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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 9 Issue 3 Highlights

 
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FEATURE ARTICLE 2

Voluntourism Reform: Why Is the UK Leading the Charge?

It is difficult to pinpoint one specific occurrence which catalyzed the present focus on voluntourism reform in the UK. Some could certainly argue that the article published by Linda Richter and Amy Norman in Vulnerable Children & Youth Studies entitled “AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care” garnered significant follow on from the UK Media. Others might contend that this is a natural progression rooted in the responsible tourism movement; while still others could point to the colonialism of yesteryears and a deep distrust of anything that even remotely resembles paternalistic engagement with “the other.” So much to choose from, yet the question remains: “Why is the UK leading the charge on voluntourism reform?”

Introduction

The concept of reforming voluntourism is not entirely new. When considered in the context of the reforms that have been put forth over the last decade in development assistance (transparency), travel & tourism (sustainability), and volunteering (accountability), it seems quite reasonable that an effort to improve voluntourism would follow - arguably, it serves as a trisecting point for the three.

A couple of years ago, the creation of voluntourism guidelines was spearheaded by TIES and Planeterra in the U.S. and Canada, but these efforts have not been universally adopted. Most recently, however, there has been a remarkable amount of effort put forth by the UK in this regard. Whether it is calls to action from Tourism Concern, Responsible Travel, the UK Media, or operators themselves, the message is crystal clear: voluntourism needs to be done differently.

Gap year participants, holidaymakers, or celebs & royals – the traveller’s identity matters not. What matters, among other things, is “how” these travellers integrate voluntary service into their travel experiences; to what degree it is helping rather than harming communities and residents; and the manner in which the projects are developed as part of a co-creative process, involving ALL stakeholders. Most important of all, get voluntourism out of orphanages - NOW!

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But to truly understand the driving force behind the voluntourism reform movement in the UK, there is a burning question which deserves an answer: "Who put the harm into voluntourism?"

Who Put The HARM Into Voluntourism?

In order to consider how to take the harm out of voluntourism (reform it), it is important to understand who inserted the harm into voluntourism. A number of academics have questioned the impacts of voluntourism on local communities over the past decade – dependency, questionable results of projects, sustainability of projects, purported cross-cultural connections and benefits of transformation for participants that may or may not be real, "no-skilled" laborers taking on positions that require skills - you get the picture.

Building on the previously published work of other academics, Daniel Guttentag presented “The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism” in the November/December 2009 issue of the International Journal of Tourism Research. He wrote:

Guttentag's article has been well read, appearing as a reference in dozens of academic journal articles in the years hence. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, few academics have followed up on Guttentag's "request" to conduct more research in these areas, to determine if, in fact, the negative impacts he hypothesizes are even a reality. (Strangely, the hypotheses introduced by Guttentag have become inextricably linked with facts as reported in the Media, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.)

Richter & Norman are two academics who introduce a potential negative impact of voluntourism that in some ways responds to Guttentag's open call to other academics. Although Richter & Norman (2010) do not reference Guttentag's article in their piece, they do look at some of the downsides of voluntourism, in some ways, building on Guttentag's work. Coincidence or not, since Guttentag's work was published, voluntourism has been viewed differently, especially in the academic world.

This is a hard pill to swallow, because it is quite difficult to see how what is perceived to be helping can actually be a mechanism for perpetuating colonialism, bridging a connection to the dark past. When we take something with good intentions associated with it and juxtapose it with something that is viewed quite negatively in a post-modern world, it does not take long for people to raise the alarm. This is exactly what has happened in the UK. Those who know what words and terms will have the greatest chance of catalyzing change are pulling them from their respective lexicons and placing them in the appropriate locations to draw attention. The results speak for themselves.

From Academe to Media

What did the shift of perspective on voluntourism in the academic literature lead to? Media attention - not the pleasant kind.

Let’s go back to 3 November 2010, what we might call "VH-Day" (Voluntourism Harm Day). The day prior, National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. ran a story on its All Things Considered show entitled “In S. Africa’s Orphanages, Is Doing Good Really Bad?” Anders Kelter interviewed Amy Norman, co-author of “AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care” and discussed abandonment challenges experienced by children as a result of voluntourism. Some UK journalists must have picked up on the story overnight.

Like "the shot heard round the world," the UK media jumped on the story. On 3 November 2010, three different media outlets in the UK ran articles. The Telegraph stated “Volunteer holidays ‘do more harm than good’” with a subheading which read “Gap year volunteers risk undermining local workers and hindering long-term development in impoverished communities, according to a new study.” The Daily Mail elaborated “Gap year volunteers ‘do more harm than good’ in third world countries,” while The Times warned “Gap year ‘voluntourists’ should stay at home, say Africa experts.”

