Is ‘volontourism’ the new colonialism?

On Monday, Australian ABC Radio published an article online entitled ‘Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?

The article states that volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, is one of the fastest growing areas of the tourism industry and that new evidence suggests that it may be doing more harm than good in developing countries. According to a new report by UK think tank Demos, poorly arranged gap year volunteering trips are at risk of becoming a new form of colonialism. Some people might be surprised by these findings and the irony of the fact that something, on the face of it, would seem altruistic and helpful is actually doing the complete opposite.

However this ‘revelation’ isn’t shocking to me, and probably isn’t to anyone else who has given it more than a moment’s thought.

In the interest of being completely honest, as I mentioned in my first ever post (!) three years ago I took part in International Citizen Service – a DFID funded scheme in the UK with multiple development partners (VSO, International Service, Restless Development etc) where I spent three months voluntarily working as a team leader in a country in West Africa. While I was there, I was responsible for ‘leading’ a team of young volunteers between the ages of 18-22 where we worked with a women’s rights organisation.

I’d studied international relations at university, had a lifelong interest in the eradication of extreme poverty and decided to take the opportunity to ‘experience it firsthand’ which, at the time, I hoped would help me to see if and how I could contribute to international development as a whole. Now, I’m not sure how far this programme could be described as ‘voluntourism’ (feel free to let me know your own opinions), and for my own part I had been working for a couple of years in public relations (and volunteered as a fundraising team leader) and truly (and naively) believed that I would be able to support both the volunteers and the organisation we were working with in any projects that would genuinely use the skills I had developed. There was NO WAY I was going to be travelling to developing countries and building schools or teaching – skills that I didn’t have (and still don’t!) and would have been ridiculous for me to even contemplate – so going with ICS didn’t make me feel as though I was being patronising at the time.

Oh how quickly I learnt otherwise. My team of four volunteers ranging from 18-22 were, in truly the nicest possible way, as inexperienced and immature as I now realise I was and we were completely out of our depth. When we arrived our main objectives for helping the organisation were varied and, in some cases, complex. When we turned up to a peanut field and our main contact at the organisation (who happened to be an ecologist) said that the main issue they faced was a lack of water and that’s what they needed help with I couldn’t believe it. Apart from one of us spending a few weeks on a similar project in Ethiopia (hello voluntourism!) what the hell did we know about irrigation/water storage/making it rain!? I spent the first couple of weeks renegotiating what we would work on in line with the skills set of the volunteers – it was clear that ICS hadn’t given much thought to pairing up our meagre capabilities with the needs of the organisation.

Apart from the fact that I was painfully aware that this long-established, ‘grass-roots’ organisation with a lot of great things going on were seeking advice and support from a group of well-intentioned teenagers, it also became clear that what they really could have done with (only in my opinion) was some expert and strategic advice on the overall management of the organisation and defining their governance, project and financial strategies, both short term and long term, NOT some kids trying to design an irrigation system. To be fair, the blame can be shared by the organisation too for the situation we found ourselves in; it was clear from almost the first week that we went to work with them with huge pound signs over our heads. When one of our priorities was to raise over £26k to fund the building of several nurseries and schools with an emphasis on using our ‘contacts from back home’, it was hard to ignore the real benefit that they saw in us being there. Obviously I don’t blame them at all for this – it’s not the fault of the organisation but a symptom of a system built upon Western ‘supremacy’ and patriarchy.

I never felt truly comfortable being there under that particular guise and really struggled to reconcile reality with my original intentions and beliefs. The volunteers and I had numerous discussions about this and debated whether it would have been more helpful to donate the cost of the plane ticket and living expenses to the organisation rather than being there ourselves. I can also recount numerous emails to my international development lecturer about my crisis of conscience and new feelings about the effectiveness and delivery of development practices.

In the end I made the best of the situation, we did (I hope) prove helpful in some way – using the team’s genuine technical expertise to build a website and produce a film (I think the fact that one of the volunteers actually took a video camera might have been more valuable), and language skills to translate necessary documents into English, amongst other things. We also tried to make our work there as sustainable and long-term as possible and to pass on new skills to make the most of an awkward situation.

If it wasn’t clear enough at the time it’s now become painfully obvious that, regardless of its original intention (although that in itself is questionable), the whole ICS programme (I must stress I am talking about the intentions of DFID rather than the partners, as I think theirs are at least genuine) is set up for the benefit of the UK volunteers embarking ‘on a life changing voyage of discovery’, rather than those that it’s supposedly meant to ‘help’. Even from the language on the website it’s clear that this is the case: “ICS is demanding but hugely rewarding – both in its own right and as a stepping stone to future job opportunities and to help you play a part in making your world a better place.”

