of goodness that constitutes the ‘catechism of ethics’. Having better educated voluntourists will do nothing to effect structural change as voluntourism, as an activity, reinforces the paradigm of need without enabling agency by local communities.”

Broadening Perspective: Both-And Interpretation

Bayfield 1300

The Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race

If voluntourism is anything, it is constantly interpreted. The words of McGloin and Georgeou remind us that any time we narrow our perspective on voluntourism, our interpretation is sure to follow. Concentrate on vulnerable, “voice-less” populations, market-driven outfitters, and young students engaging in these experiences to pad their CV’s and you have the ingredients for dark interpretation. On the other hand, go to Bayfield, Wisconsin, in late January/early February and you could be staying in a B&B, supporting the local economy, having dinner with sled dog mushers, and volunteering during the day to help manage the dogs and sleds, or possibly be a timekeeper. If we only see voluntourism as represented in the first scenario, we forget entirely about the remarkable sled dog race in Bayfield, and the reality that voluntourists have been supporting this race for nearly a decade!

So which is it? Is voluntourism the hedonistic, self-serving, vulnerable-population-neglecting, “‘catechism of ethics'” described by McGloin and Georgeou? Or, is it the animal-fan-favorite, snow & ice-filled extraordinary adventure portrayed in a small town in Wisconsin?

Of course, it is both.

And… we need to cultivate an ever-deepening understanding of how to hold in our collective awareness the vast array of offerings, none of which fit neatly into a one-approach-equals-all!

Final Thoughts…

McGloin and Georgeou remind us that over-simplifying the voluntourism experience in the context of any destination is woefully uninformed, particularly when vulnerable populations and indigenous peoples are involved. What else can we take away from their article?

Certainly, the voluntourism sales pitch is not an accurate portrayal of the entire gamut of motivations which are expressed by individuals considering such a trip. Yes, they want to “make a difference.” Yes, they seek life experience and adventure which will translate into possibly a more vibrant CV. There are also a cluster of other reasons to say, “Yes,” to voluntourism. These involve camaraderie, living one’s values, and becoming more informed through cross-cultural interactions, just to name a few.

The authors also consider time frame and the relatively short duration of voluntourism experiences. This argument reverberates throughout the academic literature on voluntourism – suggesting that longer-term commitments are of greater value to all stakeholders. I think what we could be inspired to consider, following on the work of McGloin and Georgeou, is rather than the actual footprint of the journey – a mere week or two, in many cases – an elongation of the contextual footprint of the voluntourism experience. Could, for example, a participant, host community, and other stakeholders  benefit from expanding the lead-in and post-trip cycles? Could these periods include some of the experiential learning and development that naturally accrues from the trip itself? Could voluntourism experiences be crafted within a more robust learning and developmental cycle for the participants and the host community? What would this new iteration of elongated itinerary look like? How could each host community be on a similar journey of its own?

“Flourishing” – A Conscious Enhancement for Voluntourists?

RSUS_22_01_cover.inddDr. Alexandra Coghlan, in the Department of Tourism, Sport, and Hotel Management at Griffith University, has published numerous articles on volunteer tourism over the past decade. Her most recent offering, “Tourism and health: using positive psychology principles to maximize participants’ wellbeing outcomes – a design concept for charity challenge tourism,” is currently available for download from the Journal of Sustainable Tourism website. I highly recommend taking a closer look at the proposition that Dr. Coghlan puts forth. She writes [p.7]:

“This paper is based on the premise that it is both desirable and possible to integrate findings from the emerging science of positive psychology into the design of tourism experiences to improve their quality. Doing so extends the tourism and wellbeing literature beyond a description of wellbeing outcomes from tourism, and moves towards the deliberate experiential design of a tourism product to bring about human flourishing.”

She illustrates her vision with the following figure:

Tourism and health: using positive psychology principles to maxi

What does this tell us about voluntourism?

