Wisdom & Insight
Additional Perspective on Development and Volunteer Tourism
Building on last issue's So You May Know column, I have asked Dr. Anna Mdee (formerly Toner) to share some of her recent research on volunteer tourism. In November 2008, an ariticle co-authored by Dr. Mdee and Richard Emmott entitled "Social Enterprise With International Impact: The Case for Fair Trade Certification of Volunteer Tourism" was published in Education, Knowledge & Economy. In their conclusion, Mdee & Emmott wrote: "Its (volunteer tourism) impact in terms of skills transfer is probably minimal and incremental on an individual level, but as an input of localised revenue when also supported by long-term relationships and capacity-building, the longer-term impact might be significant."
Volunteer Tourism as a subject of academic debate and research is relatively new; and at present much of the discussion originates from academics in the area of Tourism and Geography. In recent research I explored the phenomenon and practice of volunteer tourism from the perspective of development studies. In the UK, volunteer tourism has come under heavy criticism in some areas with influential organisations suggesting that ‘you are better off back-packing’ (comment in a newspaper article by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). At the same time the volunteer tourism ‘industry’ is flooded with providers offering ‘life-changing’ and indeed ‘world-changing’ experiences.
|"Unlike many of my colleagues in Development and Academia who would dismiss Volunteer Tourism as ‘useless’ and even harmful, I suggest that Volunteer Tourism can bring some benefits. In that sense it can inspire individuals to view the world differently and to take actions in their own lives that might contribute to structural change that challenges poverty."
Dr. Anna Mdee, Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching in the School of Social and International Studies at the University of Bradford
My research explored this conversation in the UK and sought to understand how volunteer tourism was being presented. It also asked the question of whether, in the face of the criticisms of the industry, could some type of Fair Trade label be developed to indicate how and when volunteer tourism does have a positive impact on local communities.
What the research clearly showed was that the current concerns over practices in volunteer tourism are in two distinct areas:
- Volunteer Tourism as a neo-colonialism- whereby the perception is that the volunteer armed with their superior knowledge and skills can go and ‘make a difference’. This is certainly a potentially harmful consequence of the marketing of the experience of volunteering and can lead to difficulties and misunderstandings in the relationship between local organisation/community and volunteer.
- A perceived need to improve volunteer tourism as a ‘consumer experience’- Much of the existing research focuses on the experiences of the volunteer and has led to checklists for organisations to follow to ensure a safer and more organised experience for the volunteer. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, only that the impact on the receiving organisation/community is often missing.
Therefore a greater understanding is required of when volunteer tourism can benefit the organisations and communities that can receive them. One way of improving practice and in helping to start this conversation would be through auditing and labelling volunteer tourism schemes as ‘good for development’ as suggested by the Overseas Development Institute in the UK. My research indicates that a Fair Trade Label in their current forms are not suitable and can exclude many small organisations.
For the last eight years I have researched the process of development and change in sub-Saharan Africa. My area of focus lies particularly in how aid projects are received, reinterpreted and implemented at the local level. Since 1996 I have spent long periods of time in the village of Uchira in Tanzania, which has enabled me to track change and develop an understanding of local livelihoods and life histories.
However, my first journey to Tanzania was made as a Volunteer Tourist with Frontier. This was a transformation experience for me and led me to study International Development.
Later as a spin-off to my research activities I began to work with friends in Uchira on a range of development initiatives. One way of generating income appeared to be from facilitating paying volunteer tourists to spend time in the village and the NGO Village-to-Village resulted from this. This has not been an easy path to follow but the combination of my research and direct experience of facilitating volunteer tourism might allow me to offer some insights on future directions.
Future Research & Practical Implementations
Unlike many of my colleagues in Development and Academia who would dismiss Volunteer Tourism as ‘useless’ and even harmful, I suggest that Volunteer Tourism can bring some benefits. In that sense it can inspire individuals to view the world differently and to take actions in their own lives that might contribute to structural change that challenges poverty. There are also considerable benefits for the volunteer in terms of personal development but primarily when they see it in these terms rather than as an act of charity. Volunteering can be ‘link between worlds’ whereby the volunteer and host have a positive interaction that increases mutual understanding and contributes to the creation of a globalising and humanising civil society.
It can also crucially have a positive economic, in that in a well structured and non-exploitative scheme money paid by volunteers can be spent on local employment locally produced goods.
However, I am far more sceptical of claims made regarding the direct ‘development’ impact of volunteer tourism. It is in this area where more research is required and a far greater degree of honesty and understanding on the part of volunteer tourism providers and volunteer tourists themselves. In is highly unlikely that an individual 18 year old working in a Tanzanian orphanage will really improve the structural conditions of life for those orphans. From the orphan’s point of view, it might be of far greater direct benefit for the volunteer to stay at home and to fundraise to pay for new clothes and food.
Inputs from short-term volunteers who do not speak a local language need to be structured and part of on-going projects and processes which build local capacity. Volunteers themselves should to be ready to learn rather than judge; and to have respect and humility for the context in which they find themselves. A far greater degree of preparation on the part of sending organisations and volunteers is therefore required.
A more fundamental debate for those of us promoting and working in volunteer Tourism is this: Is this just a different type of holiday or is this about a period of service in a difficult and challenging environment? We need to be much clearer about this in the way that we promote and participate in volunteer tourism.
Anna Mdee, PhD, Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching in the School of Social and International Studies at the University of Bradford.
About Anna Mdee
Dr Anna Mdee (formerly ‘Toner’) is Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean for Learning and Teaching in the School of Social and International Studies at the University of Bradford. She is also a Deputy Director of the Centre for African Studies.
Her research focuses on sustainable livelihoods and community-driven development in Africa with a particular focus on Tanzania. Recent research funded by DFID (UK Department for International Development) and ESRC (The Economic and Social Research Council) explores the ideas and practice of community participation in water management and the mitigation of the impacts of HIV/AIDS.
She is currently working on a collaborative teaching project with Mzumbe University, Tanzania and is also the co-founder of ‘Village-to-Village’ an NGO working on issues around community responses to HIV/AIDS and sustainable agriculture. This organisation has also been organising volunteer placements in Tanzania since 2006.
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