I definitely didn’t come away thinking that I’d made the least bit of difference or ‘saved lives’ or done anything that anyone in said country couldn’t have done themselves – that trip benefitted me a million times more (on a development level) than anyone I met there, although I do hope on an individual/friendship level I’ve had an impact on some of the people I met – we’re still friends so fingers crossed!  So yes, being there was one of the best (and worst – for various reasons I won’t go into here) experiences of my life and, apart from the ‘volunteering’ side of things, I enjoyed everything that the country had to offer, learnt a lot, fell more in love with a genre of music and made some lifelong friends, amongst other things. It was certainly an ‘eye-opening’ experience that raised a hell of a lot of questions, confirmed some of my fears about development practices, confused the hell out of me and set me on a journey that’s so far resulted in this blog. It has also meant that although I have been given the opportunity (several times) to go on another ‘placement’ with ICS I have turned it down/decided to boycott it (however you want to see it). I’m not about to spend another patronising three months abroad under the guise that I’m going to be of any help to people who are (in most cases) older, wiser and more experienced than me – it’s just a joke. Instead I’m going to save up and go back for a few weeks to stay with friends when I can.

So issue number one with ‘volontourism’ in my eyes is that, in general, it’s essentially vain, self-gratifying and a whole lot more beneficial for the volunteer than anyone else. Secondly, it’s incredibly patronising – how do inexperienced teenagers (the usual demographic for voluntourists) know more than a 45 year old woman/man who has been running an organisation for years? It’s always good to get another perspective and a fresh young pair of eyes on things, but they should not be considered experts on development! Also, tell me how many teenagers in the UK know how to build a school or a well… VERY FEW. So why are they seen to be more capable of doing this than those living in developing countries? We wouldn’t trust/expect them to build a school here so why abroad? Surely their airfare would be better spent (if at all) on paying experienced builders in said developing countries to train/manage others labourers to build the schools themselves (and paying them too!).

Roger O’Halloran, the executive director of PALMS, an NGO that was born out of the Catholic social movement of lay missionaries hits the nail on the head when, in ABC’s article, he says that PALMS is wary of people who want to volunteer out of a sense of Christian charity because an inappropriate power relationship can be formed between volunteer and host in which the giver has all the power over the receiver. He says the way poverty is represented in the media contributes to this separation between people.

According to O’Halloran, many volunteers think ‘that’s all they are, just poor people, and I can help them by giving of my excess and that makes me a good person’.

‘[But] they are fellow human beings who have skills and capacities and resourcefulness probably far beyond anyone living in a Western society.’

My third problem with ‘voluntourism’ is that, again in general, it’s not set up for long-term sustainable change. Typically, volunteers work on a project for a few weeks/months and then up and leave, often without much thought to what will happen when they go or how or if what they’ve started will be able to continue.

Essentially I’d like to see an end to ‘voluntourism’ in its current form. I don’t want to be completely negative, I do appreciate the good intentions that I’m sure a lot of voluntourists possess and I don’t want to quash the idea that all of us should support our communities (in this case the global community) as we ourselves would like to be supported. However (and I don’t have all the answers), if voluntourism is to continue (whether or not it should is a whole other discussion) then at the very least could another model exist? – clearly countries and people across the world have a lot they can learn from each other, so I’m not arguing that cross-border sharing of ideas/skills/resources shouldn’t happen – hey, the UK at the very least could learn some seriously valuable lessons about what a good society looks like from less economically developed countries. But the cue needs to come from developing countries – they need to ask for help that meets their actual requirements if and when they need it rather than it being forced upon them or given for perceived problems etc. I also think that volunteering, both internationally and locally, isn’t something to be undertaken lightly – it should be led by those who will feel the effects, supported by experts who have the wisdom, knowledge, sensitivity and experience to offer and be guided by those who have the right mindset – not one filled with self-importance, vanity and superiority, or that is patronising, patriarchal and imposing or by someone who thinks they are a saviour, but by those who are willing to learn from others and exchange knowledge and skills, who take their cue from those in the know and work towards collaborative, long-term change.

Would welcome any comments/thoughts/opinions as usual…


Oh the irony…

I’ve only just watched this video today from Binyavanga Wainaina today talking to the Guardian last week.

I agree pretty much completely with what he’s saying. His comments about need for actual systemic change instead of liberal guilt but the apparent desire to maintain the patriarchal relationship of ‘aid donor and recipient’, the insanely patronising ‘gap years’, the need for the rest of the world to take their cue from Africa rather than imposing its own agenda etc etc are just some of the reasons (as I mentioned in my last post) that I haven’t bought into development organisations in the UK and why I took the decision to step out of this ‘sector’ and embark on writing this blog. It’s also the reason why I decided to turn down the opportunity to work with the ICS programme again this summer (more about that later).

I’d really love to hear others thoughts on this interview. Should the West just f**k off?

Why this blog?

I’m not sure how this is going to go, or whether this blog is even a good idea but international development and eradicating extreme poverty are issues that I’m truly passionate about and always have been. I’ve never thought that it was fair that I have been born into a world of opportunity and good fortune and others haven’t when we’ve done nothing to deserve our starts in life – it’s all down to luck.

