Is 'voluntourism' the new colonialism?

Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, is one of the fastest growing areas of the tourism industry. However new evidence suggests that it may be doing more harm than good in...

Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, is one of the fastest growing areas of the tourism industry. However new evidence suggests that it may be doing more harm than good in developing countries, as Kerry Stewart reports.

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Poorly arranged gap year volunteering trips are at risk of becoming a new form of colonialism, according to a new report by UK think tank Demos. The UK has a long history of sending young people overseas to volunteer. Operation Drake and Raleigh International, two adventure based organisations took the idea of gap year tourism to the world. Now, it’s almost expected that Australian Gen Ys will take time off from their studies to spend some time working with children or helping to a school in the developing world.

››It’s done for the experience of the volunteer. It’s all about the volunteer, with the pretence of helping someone, and I don’t buy it‹‹ ROGER O’HALLORAN, DIRECTOR OF PALMS INTERNATIONAL

Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism as it’s called, is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry and while travellers’ motivations may be admirable, there’s an unsavoury underbelly that might not be so obvious to every volunteer. ‘Sending especially young people abroad is important for peace in the future, for global understanding for cultural awareness,’ says Daniela Papi, the co-founder of PEPY Tours, an education travel company in Cambodia.

Papi thinks the positive aspects of volunteer travel are hindered when a group of travellers believes it’s their responsibility to fix the lives and communities of another. She says that young travellers have good intentions, but what’s missing is a humility and thoughtfulness that acknowledges that they don’t know anything about the culture and language of their host country, and what’s been tried there before or who’s leading the changes.

‘It’s done for the experience of the volunteer’, says Roger O’Halloran, the executive director of PALMS, an NGO that was born out of the Catholic social movement of lay missionaries. ‘It’s all about the volunteer, with the pretence of helping someone, and I don’t buy it.’

The organisation sends its volunteers overseas for two years at a time. O’Halloran worries about companies that send people away for short periods of time (often a couple of weeks or even days) to build, say, a mud hut. Many of the young volunteers would be going without building skills, which poses the question of whether someone in that local community could do a better job.

Jackson Fitzpatrick, a 19-year-old university student, grew up in a wealthy suburb on Sydney’s north shore and attended a private Anglican boys school. Fitzpatrick says he realised he was ‘living in a bubble’ and decided to expand his experience of life and share some of his gifts by volunteering in Australian indigenous communities.

He says his motivation for volunteering wasn’t his Christian heritage, but rather a desire to understand indigenous spirituality. In the five months he spent in three Northern Territory communities he was immersed in their culture, learning about men’s and women’s business, sorry business, initiation and kinship laws. He said the experience changed his life, and he plans to live and work in the Top End after he completes his studies.

Roger O’Halloran 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.’

Daniela Papi has worked with hundreds of volunteers over the years she’s spent in Cambodia with PEPY Tours. She says there is a lot of discussion about the need for skills when volunteering, but she would prefer to have a person with the right attitude than someone with the right skills. She describes the right attitude as a willingness to listen, learn, ask questions and be willing to challenge some of the assumptions you have when you get off the plane. It’s also important to have a sincere desire to improve the world and in doing that to improve yourself.

‘I think that the key part to this is improving ourselves. Personal development and global development are entirely linked.’

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