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Hanna Voelkl 1
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 8 Issue 4 Highlights

 
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Study and Research

THE EXPERIENCE OF CHILDREN WITH INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEER TOURISTS: A CASE STUDY IN AN ORPHANAGE IN GHANA

Hanna Tabea Voelkl, Brunel University- School of Health, Sciences and Social Care
Uxbridge, Middlesex, UK
Hanna.voelkl89@gmail.com

For this issue of the research forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we are pleased to share highlights from Ms. Hanna Tabea Voelkl's recent field work from the summer of 2012.  As a fullfillment for her Master of Arts in 'Children, Youth, and International Development' at Brunel University in London, UK, she conducted a qualitative case study in Ghana that focused on the experiences of local children in an orphanage with international volunteer tourists. The purpose was to gain an understanding of the children's perceptions of the experience and the nature of their relationship with the volunteers. Furthermore, the study aimed to gather knowledge about the  volunteers' impact in terms of actual sustainable development in the children's lives.

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Introduction

The booming phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’- a combination of travel and voluntary work - has led to the establishment of a million-dollar industry dominated by commercial gap-year companies (Fulbrook, 2008). However, the experience of the host community remains under-explored. Specifically, the perceptions of  the local children involved in  developing countries is not considered in most research, a surprising omission considering Article 12 on participation in the UNCRC and the shift in the social studies of childhood conceptualising children as active social agents rather than 'social becomings'. This case study was developed in order to address this need for further research. It gives Ghanaian children a voice by investigating their experience with international volunteer tourists.

Methods: A qualitative approach based on a child's right to participation

The act of giving and receiving is what the children seemed to associate the most with volunteers as they provide them with sweets, stationery items for school, shoes, clothing, colouring pens, fruit and photographs. In addition, the children seemed to have developed certain expectations and strategies to convince volunteers to give them something or take them on a trip. This relationship reflects the dichotomy between wealthy 'help-givers' and 'needy' beneficiaries (Vodopivec & Jaffe, 2011) and reduces support to individual acts of charity (Brown & Hall, 2008). The children conceptualise volunteers as white, mostly female young students, who enter their lives in order to distribute things and spend time with them. On the side of the volunteers, it seemed to reinforce the 'lotto-logic' (Raymond & Hall, 2008) and justify their concept of African children being 'poor but happy' (Simpson, 2004).

The results are based on five weeks of fieldwork conducted in an orphanage in Ho, Ghana. A qualitative approach was used and included participant observation, participatory workshops with the children and semi-structured interviews with the founder of the orphanage and the local project coordinators.  Information was gathered from all children and staff at the orphanage.

Results

Generally, the children enjoy the presence of the volunteers and become very excited when new volunteers arrive. At the same time, they have become accustomed to the constant flow of arrivals and returns of volunteers. Their experience has taught them that volunteers are there for a short time to play with them and give them presents. As a result, they confront the volunteers with this expectation, especially on the day of departure. However, they are indeed sad when volunteers leave, but only cry for those with whom they have become attached due to the extraordinary commitment of the volunteer or a long duration of stay.

Nonetheless, the children are not happy about having to say goodbye to the leaving volunteers and would prefer it if the volunteers would stay longer and integrate themselves more into the children's daily routine. When leaving, many volunteers promise to come back in ten years’ time, which the children presume to be true even though it is highly unlikely. On the part of the volunteers, there is no long-term commitment as they simply leave, do not keep in contact, and get replaced by the next cohort of volunteers. This shows that volunteer tourism creates opportunities for social interaction, but does not broaden the social network of the children or make information more accessible for them. It also does not seem to create sustainable bridges between the two communities.

The act of giving and receiving is what the children seemed to associate the most with volunteers as they provide them with sweets, stationery items for school, shoes, clothing, colouring pens, fruit and photographs. In addition, the children seemed to have developed certain expectations and strategies to convince volunteers to give them something or take them on a trip. This relationship reflects the dichotomy between wealthy 'help-givers' and 'needy' beneficiaries (Vodopivec & Jaffe, 2011) and reduces support to individual acts of charity (Brown & Hall, 2008). The children conceptualise volunteers as white, mostly female young students, who enter their lives in order to distribute things and spend time with them. On the side of the volunteers, it seemed to reinforce the 'lotto-logic' (Raymond & Hall, 2008) and justify their concept of African children being 'poor but happy' (Simpson, 2004).