I’ll fill you in with a bit more about my background and experiences of international development in a later post, but for now – I hope that this blog will become a place for debate, discussion and learning (for me at least!) about current international development practices and whether or not they are effective/helpful. I am also DESPERATE for this debate/blog to not be lead by me sat here in the UK, because what the hell do I know? I hope that it will be hijacked by people actually living in developing countries who can straighten the record out, correct all the assumptions (that even I’m probably making!) and so that I can take my cue from them and assist (with my marketing/PR background) in the way that will actually be most helpful (also feel free to tell me that this blog/my involvement isn’t helpful in any way shape or form).

Primarily I was inspired to write about this as I have become more involved in the world of international development and increasingly started to wonder about how effective some of the practices are, and how seemingly patronising some of the representations are of ‘developing countries’.

I must seriously point out here that I’m NO expert, I don’t have a masters degree or PHD in development, I don’t live in a ‘developing’ country, I don’t live in extreme poverty, but I do live in the Western world, I do consume a hell of a lot of information about and representations of developing countries/development/aid and I do have an opinion on it all. I hope that people will engage with me on this blog to challenge my opinions, to post articles to discuss and debate development and perhaps even teach me a thing or two. I won’t get everything right, but I’ve struggled to find much literature specifically on the topic of patronising representations of developing countries and those that live in them.

This all started when I got off the phone to one of my best friends who lives in Burkina Faso. I logged onto my computer and the first advert that popped up on the internet was about a young African girl who had to walk several miles a day to collect water and how people could text to donate money to help her. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought but I was struck by how patronising and unempowering the advert was – that all we should feel for this human being, this personality, this girl, was pity – and these adverts become the poster campaign for how we feel about the whole of the developing world (or in this case, Africa.)

Now I’m not saying charities and organisations fundraising to support their activities don’t have the best of intentions, but in general (in my opinion), people living in developing countries/continents (and Africa in particular) are often stereotyped, and collectively labelled as ‘poor’ and ‘helpless’ and often, not much else. It has been grating on me that people who are living, breathing, dreaming, hoping, dancing, smoking, loving, drinking, partying, praying, eating, sleeping and equal in every way other than that they are often limited by their place of birth, are only known for what they don’t have and what ‘we’ assume their lives to be like rather than who they truly are.

From my conversations and observations of the general public where I live in England, a lot of people have totally misconceived, patronising and unhelpful opinions of people living in extreme poverty – often opinions held with the best of intentions and due to a lack of information (or an abundance of misinformation), but still not right. I’m not even suggesting I’ve been completely guilt free of this – until I did my research, experienced international development first-hand and started to challenge the advertising/campaigns/stereotypes/media I’m pretty sure I would have held some of the same views.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that the UK stops working/interacting/supporting developing countries – there are a lot of ‘western’ NGOs/organisations/agencies doing some good work (although I DO think that the whole ridiculous ‘industry’ of development needs to be seriously reconsidered – and hey, if developing nations can/want the west to p*ss off then it should). But I think the collective Western perception of people living in extreme poverty and the marketing/branding of developing countries in ‘the West’ need an overhaul. The days of ‘poverty porn’ and calling on the general public to feel sorry for the ‘poor people in developing countries’ are not only over (people have become numb to this type of marketing anyway), but are patronising, damaging and downright wrong!

I’m not professing to have all the answers and it’s probably even patronising that I think I can do anything about this, but people living in extreme poverty shouldn’t be living in extreme poverty – they don’t need or deserve to and with the right support from the international community they’re very capable (with the right opportunities and empowerment) rising out of it, not because they’re people who are all the same, who we should take pity on and ‘save’.

I don’t know how, or even if this is the right thing to suggest, but somehow those living in extreme poverty who have the capacity and those of us that feel the same as I do need to stand up to the world and challenge the pity and the stereotypes and the assumptions. I am ready to support in any way I can – but I’m aware that this is something that needs to be led by those who suffer from this injustice or it’s just another example of western supremacy…

For years I’ve been struggling with notions and ideas of development and have never seen a model/concept/notion of development that’s sat well with me – I’ve never seen how I could fit in and support development without being patronising or downright ridiculous – what do I know about being born into/living in extreme poverty? I don’t know how to solve the world’s problems, I don’t how to end extreme poverty and I’m not about to tell anyone that I do, but I do know that this  needs to stop and that people need to see that people living in developing countries are equal in every way to the rest of the world and they need to be taken seriously and not pitied. My background (and limited expertise) is in communications and marketing, and if, in some small way I can help this cause and the people it represents earn some respect and recognition for who they truly are, then that’s what I want to do.

Things are changing rapidly in the developing world and will continue to do so. Economics are driving change, technology and communication is driving change and people themselves, from within developing countries, are driving change. Now there needs to be a ‘culture change which catches up’ as a good friend put it. All I’m asking for is the West to get a grip and give fair representation of developing countries and see them as equals.

I hope in the near future this blog becomes surplus to requirements.

Please feel free to comment on this, to challenge what I’ve said (or support it!) – I’d love to hear your thoughts.