Is “Voluntourism” Itself Being Exploited? via The Huffington Post

Voluntourism is under fire. I know, because I have been a part of pointing out theunintended negative consequences of our good intentions for some time. Recently, blogs about “the problem of little white girls and boys” and other rants about voluntourism are starting to get more and more popular. But maybe it’s time to look further into this criticism.


In a piece on his new Voluntourism Institute blog, David Clemmons recently released an article exploring the exploitation of voluntourism itself. It resonated with me, as over the last few months I have read a number of “anti-voluntourism” pieces that people have sent me thinking I’d love them, but instead they made me really worried that these arguments are moving off point.


David’s article was spurred in part by an ABC Australia Broadcast piece I was a part of, which they provocatively named “Is ‘voluntourism’ the new colonialism?” David might be surprised to know, I agree with him in large part: “voluntourism” is being wrongly blamed as the “culprit” here and in other similar pieces. In my opinion, it is the marketing of the most irresponsible volunteer programs, and additionally, our own egos, which are leading us astray, not any whole sector.


This week I read a piece a colleague had written that was denouncing “voluntourism” yet promoting “responsible volunteering.” Let’s dissect this. Is it the “tourism” part people have a problem with? If someone comes and volunteers for a week and then goes straight into a week-long tour of the country, does that act of tourism negate or further in some way the negative or positive impact they had during their volunteer time? Isn’t it less important that the person engaged in tourism activities, and more important to ask WHAT they did — both in their volunteer time as well as their travel — in order to be able to judge the impact of their work? I think we’d all agree it would be ridiculous to think that a volunteer can only have a positive impact if their volunteering does not happen directly before or after a ‘tourist experience’ — as if someone volunteers for a week, goes home for a while, and then takes a separate trip back as a “tourist” we could then praise their volunteering. So let’s explore this further.


Continue reading on the Huffington Post!

Learning Service; a constructive approach to volunteering via Volunteer in Cambodia

February 9, 2014

by Eleanor Paton


Overseas volunteering has had its fair share of bad press.  Tales of orphanage tourism in particular make for depressing reading. Report after report touches on similar practices; children kept in poverty so that volunteers continue to donate, orphanages that ignore volunteers’ concerns about the children’s wellbeing and an unhealthy process of attachment between the volunteers and children. *


Even where orphanages aren’t involved there is many a pitfall for the well -meaning volunteer.  Yes, of course, helping to build a hospital or school in a developing country seems like a nice idea. But in practice there is little logic to shipping in unskilled Westerners to do local jobs, probably poorly.


So what then, if you are thinking of volunteering, if you do want to ‘do good’? Google it, and wonder at the plethora of ways you may accidentally join a process of exploitation. Or, indeed, find your own intentions and finances exploited.  Whilst these cautions are both worthy and necessary, we also have to find ways of encouraging people to help out. For as many warnings as we provide, the development community must also show prospective volunteers how they can genuinely contribute.


Continue reading on the Volunteer in Cambodia blog!



New video PLUS new prizes!



Wanting to do good in the world and wondering whether volunteering is the best way? Struck by an urge to make the world a better place but not sure what to do next? This video – the fifth in our series – is designed for you!


After watching, don’t forget to answer the quiz question for your chance to win a pair of KEEN shoes and an Eagle Creek Pack-It Cube!


Want the chance to win more prizes? We thought so.


If you haven’t already, check out the other videos in our “Know Before You Go” series and answer the corresponding questions. At the end of the contest everyone who answered all six correctly will be entered in a drawing to win a 3-day stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia and two new prizes thanks to Eagle Creek:


The Dane Brief


The Emerson Carry-All

“I learned more from the people of Peru than they could ever learn from me.”

“A little girl grabbed my had, sat on my lap and started reading the story of “Tinkerbell” to me. Even though I spoke absolutely no Spanish she sat on my lap reading the entire story, complete with different voices for each character.” Meaghan, one of our Learning Service Ambassadors told us about her experience volunteering in Canto Grande, Peru. “Her enthusiasm and courage showed me that if you can’t communicate with someone due to language barriers, a smile can go a long way!”


Joining the ambassador team from Massachusetts, Meaghan has been volunteering in her local community since she was 12 years old. During an “Alternative Spring Break” trip to Peru Meaghan began to think critically about what it means to be a responsible volunteer.


“I realized it was important to be aware of the possibility you might not be helping as much as you think you are. It is important to know what you can actually do to help before you go on a volunteering trip. Also, make sure the organizations and trip organizers are legitimately helping communities in the ways they say they are.”


As a Learning Service Ambassador Meaghan hopes to help people learn the importance of conducting careful research before traveling or taking on a volunteer placement.


