08 October 2012

on voluntourism

“I think that there’s a lot of well meaning behind what’s considered voluntourism, where people go and they want to experience the culture of another place where they’re not from and also to gain a greater understanding of what issues face those areas...but [their volunteering] is in a way that doesn’t really help to resolve the issues. It’s more of a one-way interaction where they may gain more knowledge on an issue, maybe there’s a donation involved to a local charity...but it doesn’t do anything to address any of the root causes of the issues...It may make the person feel good about themselves…but it doesn’t make the community feel good about themselves, because they’re being objectified and only being seen as having problems.” Source

One of the most interesting aspects of our life in Cambodia are the daily interactions with our community and town.  Now that we have lived here for a year, it's easy to begin to get a big head with all of the "Hello, teacher!" and "Hello, Kate!" shouts that come at me when I bike to school, or the market, or home again.  Especially in our neighborhood, everyone knows us.  We very rarely get any crazy stares, and if we do, it's easily ended with a quick hello and then inevitably someone nearby explains in Khmer that we are teachers living here as volunteers.

Sometimes though, when we venture down the main road, it's hard not to get a bit rankled at all of the eyes staring and trying to determine if we are the teachers that are living in the town for two years that they have heard about/seen before or one of the many random foreigners that stops by for a week to volunteer at an orphanage that caters to the SE Asian travelers looking to "give back" or "do something different" with their time.

In the beginning, every time we got off the bus when returning from Phnom Penh, we would have to explain again that we did not want a tuk tuk to take us to the orphanage, and we would not pay five dollars because, dang it, we live here and we know it should cost seventy five cents!  Now, the drivers know us and will tell us where we live to get us to ride with them, but sometimes they'll cram one of the unwitting foreigners into the tuk tuk with us, charging them who knows how much to take them to the orphanage after dropping us at our home.

It can get very frustrating explaining again and again that I didn't come to work at the orphanage, that I do speak Khmer, and that yes, I agree that they dress inappropriately while visiting us in our town here in Cambodia.

These foreigners who come to stay are partaking in what has been deemed "voluntourism."  It gained popularity in the nineties and has taken off as a niche in travel for the people who believe that they can accomplish a great deal of things in a very short time.

As a whole, I'm not a big fan of voluntourism.  I spent some time doing some research to back up what felt like misgivings and bad feelings about the people who spend a day or week in our town, and much of what I read backs up my original thoughts. 

Though there are responsible organizations that plan trips to other countries for travelers looking to do something different that simply hotel-hop, and take the time to create a plan that has the community's vested interest and support, as well as train the volunteers who will spend a few weeks or months living in this new country, these organizations are few and far between. 

Most companies and organizations seek out short term visitors to help a community build something, or fix something, or learn something, without doing the legwork of ground-up development that considers community impact and investment or sustainability of the work being done by the voluntourists. 

I don't think taking one's time to volunteer while traveling is inherently a bad thing; I applaud people who wish do so.  What I don't applaud are the means by which people "volunteer" nor the consideration of what is actually being done in the very short time they are in a community, and what happens after they leave.

(What's crazy too is that much of the literature and studies that show how and why voluntourism is harmful cite Cambodia, and especially Cambodia's orphanages!) 


A most lucrative source, published just last month, sums up my feelings in many ways better than me.  One of the women cited in the article, herself someone who works to bring people to communities who need skilled workers, agrees with me that voluntourism "seems to be based on a simplistic understanding of what the problems of international development are."

Every single day in my community, I see issues that need addressing, problems that need solutions, changes that need to occur.  One year in, I finally feel that I have the greater perspective of which of these issues, problems and changes are actually necessary, and not based on my own cultural bias, and which are feasible, meaning things that I believe my community also believes needs to change and wants to put in the effort to do so, alongside myself.

This is possible because I will remain in my community for another year, and the Peace Corps offers the chance for an extension of my service if I have a worthy, unfinished job or project.  Now that I have scraped a little beyond the surface of my new home and country, I am equipped to tackle the longer term challenges that face the men and women I meet, and provide the skills and training I was brought here for to assist them in pursuing the jobs and projects and changes they deem necessary and that fit my abilities.

Voluntourism is too often the opposite of this approach.  Many people, young and old, arrive in a location (very often, an orphanage, especially in Cambodia) and are given the choice of how they want to "help" the community or children or whatever population has been decided needs serving.  From what I can tell, very little thought is often given to recruiting the correct voluntourists for specific jobs.  People with no prior training helping build homes or bridges or beds; fix stoves or bikes or irrigation routes. 

Often, voluntourists "teach" when they volunteer for the short period.  For the short time they visit the volunteering location, they share their knowledge of (usually) the English language, often without knowledge of what has been taught before or the target language of the group.

One of my biggest worries about voluntourism comes from the impact of short-term volunteering, like teaching, with children.  As the article I cited above points out, "another pitfall of voluntourism is that often it can have the opposite of its intended effect, and actually harm communities in developing countries."  Usually, "there was no needs assessment done. It’s just the photo op: I’m going to hold a baby for one week and feel like I’m volunteering."