The Charity Challenge and Voluntourism

The charity challenge is closely aligned with voluntourism. In fact, some might consider it a form of voluntourism. What distinguishes charity challenges from what is most often considered voluntourism is that the voluntary service which is performed – traveling to a destination voluntarily to climb, hike, walk, bike, what have you, in an effort to raise funds for a cause – benefits communities outside of the destination. This distinction has raised numerous questions for host destinations, particularly those communities near such icons as Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, as an example.

However, this is not what I wish to address in this post. Others have raised this question, most recently Nik Frey in this short piece for the Daily Nexus. No, for this post, I want to draw our attention to the premise that Dr. Coghlan puts forth, mainly that tourism products (in our case, voluntourism products), can be designed using the latest findings in a field such as positive psychology.

The Emerging Field of Developmental Leadership

Some of the most promising literature in the field of developmental leadership research has been introduced over the past several decades. Findings by Gardner, Graves, Cook-Greuter, Torbert, Wilber, and more recently, Scharmer, Laloux, Watkins, and numerous others have presented a very definitive picture of what we may do by designing experiences with a conscious awareness of enhancing what has been most commonly referred to over the last decade-plus as our awareness and perspective. Awareness and perspective have been described in the context of quadrants, lines, states, stages, and types by Wilber, and the Integral Theory that has ushered forth from these conceptual frameworks has moved across the globe rapidly through consultancies and publications.

A Confluence?

What has not been explored in the literature, at least to this point, however, is how this developmental leadership research and theory can be applied in the context of tourism products, or in our situation, in the context of voluntourism products. Coghlan’s premise may serve as a catalyst for academics to consider developmental leadership theory and its application in the design of voluntourism products, as the charity challenge certainly has an alignment with voluntourism and positive psychology similarly reflects the breakthroughs in developmental leadership theory.

Final Thoughts…

Coghlan’s piece represents a possible breakthrough in the exploration of the design of travel & tourism products – that we can consciously design travel & tourism products with the goal of wellbeing and “flourishing” at the heart of them.

Can we transfer this notion to voluntourism experiences?

Certainly, if we are developing ourselves as leaders and as human beings through uniquely designed “voluntourism” products, we are potentially benefiting the planet, not merely the destinations which may experience economic, and possibly social benefits as a result of voluntourists making their ways into host communities. If we can incorporate some of the concepts of developmental leadership theory and practical guidance that has emerged from those who have dedicated countless hours to researching how human beings develop and expand their awareness and perspective, we may introduce a new form of voluntourism that in effect will assist us in re-conceptualizing it (more on this in a future post).

For now, let us see if we can build on Coghlan’s thoughts of enhancing the wellbeing of humans, not as a mere byproduct of tourism, but as a consciously designed experiential approach to travel and voluntary service.

“CareBnB”: Voluntourism 2015 and Beyond – Part 1

CareBnBAs we enter the 15th year of the 2nd Millennium A.D., we are seeing some emerging patterns across the globe. Two of these patterns – the sharing economy and the voluntourism sector – will begin to more fully integrate in the year ahead, in part because we ALL must begin to integrate our sustainability, our responsibility, our thinking, our actions, and our values more wholly and completely, or else! What will this look like exactly?

The Emergence of a Modified, More Advanced “CareBnB”

Doctors without Borders developed “Carebnb.io” to address Ebola in West Africa and launched the site in Fall 2014. However imaginative and clever the site may have been at the time, it hasn’t even come close to realizing what is waiting to emerge in this space.

Think of AirBnB merging with LinkedIn, with Doctors without Borders (and every other skilled-workers-moving-about-the-planet-to-volunteer provider), with WWOOF and with the Travel Sector. The conflation of these various approaches will introduce something we have yet to see, at least on a broad scale. What will this consist of?