“There are organizations that can help you be a “voluntourist” ‘in a responsible way,” Meaghan said. “I also would like people to do research before they travel on volunteer trips, so they can learn more about the culture and people they will be working with.”


For all of you preparing for a trip abroad, Meaghan advises to go with an open mind.


“I realized I learned so much more from the people of Peru than they could possibly have learned from me.”

Frequently Asked Questions: What is Learning Service?

Since we began promoting responsible volunteer practices and the importance of learning before serving we’ve received a lot of questions on the topics. In this FAQ post we hope to give you a better idea of what the Learning Service movement is all about.


1. What is meant by ‘learning service’ and how is it different from ‘service learning’?


‘Service learning’ (which is what international volunteering is often called in academic settings in North America), emphasizes learning through service. That is, the name reminds us that that service teaches us life lessons that can help us and the world, and through service, we are able to learn. Although we recognize the truth in this, we believe that the concept of ‘service learning’ is outdated. What volunteers can learn from overseas service are not new lessons but are in fact the same lessons being learned over and over again by a growing number of international volunteers.


‘Learning service’ is a concept that literally flips the concept of ‘service learning’ on its head. What we are calling ‘learning service’ is a philosophy where ‘learning’ is not the outcome or bi-product of service, but is a fundamental part of serving the world, and a prerequisite to serving responsibly. Emphasizing learning that comes first and throughout, recognizes that helping others requires the willingness and openness to change our own perspectives. It starts with the individual and the capacity for self-reflection and it entails learning about the people, issues, and context in which we operate. It means researching the organizations we are considering partnering with and not side-stepping an examination into their impact by being willing to ask difficult questions. It includes learning to constantly inform and improve the action we take; learning as a lifelong process that continues to ensure that our actions do good in the world.


Instead of the volunteer traveler motto being: “I’m here to help you”, we’re suggesting to shift it towards: “I’m here to learn from you if and how I can be of help, now and in the future.”


2. When you say “we have to learn before we can help” what should we learn and how?


The kind of learning that we are suggesting is not just academic book-learning, although this can be valuable too. At Learning Service we talk about ‘developing a learning mindset’ – and this starts with cultivating self-awareness. You can do this by analyzing your own background and influences, by understanding how your perspectives have been constructed, by identifying the limitations or biases of the sources of information you have had access to, and by questioning and challenging your own assumptions. In fact, your ‘learning journey’ may have to start with a lot of ‘unlearning’!


We recommend beginning the process of learning long before embarking overseas on a volunteer trip, and continuing that learning during your placement and after it. It entails:

  • Examining your own biases, cultural lens, and needs and  how they might or might not match with those in the areas you plan to visit
  • Learning about the issues you care about and how they relate to your own life locally as well as current and historical issues globally
  • Researching the organizations you are considering working with
  • Learning about the people and contexts in which the organizations you are looking to support operate
  • Finding out about the potential pitfalls of volunteer travel, so you can make sure to avoid adding to any problems which might be happening in the areas in which you work

Specific topics you might want to consider include:


  • History of development
  • Development theory and economics
  • Particular issues you are interested in

About the country you plan to go to

  • History
  • Demographics
  • Politics and current affairs
  • Religion, culture and lifestyle
  • Issues, root causes and responses
  • The context of tourism and volunteering

About yourself

  • Your core values and beliefs
  • Your interests, passions and goals
  • Questions, ‘what you know you don’t know’ and your plans to find out!
  • How to deal with unfamiliar and challenging circumstances, and how to handle emotion, frustration and changing expectations
  • How to challenge your assumptions and change your mind!

Building skills

  • Professional skills and academic qualifications
  • Language
  • Cross-cultural communication and other ‘soft skills’
  • How to mentor or train others
  • How to monitor and evaluate impact


 3. What does Learning Service provide for potential volunteers?


Learning Service is primarily an advocacy organization, with the aim of reframing the conversation around international volunteering and trying to ensure that volunteers themselves are aware and informed to be better able to make responsible choices. Our toolkits, videos, book, and resources are designed to be conversation starters, helping people examine their own biases and spark conversations about responsible travel options. We don’t offer our own volunteer programs and unfortunately do not have the capacity to assess each of the thousands of volunteer service providers out there to be able to give specific recommendations. However, what we CAN give are tips and tools to help volunteers to be able to make responsible choices for themselves.


You can download our guidelines and toolkits, and you can watch the series of short videos that we are releasing (if you watch before mid-February 2014 you can enter our contest and win some awesome prizes).


The videos that have been released so far are:


Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement

Being a Valuable Volunteer

Returning from your Volunteer Experience


We are also writing a book covering all these issues, which we hope to release later in 2014, so if you are interested in updates you can sign up here.