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…

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5 thoughts on “Is ‘volontourism’ the new colonialism?

  1. Gary says:

    This is, by far, one of the most patronizing articles of international development I have ever read. You may have cried when trying to figure out a complex irrigation system, but not nearly as much as they did when you threw in your opinion. You were there to do, not to think. You would have little to no comprehension of the problems faced on a daily basis by these individuals from your middle-class ivory tower but you seem to empathize? How? Your contempt for western governments’ attempts at providing some sort of assistance should be swept away considering how little help they get from their own. If you want to make a difference, start a coup and spread the wealth in the possession of the people elected to help them. It may be bloody but undoubtedly it would be more effective.

    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m surprised that you think I’m being patronising in my post and I’d be really grateful if you would expand a little more on why you feel that way? My main point in the article is that the project I was working on WAS patronising, so if that’s your point I agree with you?

      If you’ve read some of my other posts, (and I think it’s actually apparent in this one), I don’t proclaim to have any experience of what it’s like to live in a ‘developing country’ or extreme poverty and I am completely honest about the fact that I write these posts from my white, middle class perspective. I do, however, try to practice empathy to attempt to understand things from others’ point of view and think the world would be a better place if everyone did so. Einstein said ‘you can’t solve a problem from the consciousness that created it’: I’m a Westerner living in a world system very much created in the image of Western consciousness. I’ve seen and noticed that, so I’m trying to step outside of it and offer a different perspective.

      I am also constantly expanding my knowledge of international development practices, so largely I’m just saying what I see – that ‘development’ as it’s currently accepted and delivered, has a huge number of problems; namely that it’s patronising, reinforces the dominance of the West and is essentially a sticking plaster for an international system that relies on and perpetuates the dependence and subjugation of poorer countries (amongst many other problems – some of which I addressed in my most recent post). If you disagree with my opinion then you’re very welcome to say so. I don’t profess to have the answers, but I won’t sit quietly when I see these things going on – people have got to wake up and start calling bullshit! It’s sad to hear you say I was there to “do, not to think” – how would anything ever change or improve without questioning? Aside from that fact, I largely talk of feelings in this article rather than my thoughts, and I don’t think its fair for you to criticise those.

      Finally, on your last point. I’m not sure that there’s anywhere in this blog that I express contempt for Western governments and at their ‘providing assistance’, but if I have, that’s not how I feel. My issue isn’t with any one individual or organisation or government – it’s with the system. A system that seemingly has fostered in you a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’, that has lead you to believe that the all ‘their’ governments are bad and that this is the root of all ’their’ problems. If you think that this is where the problem lies and that overturning those governments that ARE questionable (and often unelected, I might add) would make any difference in a system where developing countries are sidelined and abused and that is largely the CAUSE of bad governance (any ‘bad’ governance in our eyes in developing countries is a RESULT of the current system, not a CAUSE of it! Sometimes indirectly, sometimes very very directly – just look up Francois Mitterand and Thomas Sankara), then you’re missing every message I’ve conveyed in this blog!

  2. I think this article has a point, there were times when I thought exactly the same thing. However I don’t want to see a stop to the ICS programme (even though it most likely will soon due to funding cuts). I volunteered with ICS this Summer in Tanzania with Raleigh International. Raleigh has a history centred around youth development and now sustainable development. The experience I had was meant to be about youth development, through working in the community. The host village is researched first before the volunteers show up to see if the village has a need for it and would be both capable and receptive to working with the guest organisation. In fact one project was cancelled in another village because the village just wasn’t ready, so I accept the volunteering model won’t work in every case, and it does need to be a two way thing. We were lucky, the village we went to had already come together to install a water system and wanted to continue to improve the village with our help. Neither was the project we chose out of our scope. You don’t need to be a professional medic in order to teach kids how to wash their hands and treat water. And the project wasn’t short-term because after our 3 months there, another team will be going there to continue the work. For a nearby village this happened, where teams were sent out continually for 3 years and you can see the work that they did there even now. Their sanitation block is amazing, covered in murals about washing hands. Our own presence in Mingela village was enough to get the ball rolling on the school sanitation block and we were there to help them to help themselves- that’s the sustainable long-term goal. And that is why ultimately, my volunteering experience wasn’t a new form of colonialism. Everyone in the village got together to bring stones from far away for the foundations. It’s not about how much of the toilets we built, it matters more that we helped the building work happen in the first place. And fewer kids are going to suffer from diarrheoa and water-borne diseases as a result. This is a real problem in Tanzania, where millions of children die every year from diarrhoea. On the other hand, if we went into the village 3 years ago, when the water system wasn’t in place, to teach kids to wash their hands, at a time when noone had access to running water, I can see how that would be frustrating and patronising. My group was also difficult to work with. Professional builders and workers would certainly have been more efficient than us. But they wouldn’t have been able to achieve the same effect we had by working with the community. You’re the expert on International development, and my grass-roots experience was a little bit different. But I remember the village leader thinking it was amazing that our multi-cultural group of Tanzanian and UK volunteers (and we were an ethnically diverse bunch too) of boys and girls had flown miles away to work together in Mingela. We made a point that we weren’t there to give them money- now that would have been patronising. And thank you for writing this article. I was going to write an article by exactly the same title with different conclusions and someone else has just beaten me to it.

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