Individuals will create profiles based on their combined “care” AND “travel” resumes that will be developed through the insights of LinkedIn, AirBnB,  and Doctors without Borders (and similar providers). The Travel Sector will assist individuals in maximizing their purchasing power and mitigating their currency exchange risk through assisting them in booking travel through the most cost-effective methods. The catalog of opportunities and the membership approach of WWOOF will assist CareBnB in meeting its financial obligations and sustainably supporting itself over time.

There will be three different Care-Seeking/Care-Fulfilling audiences for the future iteration of “CareBnB.” The first potential audience will be those seeking to care for a space/have a space cared for. The second potential audience will be those seeking to care for Pets/Animals and those seeking to have their Pets/Animals cared for (of course, this could be coupled with the first audience, but not all members of the first audience may have pets/animals). The final potential audience, and likely the most imaginative of all, will be those seeking to care for people and those seeking to have people cared for.

It is the latter of these that we will concentrate on for this particular post.

Why exactly?

Health Care Pressures

The economic pressures coupled with the desire for caring of those with illness will continue to move from hospitalization, in the West, to home care. Families will be caring for loved ones, and loved ones will want to be at home, rather than the sterile, depersonalized environments of many of the current facilities offered – those which must cater to governmental regulations and countless other rigorous protocols in order to even operate.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor StatisticsEmployment Projections 2012 – 2022,” home-based healthcare represents 2 out of the top 3 projected leading workforce increases during the decade with an estimated 1 million additional individuals filling the job titles of “personal care aides” and “home health aides” (with “less than high school” education being required to fill the positions). Some families will bypass these aides altogether, while some will solely use aide workers; others may initiate a combined approach – family members and care aides working side-by-side; still others will initiate a family & friends approach – volunteering, if you will, to care for loved ones. And, as you might have guessed, there will be another version – visitors stepping into the caregiving mix.

Social Media

Social media has opened our lives to others to inspect, to share and invest in. It has brought the sharing economy into existence because we can check on one another from long distances, without requiring the “face-to-face” or “handshake” that has traditionally brokered arrangements with others. We have more ways than ever before to conduct educated assessments of each other, to speak to one another over the internet, to email, and text. This proliferation of connectivity and greater transparency enlivens the potential for

Integration of Service & Travel

The growth of the voluntourism sector has raised our awareness to the notion that individuals truly are willing to integrate their travel and their desire to serve. What’s more, we have come to realize that this integration need not be for extended periods of time. In fact, most individuals want to do so for periods of days and weeks, rather than months or year(s).

How Will This Start?

Introducing the “Care-for-People Resume” will expand on these long-standing models of exchange – “a visitor can stay in the space if they agree to care for it and/or the animals in it.” The People-Care model will take more time to develop. The early-adopters will likely be those who are accustomed to being cared for – say high-functioning quadriplegics, as an example, and those who receive regular care via multiple caregivers. Inviting a nurse from Austria to stay with you in Arizona could serve as an extraordinary encounter for both individuals. What’s more, the individual for whom the nurse may currently be supporting in Austria, may converse with the individual with whom the nurse might stay with during his/her trip to Arizona.

Some early adopters may be former caregivers themselves, or world travelers, or those with experience in hosting visitors – exchange students, for example. The list will increase as the willingness to explore increases.

Final Thoughts…

The door has been opened to this new approach of volunteering and travel intersecting with the sharing economy. A more robust version of “CareBnB” is emerging even as we speak. It is happening in slightly varied ways around the world – Aids Hospice volunteers for example, staying with local host families. Eventually it will become even more integrated.

With the push for more unique approaches to care, and the growing demand in the Western world for the need for human care in the household space, possibilities for creativity and “new technologies” are ready for our adoption and continued evolution.

Fortunately, 2015 offers yet another reason to expand the experiment in collective human care through travel and service – “CareBnB” indeed!

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.

