There is an interesting debate going on over at Voluntourism Gal's Blog. It concerns Tourism Concern's launch to "certify" travel organizations involved in voluntourism.
In short, this is very ill-timed, but perhaps very well-meaning. It is, ultimately, "much ado about nothing" and 5 years from now will not even rank as a distant memory. What they will do does little to move the voluntourism needle forward, which is truly needed when thinking about communities, sustainable projects, locals and volunteers. I've been doing this for 36 years, and I've seen these debates come and go over the years, and I've seen them go as often as they come. What this will do is provide some guidance in the short run, it will take the minds off operators who refuse to get involved and how they will market against the effort, and as voluntourism changes again (it has gone through massive metamorphosis in even the last 3 years) the guidance will be so out of date to render it all meaningless.
I am uncertain as to why people think "regulation" and "audits" are the only way to clean up a global mess. And that is exactly what we have with voluntourism right now. I guess, here in America (and certainly the UK) where colonialism is a part of our DNA, we want to make sure the rest of the world follows our direction and divine guidance and that we know best.
IVPA (International Volunteer Programs Association) which is essentially a closed membership protective association at least has a very stringent set of Best Practices and to be a member, one must adhere to those Best Practices and Standards. The Building Bridges Coalition (BBC) has spent 3 years developing a set of Best Practices and Standards for this industry. WYSE Work Abroad has a global set of Best Practices and Standards for their membership.
In other words, almost everywhere you look there are Best Practices and agreed upon industry standards. And now we're going to be faced with Tourism Concern. And what will be different? Tourism Concern will still set up the guidelines, Tourism Concern will collect fees, but will they also accept the risk involved in verification or certification?
Best Practices and Standards are a dime a dozen in volunteer abroad. You can find them anywhere you look. But no one has accepted the risk of verification and certification. If Tourism Concern actually takes the next step and verifies…they assume a global financial risk no one else has ever dared. That means, if I send my daughter on a program that has been verified by Tourism Concern, and it fails to deliver as the verification process suggests, I can sue them. Because that's what we do here in America.
What Tourism Concern wants to do is what IVPA, BBC, WYSE Work Abroad and many others have done already. It's just more noise. But if they back their guidelines and standards with real verification and stand behind it, now they have my attention. Because they will have to pony up the incredible financial system to protect themselves and others when things go wrong. I wrote WHEN, not IF. And that's why you do not see verifiable standards out there today. So I am interested in seeing if Tourism Concern will put their money where their mouth is. All it will take is one American voluntourist who goes on a Tourism Concern verified program, and report that the standards are not being met and then sue to get their fees back. I live and work here. Yes, that will happen. I will bet my lungs on that.
So verify up, Tourism Concern. I'm old, and I'm set in my ways. But there is a first time for everything, and this I want to see.
Go on over to Alexia's Blog and weigh in if you have an opinion. Or comment here. I'd love to know what you think about verification of standards, rather than having a dozen best practice booklets out there that everyone says they follow. But keep in mind that verification...true verification and certification comes with great financial risk. Otherwise, it's just another set of standards everyone can promise to attain.
This past week I noticed a flurry of activity in the media about Voluntourism. Of course a few of the writers simply cannot type volunTOURism. They revert to volunteerism. It's like their fingers literally hang up and the right hand becomes the left and all of a sudden it's teer and not tour.
Who can blame them, really? With hotels, cruise lines and resorts offering 20-minute "cutting edge" volunTOURism activities, those organizations involved with longer programs dedicated to "sustainable" good probably have a hard time associating themselves with the resorts. And we don't even want to get the Aid and Development people upset. They Blog relentlessly about the demon that IS VolunTOURism.
[As an aside, having nothing to do with the subject of this post, I've often wondered how the Aid and Development professionals have so much time to Blog constantly and Tweet their inane crap. And then, of course, it dawned on me. If all those people are sitting at their computers boring the planet to death in the Blogosphere, there continues to be a need for Aid and Development and thereby sustaining their own reason to exist. Just sayin'.]
I saw an article in the Guardian about "Students given tips to stop gap year travel being 'a new colonialism'" yet the article fell down on the side that a poorly planned volunteer project isn't as good as a well planned volunteer project. And I woke up early just to read that bit of wisdom.
And then over on Good Intentions Are Not Enough (another Development and Aid Blog) there was a guest piece about "Voluntourism IS The Best Option." That piece went on for 3 days it seemed, so the guest writer could make 4 points. (I'm not sure why the author wrote VolunTOURism in his title and then went on in the rest of the post and wrote about VolunTEERism, but he did.)
And then I wondered why these people drive me crazy. I cannot be the only person annoyed by all the hoopla over Voluntourism. I cannot be the only person who is tired of reading about this "new" trend in travel (which started hundreds of years ago). Does no one read history books? I refuse to believe I'm the only person who gets tired of reading this stuff.
There is no accurate research on Voluntourism. No real numbers that can be proven. And most of the people writing about it are academics and Aid and Development workers (bloggers…they don't really work I'm convinced.) The people on the ground defend what they are doing, and the people providing the projects defend what they are doing. So unless you're on the ground as a VolunTOURist, or you're on the ground setting up these projects, you're noise. Pure and simple.
But now I'm starting to examine our Conversation Corps and Conversation Partner initiatives. Are they mostly cultural exchange? Or are they mostly volunteering?
When I look at the media and Blog posts over the last two years and I read the debates on Service Learning, Learning Service, Voluntourism, Volunteerism, volunteering, volunteer abroad, sustainable projects, poverty tourism, orphan tourism, doing more harm than good, doing more good than harm…living with a family and teaching them some conversational English seems tame by comparison.
The latest mantra is Learning Service. My mantra is, "you can't impact anything unless you can find a way to communicate." You can't learn without communicating. You can't serve without communicating. What we're doing in the Conversation Corps is learning how to communicate and we're exchanging culture. Then, and only then, can you start learning.
Former and current members of the Corps...what do you think? Is Conversation Corps a volunteer abroad project first followed by cultural exchange? Or does cultural exchange come first? And for anyone who has a comment, please share yours below. We always want to know what you think.