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Unpacking backpacktivism: When good intentions aren’t enough

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Every year more and more people traveling to underdeveloped countries try to incorporate some form of volunteering into their trips. This kind of volunteer vacation – or ‘voluntourism’ – has become one of the fastest growing forms of travel in the world.

A young and inspired traveler myself, the desire to do something good in less-fortunate communities while exploring new places and cultures is one I’m very familiar with, and that so many people are finding this desire and reaching out to different locales around the world is heartening. But this growing trend brings with it many risks and challenges that most people don’t realize. As much as these volunteers want to help, their work can easily end up doing more harm than good.

The downside of financial incentives

One major problem stemming from the rise in popularity of international volunteering is the pressure on placement programs to find work for this flood of volunteers, explains Jim Carson, president and CEO at BaseCamp International Centers. In order to be able to recruit more volunteers and generate more income, some companies started paying organizations overseas to host them.

“As some organizations shifted to looking at volunteers as a source of revenue as opposed to a person able to provide free labor, expertise or support, an incentive was created for organizations to take as many volunteers as possible,” he says. “As a result, we have seen an increase in the compromising of important precautions that would generally otherwise be in place.”

For instance, the existence of financial incentives might make organizations less careful about running background checks on volunteers, putting often-vulnerable communities and individuals at risk. But the potential for harm extends far beyond this.

Short-term can lead to short-lived

I should make it known that my own awareness of these issues is deeply rooted in the things I’ve experienced and witnessed first-hand on three separate volunteer trips in East Africa. I’ve traveled as a participant and as a trip-leader with Operation Groundswell (OG), a backpacking company I continue to work for, and have faced the challenges of volunteering from multiple angles.

With OG, teams travel on a shoestring budget and engage with locals in group-volunteering projects and discussions. Most of our trips are pretty flexible and participants have a lot of say in the direction of projects, giving them the chance to learn directly about the potential good and harm that can come from their assistance. This cultivates socially, environmentally, and politically aware travelers – or as OG calls them, ‘backpactivists’.

Though the team environment and backpacking approach of our trips is a bit different from many of the other voluntourism opportunities out there today, the challenges and risks are the same. When you’re popping in for a short stay, good intentions aren’t enough.

“The major challenge of running short programs – six weeks in summer, ten days in winter – is the ‘parachute effect’,” says Jonah Brotman, co-founder of OG. Bringing a group of excited young people and thousands of dollars of fundraised money into a community and trying to do something good with it is challenging enough, he explains. Working within a very short timeline on top of that can make it hard to guarantee those efforts end up having a positive impact in the long run.

This is actually one the most criticized aspects of voluntourism, since the often short-lived nature of these visits makes it hard to know if they’ll ultimately do more good than harm. Groups come in, work on a project or volunteer their skills, and then leave. At the time they feel great about helping out, but with no follow-up and no one to maintain or keep up the work once they head home, things can unravel quickly. Brotman says the answer is forming strong community partnerships.

Local partnerships necessary for success

“While we may parachute in for the summer, our committed community partner organizations are working hard 365 days a year to build a better world for themselves and their community. We aim to support organizations that exist before we arrive, appreciate our support when we’re there, but will be continuing the work long after we leave.”

Local partnerships, when developed properly, are really the saving grace of project-based volunteering. Involving people from the community, whether individually or through existing organizations, goes a long way in ensuring sustainability.

If I’ve learned one thing about development projects it’s that the community you’re attempting to help needs to feel just as much a part of the project as you. They need to feel just as invested and just as proud of the end result, because at the end of the day when you pick up and go home, they’re the ones left to take care of it. Without that sense of ownership and pride, no one’s going to step up when it starts falling apart.

Sean Kelly, head of communications at Cuso International, says volunteers should be partnering up with groups on the ground that have first-hand experience dealing with the challenges their project might present.

“A lot of people say things like 'I want to help build a school', but they need to remember that local people know how to do this,” he says. “That they aren't always able to probably has more to do with economics, politics, and the poverty of opportunity.”

An emphasis on supporting roles

Cuso International is a development organization that sends skilled volunteers overseas to help reduce poverty by sharing expertise and perspectives. They offer long-term placements of up to two years, and short-term positions of six months or less.

“Volunteers should add professional skills and perspectives that aren't always available locally - they shouldn't replace skills that are there,” says Kelly.

I remember when I came home from my first trip to East Africa and everyone kept asking me about the ‘work’ I had done over there. I would proudly tell them about some of our projects, but when I mentioned that we hired local workers to construct much-needed toilets at a special-needs school, or to paint the roof, or to construct a nearby spring, they couldn’t understand. In fact, they seemed to think it was almost funny that we had hired locals instead of doing the work ourselves. They couldn’t see the point of my visit if we just paid locals to do the work.

This way of thinking is unfortunately at the core of many voluntourism trips, and it’s where a lot of problems stem from. Going into a community with the mindset that you know what’s right for them and that you’re capable of providing it in ways they’re not is both destructive and dangerous. It’s also way off.

The I-want-to-help-build-a-school example seems to be one most people can connect with, so let’s look at a project like constructing a new school.

For one, getting foreign volunteers to physically do work that could be done by locals deprives them of much needed jobs, and bringing in materials for the school instead of buying them on the ground takes away from the local businesses and economy. But getting land and building the structure for the school is just the beginning.

As Carson explains, it’s vastly more difficult and complex to sort out its ongoing operations, like the recruiting, training, and management of teachers, for instance. Or even the hiring of facility maintenance staff. In most cases schools require special ministry approval, and need to meet certain standards in order to become registered. Even something as simple as the location of the school can impact whether it ends up benefiting the community in the long-term, and should be decided with the community, not for them.

“There are so many variables here that require local knowledge and know-how, and loads of ongoing funding,” he says. “As a result of these challenges, there are a number of buildings constructed by these type of projects that sit empty and unused because the management plan was not sustainable.”

This local knowledge and expertise is ultimately crucial to the success and sustainability of volunteer efforts. Including the community in a project and engaging them in the work not only results in a more stable contribution, but also enriches the volunteer’s experience. And that too, is crucial.

For many young and passionate people, voluntourism is like the welcome mat into the world of development and volunteering. Just as a negative experience can jade them and turn them off of future charitable opportunities, a bright one can send them on a lifelong path of helping others.

“If we can effectively embrace this wave of generosity and apply its energy to building genuine and positive relationships between cultures focused on addressing important social challenges,” says Carson, “we have the capacity to effect great and lasting change.”


Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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Good article! You made some very important points about voluntourism projects needing to be sustainable and approved by local communities if they are going to be successful. Interestingly enough, I came across another blog post earlier today that also questioned the benefits of voluntourism: Daniela Papi has also written an excellent blog post on the same subject:
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