On the positive side, the children learn group games such as catching games, games in a circle and football. Furthermore, they are stimulated to participate in activities with guidelines such as arts and crafts activities, learn to play as a group and have fun, rewarding experiences.

Furthermore, some children stated that volunteers have an effect on their behaviour as well since they teach them about the importance of wearing shoes, brushing your teeth, education and hygiene. Concurrently, they also internalise moral standards demonstrated by the volunteers, for instance that hitting is not appropriate and even prohibited in other countries. In addition, their English improves through their interaction with the volunteers. Without volunteers they would probably only speak the local language amongst each other and their English might not be as fluent as a result. The experience is therefore valuable for the children in a way because it involves personal encounters and emotional connections with people from other countries (Palacios, 2010) who can function as role models for solidarity and good behaviour (Jones, 2004).

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Even though the majority of volunteers are at the orphanage for a very short period of time (between 2 and 6 weeks), one could speculate the situation of the children would be worse if no more volunteers came.

The children feel recognised, loved and appreciated since volunteers seem to come only to spend time with them. At the same time, they get emotionally attached quite quickly and many young girls would frequently cling to the volunteers' arms (see Illustrations 4 and 5). 

According to the local coordinator, the volunteers are like big siblings to the children, which they demonstrate by calling them 'Sister'. The children frequently write letters addressed to volunteers which would state “I love you” and would then include a volunteer's name. Interestingly though, they would write these letters to any volunteer and if one was not available, they would give it to another without hesitation. Even though they seemed emotionally attached to them, they did not cry at the farewells of any of the short-term volunteers. They referred to the long-term volunteers as 'friends' however.

In the eyes of the local coordinator, the lack of stability through constant volunteer staff turn-over is not problematic since “[...]they are always assured that someone will come and replace the person that went.” The initial concern of Richter and Norman (2010) about children's rights, protection and emotional development turned out not to be the primary concern since it seems that the children only get genuinely, emotionally attached to the long-term volunteers who truly participate in their daily lives and routines. Since they were well aware of the constant volunteer turn-over, they have adapted a strategy of only getting superficially attached. Furthermore, the children give each other emotional support and also have the Ghanaian staff as stable attachment figures as well as their original families, to whom most of them returned during the school holidays and occasionally on weekends.

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The children have an extremely positive image of the volunteers and their countries. Interestingly enough though, they associated white skin and the female gender with volunteers due to the fact that most volunteers are indeed female and no effort has been made to invite African volunteers. My assumption is that young Ghanaians would surely be capable of volunteering, but are not encouraged to do so due to the financial dependency of the NGO on the volunteers' program fees.

To a small extent, the children learn about other countries through the volunteers, which widens their horizon. The children would frequently draw flags of the volunteers' countries and Ghana. Since the majority of volunteers have been from Germany, the children seem to have the image of Germany as a nice place with good-hearted people, cars, and airplanes. Many would draw airplanes or tell me they aspired to become pilots to fly to Germany. Furthermore, they seemed to have internalised the importance of education since many aspired to go to Germany in order to learn a profession, such as being a teacher, doctor, nurse, pilot or accountant, and then return to Ghana to improve their situation.

In summary, it seems that intercultural exchange might be promoted by volunteer tourism but that it produces stereotypical, overly positive images of the Western world in the children's minds - - which might ultimately widen the dichotomy between the host's and the volunteer's home community.

Sustainable Changes?

In summary, the volunteers produce valuable contributions to the children's daily lives through the variety of enjoyable activities they provide, their expressions of emotional care, and their financial contributions which are vital to the existence of the local NGO and its projects. However, the concerns that volunteer tourists lack the necessary means and qualifications to contribute to sustainable improvements to the children's lives and the community's development have only been confirmed by the results of this study. Furthermore, volunteer tourism contributes to the continuation of colonialist structures and mentalities. This is mainly because 1) the local NGOs rely on external funding through the volunteer program fees and 2) the children conceptualise the volunteers from Western countries in the light of wealth and 'giving'.

