Today we at Travel Life Adventures wanted to share a short video to prompt some discussion and self-reflection. Though we may not agree with everything in this particular clip, we understand there is nuance to this issue and starting to unpack the lessons here, the motivations for our work, and the ways we can improve our craft are vitally important. Please take a few minutes to watch the video and then continue reading our analysis and thoughts.
Now first thing, and something that applies to so many issues in our world, there is massive amounts of grey area, there is no ultimate right and wrong in the nuances of this very complicated issue. For example, in the case of some medical work being done overseas by skilled international surgeons, there is a huge benefit and need for that. While at the same time a more meaningful, long-term solution would be to train doctors in their own communities to care for those in need where they are. This is a good example of the conundrum this issue presents.
That being said, as we dissect this topic it is important to establish that service to others is vital part of our humanity and central to what makes us connected to one another. It is what creates beauty in the world and brings selflessness and community to our lives that is embedded in our spirits. When we give to others, even if we are motivated partially because it feels good, it raises our collective spirit and promotes love and understanding.
That does not take away the fact that service can be toxic for all parties and create negative systems that perpetuate over generations. In regards to “voluntourism” specifically and tourism generally, the key is to understand the role that tourism plays in development and empowering people. There is, and should be, a distinction between service work and travel. At its best and most effective, service is something that is engaged in over time in deep relationships with a people or place while engaging in meaningful, community led work. It is most powerful when done in conjunction with time, leadership of local people, and a deep understanding of our own motivations.
We will look more closely at the role travel and tourism play, but the lesson is that we should not completely discount the need for service work, but instead recognize that problems arise in intermingling two very different methods of development together that have different paths toward success.
The video above did a great job of outlining the main pitfalls of volunteer based tourism. We won’t recount the entire video but wanted to add to a couple points made there.
- “Voluntourism” reinforces the inferior-superior dynamic that exists between individuals in first-world countries and the “developing world.” Modern history shows us that this relationship is toxic and perpetuated through colonialism, bigotry, and exploitative economic practices. It also turns struggle and poverty into something to be observed and recorded rather than destroyed and eradicated. There is value in travelers interacting with and observing how others live, how they struggle, and what challenges they face that are different than their own. But this has to be done in more interactive and interpersonal manner to safeguard those who are living in poverty and provide the traveler the benefits of that new perspective without damaging either party. We must empower communities to tell their own narrative and guide their own future. Implied expertise or implied superior knowledge is a dangerous thing. Just because I am a doctor or an architect and I come from a first world country does not inherently give me some level of expertise or authority over people who live in a place or live their lives there. We have to remember that.
- The mere presence of “volunteers” often hinders the ability of local people to complete whatever project or task is at hand. Most of the time we are just in the way and from personal experience I can tell you we are just making things harder for local people. This does not mean there is not value in working together with people or lending help to complete a project. It just needs to be that we are participating in ongoing projects that are implemented by community and helping in areas that will not hinder the work being done in a timely manner. As human beings cooperation builds relationships and connects people and there is real value in that. It just has to be understood that this project was conceptualized, implemented, and completed by the local people regardless of our involvement as volunteers. Shit gets done without us.
- This was covered in the video, but it is important enough to reiterate here. Often times “voluntourism” creates incentives for communities to hold people in poverty and downplay their abilities in order to attract volunteers to generate income for those in power. The example of the orphanages being full of kids who have families but are brought there to attract volunteers and NGOs is the most dangerous outcome of this practice.
- Lastly, by “voluntouring” being the main method of support, it removes the responsibility for the world to invest economically and socially in development which is much more effective in eradicating poverty. Every place we have been and every community we connect with the narrative is always some version of the same thing: we need investment, tools, and to have our story told in order to bring attention to our cause our desire to be self-sufficient or simply to exist. People want to help themselves, they want to learn and grow and care for their people themselves. Their humanity and our own humanity dictates we do what we can do honor that desire and not do something to take it away.
In summary there are two key points made near the end of the video that we wanted to highlight. These are about what you can do instead of “voluntouring” The first is simple; donate some of the money you would have spent on your “voluntourism” to a local, grassroots organization in the country you would have visited doing work in their own communities to care for their people. This is 100% true all the time and we couldn’t agree more.
This does not mean you shouldn’t travel, just that if you are planning on doing “voluntourism” to re-allocate that specific money toward a better way to help.
The second point, and the one that speaks to the heart of our work here at Travel Life Adventures is to “drop the volunteer part and concentrate on the tourism.” Travel is one of our greatest tools in making the world a better place. By connecting people around the world who can learn, grow, and love each other we create beauty and destroy hate in every way. Also tourism dollars can literally transform entire regions if done under direction of local people and with the betterment of all parties at the forefront. Tourism is power, for both travelers and local people.
Especially key is to begin to change the narrative around location and place. We have to understand that there is not a single story about any place or people That when you visit any country you find people living life and being human beings. What will you find if you visit Iran or South Sudan? Iranian people and Sudanese people. The power of tourism and its positive impacts is especially amplified in vulnerable places that need the economic boost. Nepal after the 2015 earthquake is an excellent example. Millions of dollars and thousands hours of volunteer work poured in immediately after the quake but in the end made little difference in the rebuilding of that place and the care for its people. Now 3 years later it has been the increase in tourism and focus on that tourism being owned by the people that has pulled the country from the rubble. Powerful, focused grassroots leaders in communities have utilized tourism to make Nepal stronger and better than even before the earthquake.
The narrative around travel has to change in many ways. We must begin prioritize growth and transformation both of travelers and of communities over all else. We must understand the economic impact, both positive and negative, and utilize that to make a difference in people’s lives. And lastly, we must place increased value on the stories of people and the lifting up of those voices to preserve ways of life and ensure the humanity of all people is honored. This is something that is missing in tourism now and something that must be created to harness the power of travel. But maybe that is a topic for another day.