Which begs the question: what about that baby or those children?  What if they build an attachment to the voluntourist, who leaves and may never return?  The article points out that there can be "a sense of abandonment."  I'm already lamenting saying goodbye to the youth that I've worked with just this past year, and I'm so grateful I've been able to build meaningful relationships based on my knowing the local language such that I can clearly explain my role in the community, and what I hope will happen after I leave next year.

Daily, however, what can prove most irritating are the moments when I bike past some visiting foreigner riding in the tuk tuk that the orphanage owns, wearing clothing that is nothing short of scandalous in Khmer society where baring your knees and shoulders is nearly nonexistent.  Every single time, I see at least one person wearing shorts that barely cover their behind, or a loose fitting tank top that exposes their bra and their breasts.  It's even worse when, often, the clothing items are very dirty.

Khmer people pride themselves on their clean, put together look.  I have never been with one of my co-teachers, even on a relaxing visit, when they are not wearing either a collared shirt, or a pressed tee shirt tucked in to their slacks.  Women never go without a bra, and strive to never let it be seen in public.  

When I see the way visiting voluntourists dress, I am frustrated and angered by the lack of respect for my community or lack of awareness that they even need to build an understanding of what cultural respect looks like.  It not only affects the way that others in my community view me and my work - I am often asked if I saw my "friend" at the Telamart the other day, or my "friend" who was riding their bike without a shirt last week, and I have to explain that I am not friends with all foreigners, and that I too think they are very impolite and disrespectful of the country they are visiting - but it affects the general image and understanding of the West and other cultures.
“Sometimes people undertake these activities who aren’t very sensitive to local culture or local customs. They could even behave in a way that might appear shocking to local communities...It could be around gender roles, it could be through sexual activity, it could be around drinking or using illicit drugs, [or] it could be in the way they dress. So sometimes [overseas projects] might—rather than build bridges between communities—make communities more suspicious of foreigners than they would have otherwise been.” Source

My frustration with lack of respect extends beyond dress.  I found a blog of a visitor to my actual village, to the orphanage I've mentioned, and I was struck by the attitude the voluntourist displayed toward my community and the events they were witness to.  I don't want to link to the blog specifically, but there are some statements that the blogger made that help me ascertain that voluntourism does not allow for a real understanding of a culture of community to build, and could damage relationships that longer term, more sustainably-approached volunteers have worked to create.

This tourist, volunteering at the orphanage, mentioned that there are always "loads of kids around the orphanage to entertain" but when they got bored on a Saturday night, they "sent off" one of the organization's workers to "get hold of a couple of bottles of rice wine for us to kick off the evening" for them to play "drinking games" before heading off to a "local concert...happening at the football field up the road" (side note: that football field is one and same that I wrote about for our opening ceremony, on my school's campus.) The voluntourist spent some time listening to "some pretty awful local crooners up on stage" until it became "pretty grating", when they proceeded to "hit the local karaoke joint."

Though the voluntourist does not mention it, it's worth noting that karaoke bars are often fronts for brothels, and if not, young women are employed at the bars to spend time with the customers (which can often lead to more.)

Finally, the tourist mentioned that a wedding was happening, which they were hoping to "sneakily crash" but proved difficult to do with "armed police guards on the door."

I don't believe this person was mal-intentioned or meant any harm to my community by coming here to volunteer at the orphanage, get drunk on rice wine and attempt to crash a wedding.  But I can't help but imagine the impact it had on the people who were "sent off" to get the rice wine or the wedding attendees who may or may not have seen foreigners hovering outside the door, attempting to take pictures like they were visiting a tourist trap.

I honestly believe volunteering's one's time and talents is one of the most rewarding things to be done in this life.  However, doing so without the full picture of the people whom one is "helping", without the full understanding and respect of a culture that one is "helping" within, or without asking the questions about one's qualifications or impact for "helping" is wrong.

Why do we need to make giving back easy?  If it was easy to help others, would there even be a need? Simple solutions are not really solutions at all- they are quick fixes, often designed to make the people offering those solutions feel good, rather than actually solve the problem of the people or community being served.

There is a lot more information out there, much of it about the harmful effects of voluntourism at orphanages in Cambodia, and there are many more reasons why a person should stop and consider the impact of voluntourism beyond the ones that rankle me daily here in my new community (such as taking the jobs of local workers, and the impact on the emotional development of children left behind by voluntourists.) Read here, here, or here or watch this short video here, filmed in Phnom Penh.

What are your thoughts on voluntourism?

1 comment:

  1. Argh, I wrote a big long spiel then accidentally deleted it. Anyway, long story short, I completely agree with you and the person who wrote the article in this post. While I lived in Indonesia I saw plenty of "voluntourists" or "short termers" as we called them. The trip seemed to do more for them than it ever did for the locals who they were supposed to be helping.