As a result of the usage of their orphanage as a volunteer tourism site, the children are spoiled but poor. On one hand, they are besieged with material presents and have constant entertainment through the continuous flow of volunteers. On the other hand, it is appalling to what little extent the volunteers actually make an impact in terms of sustainable improvement of the children's living situation or their intellectual development.  Even though several dozen volunteers pass through the orphanage every year, the children still receive poor education due to poorly trained and underpaid teachers, have no health insurance, no mosquito nets, no proper mattresses, and not enough rooms or beds to sleep in. In the end, volunteers lack the power, expertise and resources needed for sustainable development.

Nevertheless, there are ways the volunteers support the orphanage through their program fees. A small portion of the program fee the volunteers are required to pay to the international sending organisations is given to the local coordinator who decides how it will be used. Each year, only one particular construction project is funded through the program fee donations.

As it seems, volunteer tourism projects are closely linked to questions regarding finances. There is a certain accountability towards the sending organisations, which seem to focus on construction projects as proof of the legitimacy and sustainable impact of the volunteer tourism project. Progress is gradual as only one small building is constructed in an entire year. Under other circumstances,  a similar project would only take one to two weeks if the necessary material and financial resources were readily available. Basically, the volunteers provide the financial basis for the survival of the NGO organisation. As a result of these financial interdependencies between the volunteers, sending organisations, and the local coordinator, the coordinator aims to receive as many volunteers as possible and the sending organisation gladly cooperates as it makes enormous profit through each volunteer sent abroad. This leads to a constant overflow of volunteers at the orphanage.

Conclusion

In summary, the volunteers produce valuable contributions to the children's daily lives through the variety of enjoyable activities they provide, their expressions of emotional care, and their financial contributions which are vital to the existence of the local NGO and its projects. However, the concerns that volunteer tourists lack the necessary means and qualifications to contribute to sustainable improvements to the children's lives and the community's development have only been confirmed by the results of this study. Furthermore, volunteer tourism contributes to the continuation of colonialist structures and mentalities. This is mainly because 1) the local NGOs rely on external funding through the volunteer program fees and 2) the children conceptualise the volunteers from Western countries in the light of wealth and 'giving'.

Further research is needed that focuses on the perspectives of the host communities of volunteer tourism projects. The complex relationships between sending organisations, local NGOs, the staff at the project sites and the volunteers also remain unexplored territories within the volunteer tourism industry as they involve financial interdependencies and issues of communication and power. In the future, it would be helpful to conduct more research on similar volunteer tourism projects with vulnerable children in order to find out if the results are generally applicable.

References

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Brown, F. & Hall, D. (2008): 'Tourism and Development in the Global South: the issues' Third World Quarterly 29(5), 839-849.

Fulbrook, A. (2008): ‘Mind the gap year’ In: ‘Dev-Zone: Good Intentions-The Ethics of Volunteering. Critical Thinking on Global Issues' Just Change: Good intentions (11).

Jones, A. (2004): Review of Gap year provision London: Department for Education and Skills: School of Geography, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Palacios, C.M. (2010): 'Volunteer tourism, development and education in a postcolonial world: conceiving global connections beyond aid' Journal of Sustainable Tourism 18(7), 861-878.

Raymond E. & Hall C. (2008): ‘The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism’ Journal of Sustainable Tourism 16(5), 530-543.

Richter, L. M. & Norman, A. (2010): 'AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care' Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies 5 (3), 217-229.

Roberts, T. (2004): 'Are Western Volunteers Reproducing and Reconstructing the Legacy of Colonialism in Ghana? An Analysis of the Experiences of Returned Volunteers' University of Manchester, Manchester.

Simpson, K. (2004): ‘Doing Development': The Gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development' Journal of International Development 16, 681-692.

United Nations (1989): Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at:  http://www2.ohchr.or...ish/law/crc.htm (accessed on 10.04.2012)

Vodopivec, B. & Jaffe R. (2011): 'Save the World in a Week: Volunteer Tourism and Development' European Journal of Development Research 23(1), 111-128.

 We hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum!  If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to The Voluntourist Newsletter or e-mail Hanna Voelkl at Hanna.voelkl89@gmail.com

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg VA
nmcgehee@vt.edu

For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>


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