Ending Humanitarian Douchery: Can Voluntourism Become #worthyofimitation?

endhumanitariandoucheryWell, I must admit that I didn’t see this one coming. Nope, totally missed the tea leaves that foreshadowed this contrivance of social media-driven, voluntourism call-out.

Earlier this week, The Guardian brought our attention to the latest (yet another) branded campaign around voluntourism – one to #endhumantariandouchery (#mendnotend, #thinkchildsafe, being other examples). Undoubtedly, Millennials are taking us on a self-deprecating journey through our own collective, short-sighted, ethno-global altruism. Pippa Biddle most recently relaunched this party on the heels of the work of Daniela Papi, Ian Birrell, and numerous others, and it has been a steamroller ever since.

What do we make of all of this?!?

The Social Media Anti-Voluntourism “Bully” Pulpit

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the United States. As a youth, I made regular appearances in Baptist and Methodist churches on Sunday mornings. The ministers would regularly stand in front of the church-goers and talk about heathens and people who were going to Hell for failing to believe!

“Bible thumping” and the “bully pulpit” were the terms often uttered as descriptors of this prime directive delivered by certain ministers. It wasn’t so much the message as much as it was the vehemence with which the message was communicated.

Social media has taken the bully pulpit metaphor (did Theodore Roosevelt really bring this term to life?), augmented it, and given it an infusion of global peer pressure. Social media does not merely serve as a platform for voicing a specific agenda; social media has become a place to utilize one’s social media cache and “bully” individuals into believing that what they are doing is actually harmful, racist, colonialist, and, expletive-deleted, wrong!

One family of five voluntourists recently published a blog post regarding a series of tweets that spoke to this very experience. A member of the Twitterati gave “Mel” (Melissa) a reason to ink the following:

“Recently, I had my first social media ‘heated discussion’.  A follower (let’s call them Fran*) offered some advice to travel responsibly by not voluntouring, because “most volunteering overseas is irresponsible”. She implied that voluntourists are motivated by, and would likely only positively effect, their own emotional state (i.e.: feeling good about themselves).  She had some genuine concerns about the commercial voluntourism operators and seemed well-versed in some of the problems with international development efforts.  But, she lumped all voluntourism together saying that any promotion of the concept is unethical and promotes child abuse.  I thought that was a bit extreme, to say the least.

*I want to protect the identity of this person as much as I’m able, because I would never condone anyone trying to argue with another person on my behalf, nor bullying nor any on-line or real life nastiness.”

Is what we think about voluntourism and how we proselytize our thoughts, beliefs, and convictions to others about it becoming worse than voluntourism itself?

Defusing Anti-Voluntourism Bullying

Whether we are “ending humanitarian douchery” or claiming that little white girls and boys are muddying up the development waters of our planet, it seems that, for the most part, the majority of social media critics are interested in bringing to an end the irresponsible elements surrounding voluntourism. (Kudos to all!) What is slightly intimidating about social media, however, is the speed and breadth with which beliefs can spread across the internet. Campaigns are launched in milliseconds and viral appreciation can take the ramblings of a neophyte and transform them into the irrefutable facts of the moment.

Does this make the opinion a fact? The contents of that opinion factual? Not at all. What it does do, however, is provide such an individual with a sense of knowing, a sense of perceived awareness regarding a topic. Compounding this are the individuals who read these words and begin to propagate them as though they represent the “gospel” (can you see where this is going?) on voluntourism. The “Bully Pulpit,” in essence, has gone virtual; cyberspace is the new church and followers are the new congregations. Missionaries of this anti-voluntourism gospel are insistent and incessant when it comes to spreading the word. They deliver anti-voluntourism propaganda as a new breed of proselytes, never questioning whether they even know what voluntourism is. They are believers in the crusade and, therefore, will be saved from ever being a voluntourist (read: heathen).

One of the challenges of our day is to stand up to any social media-driven anti-voluntourism bullying, just as we would stand up to harmful practices being perpetrated by the most ignorant of voluntourism operators. The world fields a significant collection of unregulated and/or poorly-crafted voluntourism programs – no one denies this – and “ending humanitarian douchery” is a provocative approach to eliminating such practices. On the other hand, the world fields some remarkable voluntourism programs (and some amazing human beings who indeed see themselves as voluntourists) that are worthy of our respect and the highest form of flattery – our imitation. Are we doing enough through social media to recognize these programs (and individuals)?

worthyofimitation1Final Thoughts…

Perhaps we need a social media campaign with this hashtag: #worthyofimitation

I have been at this long enough, come into contact with enough programs and enough individuals, to unequivocally state that there are some truly remarkable approaches to voluntourism (programs AND people). Yes, I realize that the negativity, the sarcasm, the snarky is what lifts the social media likes and re-tweets, but isn’t there a little something about that which seems counter-intuitive? If one is attempting to bring value into existence, is it likewise necessary to dismember something (or someone) else in the process?

