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Volunteer Abroad...Why Can't It Just Be Simple?


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'.]

text with lots of volunteering phrasesI 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.

judges holding up numbersThere 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?

Conversation Corps logoWhen 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.


I wrote my MBA Dissertation on the Socio-Economic Effects of Voluntourism on the Indigenous People of Chiang Mai, Thailand. You're right, it was difficult to find sufficient research, and most of my own was qualitative.
Posted @ Monday, August 01, 2011 7:30 AM by Mary Modica
I know people who are working on this problem and trying to find ways to get more accurate data for researchers like you, Mary. If you ever want to share your dissertation, I'd love to read it. I appreciate your comment. Thanks!!
Posted @ Monday, August 01, 2011 12:02 PM by Randy LeGrant
Hi Randy, 
I'd love to send you my dissertation. Shoot me an email, and I'll reply with it. 
I'd love to hear more about the further research taking place.
Posted @ Monday, August 01, 2011 1:47 PM by Mary Modica
I love this part, "unless you're on the ground as a VolunTOURist, or you're on the ground setting up these projects, you're noise."  
Unfortunately, the "noise" gets some attention, which is really what they are after anyway. If they talked to some of the volunteers or the people in the communities for the real story, they would understand.  
But, why do that? It is much more fun to sit back and lob outrage grenades so everybody will think you care. The people who really care are the volunteers who give their time, money and effort trying to make a positive difference. 
They deserve better. They deserve to be praised for following their hearts and taking action, not diminished by subjective opinion. 
Thanks for calling the naysayers out Randy! And, stay mad.
Posted @ Monday, August 01, 2011 5:23 PM by Aubrey Roberts
Hey Aubrey! Thanks for the comment. You are so right...volunteers care and they do dish out their time and money. LOTS of it. Loved your comment.
Posted @ Monday, August 01, 2011 9:11 PM by Randy LeGrant
You are right there is much in the press about voluntourism. The DEMOS survey that is quoted in the Observer article is a perfect example of a journalist twisting the truth the whole 'new colonialism' term was only refered to in the report and in reference to another journalist. in no way is it (as is implied) an insight to the actually survey findings. It is in fact very positive about volunteering abroad, particularly long term projects
Posted @ Thursday, August 04, 2011 6:12 AM by nick
Thanks Randy - Glad to see I wasn’t the only one who saw red this week! 
Maybe we can build a case as a collective of all the amazing work and achievements that genuine sustainable projects can produce, and allow people to see how these differ from the bad practises that we all get tarred with.  
If it is not specific to a single company, but a collaborative industry effort then it isn’t an ‘advertising’ or ‘marketing’ tool, and maybe we can provide a media pack to the Guardian and other news organisations to write a balanced report for a change! 
- Before everyone throws out the baby with the bathwater here and deprives the hundreds of communities that benefit from the help of genuine volunteering programmes, and takes away from the thousands of volunteers each year who give their precious spare time to make a difference.  
Keep ranting Randy - and lets do something about it! 
Heilwig Jones - Director: Kaya Responsible Travel 
Posted @ Thursday, August 04, 2011 8:37 AM by Heilwig Jones
Hi Nick (at Thanks for writing. 
For journalists, they need a hook I guess. Find something controversial and then write about that one thing. But we have no statistics. Lots of testimonials, but no statistics. One would think as big as Volountourism has become, someone out there would have real numbers. That's something positive the media could sink their teeth into. 
You raise a very valid point. 
Posted @ Wednesday, August 10, 2011 11:08 AM by Randy LeGrant
Hey Heilwig (Kaya Responsible Travel), 
I've followed you guys for a long time. I would love to meet you one day. We need to make that happen. Love your work. 
I hope my writing isn't seen as a rant, as much as it is seen as honest...maybe too much so at times. Like you, I'm busy as hell. I don't have time to waltz around words. Just meet them head on, get them out there, and go back to my day job. 
But Heilwig, you raise the best point I've seen in a long time. Let's roll up our sleeves and do something. Talk and Blog posts are cheap. Let's find a way to move the needle. 
We should find a time to Skype or get together and see what we could propose. Those of us who lead in the field should actually be "where the rubber meets the road." Excellent point. 
Posted @ Wednesday, August 10, 2011 11:12 AM by Randy LeGrant
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