The Anti-Thesis: Why Voluntourism is a Dirty Word

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            As I ride through the tsunami shattered debris fields of what is left of Rikuzentakata, Japan, a queasiness swells inside my stomach, quickly spreading throughout my body.  Even the surface of my skin is nauseous, as if, in repulsion to the offensive circumstances, it is struggling to crawl from my very flesh.  It is not the scene outside which has so knotted my innards, not the overturned houses lying on their sides, battered holes in their facades like ghoulish eyes, nor the fetid  piled ruins, the mounds testaments to lives churned apart by rushing waters, or even the distinctively fishy aroma, a rank perfume delivered through carefully hidden packets of aquatic flesh.  The labyrinth of wreckage visible from the bus window I take in stride, after a year of living in disaster zones, it is expected.   It is the farcical scene taking place within the bus’s interior which has caused such internal agitation.  Twenty gaijin, as the Japanese call foreigners, gawked agape at the carnage while snapping photographs on iphones and digital cameras, as if voyeurs at a perverse zoo.  In between photographs, the woman sitting to my right glibly described the proposal she had submitted for her PHD thesis, which examined the effects of voluntourism, and how she was using her experiences with All Hands Volunteers as a case study.  Was this true?  Had I somehow involved myself in an organization that condones voluntourism, or an even dirtier word, disaster tourism?  It wasn’t until the nightly meeting that this unsettling feeling, which had been gnawing at my core, dissipated.  The organization had been made aware of the episode and the group was chastised for their brashness, their insensitivity, and their general lack of propriety concerning the impromptu photo shoot.  As Marc, our Global Operations Director, likes to repeat ad nauseum: Our number one priority is helping the community.  Our number two priority is providing ordinary people with an opportunity to help.  Tourism is not, and will never be, a priority of this organization. 

            It is this experience which has inspired me to write this essay, what I consider the Anti-Thesis, a preemptive counter argument to my glib friend’s future dissertation.  I will start with a frank assertion, that All Hands Volunteers, the organization which I have poured my heart and soul into in response to the 2009 earthquake in Sumatra, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and now the 2011 earthquake/tsunami in Japan, IS NOT FOR VOLUNTOURISTS.  I will give this future PHD the benefit of a doubt and hope that she intended the most benign version of the word; simply combining a portion of time spent volunteering with a portion of time having a look about the country.  However, the word voluntourist is riddled with unbecoming connotations.  Sadly, there is an overabundance of predatory organizations which charge “volunteers” a fee, far surpassing their costs, to participate in the program.  Someone, somewhere is making a profit by shamelessly exploiting the poverty or destitution of others.  These organizations have made voluntourism a dirty word. 

            In my mind, the key differences which legitimize a group as a genuine international volunteer organization lie in profit and intent.  Once participants are asked to pay beyond the cost of their upkeep (such as transport to the base, food, clean water, and shelter) their value shifts from the worth of their physical labor to their financial contribution.  They become customers purchasing a service experience, causing the organization to be accountable to the holders of the purse strings, the “volunteers”, and not the recipients of that service, the community in need.  If a “volunteer” decides that he doesn’t want to do the work or follow the rules it becomes more difficult to ask him to leave due to his financial contribution.   “Volunteers” who are also funding the program or lining the organization’s pockets may also have higher expectations of living standards, work conditions, and freedom to do as they please, just as one might have on vacation, thereby raising expenses and diluting work efficiency.  In this model, the “volunteers” are effectually customers, and are typically treated as such, and the community must take a backseat to the needs of the organization’s financial supporters.  All Hands Volunteers does not charge any fee to volunteer.  Several other reputable international volunteer organizations ask that volunteers cover their own costs, typically $10 – $15 per day.   The typical voluntourist organization asks for as much as several thousand dollars for just a few weeks in country.  If this money goes toward shouldering the cost of the entire program, and if that program is legitimate, then it can be a mutually beneficial relationship between participants and recipients.  However, it needs to be made clear that the participants are not volunteers; they are actively involved donors (volun-donors perhaps?)  However, if an organization turns a profit from their “volunteers” then it’s not a volunteer organization at all.  It is a business.