Voluntourism and Confidence in Our Social Impact

2014-social-change-impact-report-1Walden University recently released its 2014 Social Change Impact Report. Citizens from eight countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Jordan, Mexico, and the United States), more than 9,000 individuals in all, were interviewed. The results of this study prove insightful for those in the voluntourism sector. Two items from the survey are particularly noteworthy: 1) Emphasis on Long-term change versus Immediate change, and 2) Perception of Our Influence on Systemic Change.

Emphasis on Long-Term Versus Immediate Change

According to the Press Release from Walden University regarding some of the results of the survey, “An average of 73% of adults who have ever engaged in positive social change say it is extremely or very important that a person’s involvement with positive social change today contributes to long-term changes that will improve people’s lives in the future. In contrast, an average of 61% of adults say it is extremely or very important to contribute to immediate changes that improve people’s lives now.”

In the context of voluntourism, this raises a number of questions. Why, for example, would so many individuals be drawn to orphanages to assist in the “immediate” care of children? Could it be that these individuals have previously not “engaged in positive social change”? Are there certain items that require immediate intervention? Does the amount of time one can dedicate have bearing on the sense of immediacy, i.e., if someone can dedicate more time to addressing a particular challenge does that, in fact, influence her/his sense of immediate change versus long-term change?

These are questions which could be explored more fully, of course. And it should be noted that the survey does not suggest that immediate change is unimportant to adults. So, we can infer that short-term voluntourism experiences, even if the results of those engagements with host communities prove to be immediate, would not necessarily be egregious errors in the eyes of 6 out of 10 adults.

Perception of Our Influence on Systemic Change

2014-social-change-impact-report-4Now, this is where the 2014 Social Change Impact Report truly gets interesting. Take a look at Figure 2 (right) from the survey. Note that in each country a drop occurs, in some cases quite a significant one, between 2013 and 2014 under the heading: “In the future, more people in my country will be involved in positive social change activities than are involved today.” This mirrors the responses under the column headed with “Engaging in positive social change is a waste of time.”

In fact the report shares the following [page #3]:

However, an area where people believe they are having less of an impact is on systemic changes. Fewer than half of adults (40%, on average) feel they are having a major or moderate impact on changing social structures and systems…

Adults in Germany (17%), U.S. (22%), Canada (23%) and China (26%) are the least likely to feel they are having this level of impact on changing social structures and systems. In fact, four in 10 adults in these countries feel they are having no impact in this area (U.S.: 44%; Canada: 41%; China: 40%; Germany: 38%).”

Germany, Canada, and the U.S. are major leaders in sending volunteers into the world. China is more likely to engage in domestic voluntourism, yet this may change in the future.

Questions: If we believe we cannot change social structures and systems, then is voluntourism likely to continue to increase in the years ahead? Is voluntourism the anti-establishment expression of delivering change outside of the systems which currently operate, say, for example the system of aid & development run by Mega-NGOs, multilateral financial institutions, and governments?

Final Thoughts…

The data from the 2014 Social Change Impact Report provides a thoughtful commentary on what may be motivating individuals to travel and volunteer across the planet. To suggest that any “one thing” is “the” motivation is far from the truth. The Report, however, does give us some things to consider, including some important questions.

For example, how many individuals who represent potential voluntourists are, in fact, individuals who feel that they have no impact on changing social structures and systems? Are these same individuals equally inclined to believe they can generate positive social change impact? Do we brim with confidence in our own capacity because we have so little faith in the capacity of our governments and other existing systems to change and, therefore, introduce positive social change impact?

Further study and research is undeniably important to improve our understanding of social change impact. This, in turn, will help to inform our approaches to voluntourism and volunteering abroad, particularly when we consider them to be harmful. If voluntourists believe they are capable of generating positive social change, and have a significant degree of confidence in there capacity to do so, then guiding them to address systemic change may take some tremendous coaxing. Nullifying their belief by telling them they are wrong is not going to change their behavior. They are confident, remember?

Changing the systems into which they deliver their energy and commitment would appear to be a far better course of action. Are we ready for such a shift?