This is a guest post by Craig Vandermeer from Insight Global Education about his journey through volunteer tourism towards an ethical alternative.
At the start of the millennium, volunteer tourism was arguably an insignificant part of the global hospitality industry but in the last 20 years, its value has grown to a multi-billion industry in its own right. Good intentions mixed with one or two weeks of youthful exuberance can result in the salvation of the world’s underprivileged—or so volunteer tourism is packaged and sold—leading to a rush of self-identified change-makers planning trips that ‘make a difference’. Astronomical growth in the industry has meant it has far surpassed the budgets of formal global development channels including foreign aid, and led to a swath of upstarts and conglomerates seeking to carve out their piece of the pie. Yet my personal observations of the industry in action left me not with feel-good vibes but rather questioning if there wasn’t a better way.
In 2012, I found myself collaborating at a vocational school in Mbarara, Uganda. This heavily underfunded institute, like many others in the area, dreamed of equipping youth with relevant skill sets that would allow them to participate in and contribute to the local economy. But the building itself desperately needed infrastructure improvements making it a great candidate for a partnership with a well-intentioned Canadian nonprofit. Enter me. My role, as is the case with many international collaborations, remained fairly undefined but allowed me the opportunity to observe volunteer tourism firsthand.
In town, I often saw groups of young people, typically (though not exclusively) white and from North America, who arrived for a few short weeks at a time with itineraries that combined travel and volunteer work. Over and over I watched these groups come and go while leaving behind half-built rooms, poorly constructed walls, and piles of wrongly-bought materials that don’t make it in the story as told through the lens of an Instagram filter.
But I’m not the first to denounce mandatory photo sessions during brief stops at the local orphanage. There are many articles that rightfully criticize the merits of volunteer tourism and many academics who conclude that volunteers should simply stay home and donate to their chosen cause—a conclusion that clearly hasn’t won many youthful or wandering hearts over. But what if there was another way?
Back in Vancouver in 2013, I held an impromptu forum with students of a Vancouver Canada area university. They were eager to develop skills and explore the Global South but couldn’t find a way to do so without turning to volunteer tourism, something they’d discussed thoroughly in class. Together, we concluded that it was time to create something new: a concept rooted in local expertise and experiences that encourages participants to go abroad and learn from rather than do for. Later that year, Insight Global Education’s first Semester in Development program was born.
The program allowed students to experience a semester at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s bustling capital, to learn from local professors and intern at NGOs and social enterprises based in the heart of the city. This mixed model provides opportunities for students to engage while witnessing existing local expertise across diverse sectors, something that’s commonly overlooked or intentionally neglected by the volunteer tourism industry. Rather than going abroad to do things for people, we created educational programming rooted in the concept that you have more to learn from than you have to give to, especially as an outsider or a young person who has not yet achieved their professional goals. By challenging the narratives embedded within the volunteer tourism industry, we are creating experiences that showcase why local expertise, ingenuity, and innovation should be at the forefront of addressing complex issues across our planet.
Years later, Insight Global Education has grown programming to include various countries in the Global South and many more partners. We intend to continue challenging the volunteer tourism industry to do better by offering alternative options that allow young people the opportunity to become global citizens while travelling abroad.
Craig Vandermeer founded Insight Global Education while living in Kampala, Uganda, shortly after completing his MA in International Development. He founded it as a response to the growing disconnect between intentions and outcomes, in order to create international learning experiences that reinforce local expertise and capacity in the Global South. Insight delivers experiences for undergraduate students looking to engage ethically in the Global South. Though residing in Vancouver, Craig can often be found abroad working with partners, facilitating programming and connecting with students. The main photo shows a still from his TEDx Talk on this subject.