#worthyofimitation definitely requires individuals to do their homework, to really take a hard, long look at what they are honoring and respecting about voluntourism via a small grassroots organization in Cambodia, or a large operation in Ghana – any size, anywhere, across the globe. (It takes an equal, perhaps greater, amount of courage to recognize an individual or family traveling and serving thus.) A significant part of what most individuals are reviewing is the impact on the host community, the impact on participants, the impact on the hosting organizations – how are each of these stakeholders being influenced by the very existence of a voluntourism program? What we may not be prepared to do is to evaluate these programs with an awareness that maybe, just maybe, the most important impact for host communities is an economic one, NOT a socially benevolent one. Are we prepared to face that reality? And is this impact sufficient enough to warrant imitation?

Nobody wants to be a douchebag, especially a humanitarian douchebag, right?!? And nobody wants to recommend something that perpetuates the creation thereof. The question of the day, then, is this: “How many of us are actually willing to step forward and use our social media cache to identify voluntourism programs AND voluntourists #worthyofimitation?

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What Is Ethical When It Comes To Voluntourism?

literary & debating societyThe voluntourism community worldwide is in the midst of an exploration into the ethical. Ethical dilemmas and challenges are arising in every context. Debates are flourishing online as we collectively grapple with the intersection of voluntary service, travel & tourism, and the realities of humanity as a whole. Even the Literary & Debating Society at NUI Galway is broaching the subject – the Voluntourism Debate – later this week (7pm GMT, on Thursday, 20 February 2014).

Researchers are raising many questions, but we want answers immediately (as this recent article in The Guardian illustrates). We seem to find it difficult to rest in the questions, to allow ourselves time to really feel into these questions and get a sense of what is truly at work here. We seem unwilling to reflect, to reflect more, and to keep reflecting on what we have gotten ourselves into on this planet. We seem perfectly willing to question the ethics of those who would, at least in our eyes, appear to be behaving unethically. Yet, are we as willing to point the spotlight on ourselves? Do we actually know what is ethical when it comes to voluntourism?

Pain as a Prod to Becoming?

You have heard of the researcher who thought it was a brilliant idea to assist the butterfly in exiting the chrysalis, yes? The butterfly exited, flapped its wings once or twice, and then keeled over, dead. This exercise was repeated; the result was the same. The butterfly, it was concluded, needs to undergo the throes of exiting the chrysalis in order to then be able to cope and assimilate into its new environment.

The same could be true within the context of the voluntourism space. Communities, voluntourists, in fact, all voluntourism stakeholders, may need to undergo the “pain” of birthing voluntourism into the world so that when it actually does reach maturity it will indeed have gone through the challenging process of breaking through the chrysalis of its own becoming.

If we spend our time striving to cut through the ethics chrysalis surrounding voluntourism, will we deprive voluntourism of the necessary effort that it needs to endure in order to manifest as the potential butterfly of voluntourism which it is meant to become?

Somehow this painful process of birthing into the world is necessary. Though we may be struggling with countless conundrums where voluntourism is concerned, do we not think that on the other side of this we will fail to learn, to grow, to expand as a planetary community?

The Ethics of Voluntourism Goes Well Beyond Voluntourism

One thing that I think will be tremendously helpful is to realize how much of a catalyzing agent voluntourism really is. Though we may be inclined to place voluntourism in a chrysalis of its own, voluntourism is, in essence, connected and integrated into many different systems across our world. If we really do give it serious inquiry, we will start to question more than just the ethics of voluntourism, we will begin to question the ethics of our own behaviors, our geopolitical systems, our means of addressing social and environmental issues of our day.

If voluntourism is truly serving as a catalyst, it is no wonder that we are diligently making efforts to stifle its catalyzing effect by burdening it with our ethics. Instead, we may discover that if we spend more of our time dealing with the discomfort and the tensions which are created by and through voluntourism, we will come into contact with issues and challenges which we have failed to admit were even present.

For example, does anyone wonder why voluntourism is the fastest growing trend in the travel & tourism sector? Could it be that our everyday working lives have become so misaligned with who we are as people and our planet that we need to feel that we are doing at least a “little bit” of good in the world? Is it possible that the very lives we lead are so “unethical” that we are engaging in a practice that is, at least in our current way of seeing it, “less unethical”? Do we tire of living in a world that reminds us constantly of the inequalities across humanity that we will do almost anything, even something that appears unethical, because it is the lesser of two evils? Has it become so difficult to “do good” in the developed world that we seek to do so elsewhere?

Final Thoughts…

It would be great if we could take a step back and instead of pushing so hard to realize the lack of ethics in voluntourism that we could, perhaps, begin to see the lack of ethics in the world around us as a causal force behind the development of voluntourism. Voluntourism, though we will burden it incessantly with its lack of ethics and strive to cut its chrysalis too soon, deserves more time, more inquiry, and we would do well to let our wings move about for an additional period within that chrysalis.

Voluntourism is doing us all a very big favor, if we will take the time to see it as such. This does not mean that we fail to search for ways to improve on it, of course, but we need to see it for what it is: voluntourism is a statement of something being out of alignment in our world – why else would we take our holidays to be of service? Wouldn’t we be doing this in our everyday lives? Wouldn’t we see our jobs in the world as providing that service? Have we given up on changing our own situations and that of those in our immediate sphere of influence? Do we think hubris is the only motivation behind taking a trip to a far-off destination to assist another human on this planet?

Let’s take some time to sit in the questions. Eventually, we may discover that voluntourism can assist us in raising questions about the ethics of our very lives in this world. And, wouldn’t that be something worthy of our time and effort and inquiry?