But, it wasn’t until Ian Birrell ventured forth his Sunday-morning-opinion in the 14 November issue of The Guardian/Observer that social media enthusiasts really took note. “Before you pay to volunteer, think of the harm you might do” took a different slant than the previous articles and the comment/tweet/‘like’-fest was on. In the past three years, most especially in the UK, the prevailing opinion is voluntourism has done, nor will it do, anything but "harm" the very communities it intends to support.

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From Media to Advocacy & Action

The "harm" caused by voluntourism gave the blogosphere something to hang its search-engine optimization on; it catalyzed further negative media attention; and it opened the potential for launching campaigns and advocacy aimed at eliminating harmful voluntourism, primarily orphanage voluntourism.

When tourism becomes notably broken, there are a number of folks in the UK who step forward. Harold Goodwin is one such person. His work on Responsible Tourism is well-documented and well-respected and so is his connection to People & Places, a UK volunteer-sending organization which has received recognition for its specialized approach. Tourism Concern is another, one with a long-standing track record of striving to eradicate poor performances on the part of the tourism sector. Ethical Traveller, Catherine Mack, represents another frequent voice offering opinions on voluntourism. More recently, Fair Trade Volunteering provided a checklist to improve voluntourism in the UK. And, most recently, of course, Justin Francis and the team at ResponsibleTravel.com made headlines when the website jettisoned orphanage voluntourism projects from its online portfolio. (This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.)

So you see, the unfoldment since roughly 2009 looks something like this: academic literature -> media coverage -> advocacy & action. But is there something else driving the UK on this issue?

Neo-Colonialism Anyone?

Colonialism, imperialism - these words carry some difficult-to-digest connotations for the United Kingdom. Although the world has changed dramatically since the early 20th Century when the "sun never set on the British Empire," there exists an abundance of sensitivity to anything that even remotely resembles a return to colonialism. With academics and the media raising questions about voluntourism as a form of "neo-colonialism," it has served to awaken concern in the UK.

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Academics have also described this "neo-colonialism" in terms of transfer of Western ideas and methodologies to parts of the world where they are not applicable and/or are utterly irrelevant. You might think it is a good idea from the perspective of coming from the UK and its applicability there, but in a specific country, in a given setting, it's just plain useless.

This is a hard pill to swallow. It is quite difficult to admit to oneself that what is perceived to be helping can actually be a mechanism for perpetuating colonialism, bridging a connection to the dark past. When we take something that has good intentions associated with it and juxtapose it with something that is viewed quite negatively in a post-modern world, it does not take long for people to raise the alarm.

This is exactly what has happened in the UK. Those who know what words and terms will have the greatest chance of catalyzing change have been pulling them from their respective lexicons and placing them in the appropriate locations to draw attention. The results speak for themselves.

Final Thoughts...

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It is not an easy task to identify one particular catalyst that has moved the UK to attempt to reform voluntourism. Academe has played a role. The Media has played a role. Social media has followed hotly on its "tales." And advocacy has been not far behind. Not surprisingly, however, language seems to be at the root of it all. Words like "harm," "neo-colonialism" and even "voluntourism" itself have inflammatory and damning connotations within a society that takes great pride in itself - a society which aims to make significant contributions within and beyond its borders.

If there is good news associated with this story, the UK does not seem poised to eliminate voluntourism altogether, perhaps this is a small victory for those who hold that voluntourism has something positive to offer. On the other hand, the sheer amount of ongoing negative coverage of voluntourism in the UK is most definitely having an impact - certainly not a positive one for voluntourism providers.

What remains to be seen is if voluntourism reform will work in the UK. Will it spread to other parts of the world? Will Australia and the US (two former colonies) follow suit? Will Canada, New Zealand, and emerging voluntourism powerhouse South Korea do likewise? For these countries "neo-colonialism" won't have the same effect that it does in the UK. For these countries, it will be a different set of terms - "profit," maybe, or "too much of it," "unsustainable," who knows?

The UK is setting a very specific bar for voluntourism reform; thus far, the bar seems to be an exclusionary one - barring voluntourism from orphanages. Is this the kind of voluntourism reform that will have the respect of all voluntourism stakeholders? Difficult question. Peer pressure may prove extremely coercive - "Don't take advantage of vulnerable children! Put an end to your voluntourism programs in orphanages." To what degree it will actually address the reformation of voluntourism, is another matter entirely.

From my perspective, there are some lovely children, and some top-notch entities representing them, who may be the immediate victims of this voluntourism reformation scheme in the UK. I hope the organizations leading the charge are paying close enough attention to the outcomes so that the rest of the world can make an educated decision as to how they might proceed - follow the crown, or chart a new course.

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