            The second key difference I’d like to discuss is intent.  This brings to mind another of Marc’s favorite sayings: If you care more about what happens after work than what happens while you’re at work, then leave.  Legitimate volunteer organizations strive to assist those in need in a manner which is financially transparent, produces tangible results, recognizes the unique skill set that volunteers can offer, and utilizes this power in an efficient, constructive manner.  Unskilled volunteers can clear debris by hand in places where machines cannot fit.  They can dig out miles of blocked canals to restore drainage to a neighborhood.  They can disassemble piece by piece a collapsed concrete house and carefully salvage the belongings buried underneath.  A legitimate volunteer organization first recognizes the needs of the community, and then finds volunteers to fill those needs.  Voluntourist organizations tend to first find the volunteers, and then search for something to keep them occupied.  They are more likely to focus on short-term activities that leave volunteers with the warm and fuzzies, such as play time with orphans or teaching a few hours of English, programs which would need continuity and structure over long periods of time to be constructive.  A legitimate volunteer organization focuses its intent on using volunteer hours in the manner in which they are most efficient to aid the community, not in the manner which is most palatable to the volunteers. 

            Similarly, each individual decides for themselves whether they spend their time as a voluntourist or a volunteer.  Volunteers sling mud, swing sledgehammers, and move rubble mountains with their hands.  They spend months training orphanage staff on disease prevention and early education.  They build water filters and hold computer training courses.  And for all that labor they receive in return only the privilege of working again tomorrow.  Volunteering is an outlet of passion for the world, a place where like-minded people gather to exchange ideas and do their best to improve the human condition, whether that is using 12 years of engineering experience to assess post-earthquake structural integrity, or taking a week off from freshman year to fill first aid kits.  Voluntourists tend to show up for the free t-shirt and a good Facebook profile picture.  Like a body expelling a disease, those who do not want to work hard, those who feel that wheel barrowing is beneath them, quickly find that they do not have a place in this organization and are deposited on the next plane home.  I don’t mean to say that a volunteer should not enjoy and explore the country in which he or she is assisting, in fact, as overcoming cultural barriers is one of the most difficult obstacles to providing aid, it would be obtuse not to.  However, a potential participant should carefully assess their intentions when joining an organization and match up those intentions with a complementary organization, whether as a voluntourist, a volun-donor or a volunteer.  

            I write this modest essay for my snap happy friend, along with a large portion of the world, who do not understand the difference between volunteers and voluntourists.  This misunderstanding makes our job difficult, as we have to prove ourselves again and again to the community we are assisting, as well as fellow NGOs, who disparage our potential impact because their previous experience with “volunteers” has in fact been with voluntourists; short term sightseers who usually cannot outweigh the burden of their presence on an already strained community with enough beneficial deliverables.  Publishing a thesis which defines All Hands as voluntourists undermines the value of the organization and the service that we provide.  It damages the reputation of efficiency that we have established and adds to the shroud of misconception surrounding genuine volunteer organizations.  This is counterproductive to recovery efforts.  Mislabeling All Hands as voluntourists encumbers fundraising, misrepresents our capability for positive action, and creates one more obstacle between those with the ability to assist and those who require assistance.  Perhaps a good idea for a thesis project would be to explore why genuine international volunteerism is so rare, or to explain the value of volunteerism over just handing over a few hundred dollars (the price of a plane ticket).  Does it create socially responsible global citizens?  Set an example for countries where volunteerism is not already a part of their culture?  Provide a service which cannot simply be purchased with donations?    

            By no means is All Hands perfect.  It has its share of issues, as does every organization, namely cultural blundering in a country where we are not familiar with the customs, a gap in institutional memory that interrupts the flow of information as old volunteers cycle out and new ones cycle in, vacillating support for project leads, and the general feeling that the entire project is precariously held together with duct tape and string.  It also, occasionally, must deal with situations like the voyeuristic bus trip already described, and remind its participants to be sensitive to their surroundings, as just one wrong step can cause those we are trying to assist to question our intentions.  However, All Hands is doing something unique, which to my knowledge few other organizations are out there doing.  They are creating international connections between those in need and those who want to help, and, with over 5,000 volunteer alumni and projects in eight different countries to date, they are doing so on a large scale.  Never will they shift their focus to from service to entrepreneurship and never will they attach a price tag on the desire to help.     

            Most people who pass through this organization leave with an indefinable notion that they have just witnessed something extraordinary.  There is a heady ambiance surrounding each project, a vibrancy of comingled fervors which is almost tangible.  Some people, like myself, plan on staying for a week and end up staying for a year or more.  Volunteers become addicted to results, compulsively labor for the cause, and quickly find a sense of project ownership, often resulting in spending an inordinate amount of time lovingly critiquing the organization’s shortcomings and striving for improvement.  All Hands exists in this state of constant reinvention.  We earn our legitimacy through our work, take pride in the innovative model that drives our projects, and regularly reaffirm our intentions.  Because when it comes down to it we are not tourists.  We’re volunteers.


Written by kimfaith

June 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized