Service-based tourism, mission trips, voluntourism, or volunteer adventures — whatever you call it, the combination of community service and travel has grown from a quiet trend in a remote corner of the tourism sector into a full-blown multi-billion dollar industry. It rakes in billions of dollars annually, millions of people take part, and billions are impacted (McGehee 2014). (If “billions are impacted” seems extreme, consider how every member of the community a voluntourist enters is affected by their arrival, and every member of the community they come from is affected by their choice to go and their return.)
Assumptions by their very nature are implicit, so identifying them is notoriously difficult! How can you begin to challenge an opinion that you aren’t even aware you hold (or aren’t even aware is an opinion not a fact)?
Orphanage volunteering is generally viewed as a positive contribution to developing nations. However, child protection advocates have long reported the harm it causes children; including how demand for orphanage volunteering leads to children being trafficked into orphanages for profit.
World’s Challenge’s announcement that they would be withdrawing from orphanage voluntourism received a great deal of media attention and interest from the child protection and tourism sectors, and students, schools and parents. World Challenge had a long history of placing teams in orphanages, under the misguided impression that residential care was an acceptable model of care for vulnerable children, and that these type of volunteer projects were an appropriate way for student teams to engage with local communities and provide ‘service learning’ experience. With an increasing awareness and evidence of the harms of orphanage voluntourism, World Challenge had internally identified a need to move away from these placements.
It’s late in the evening, and an unmistakable air of tension can be felt around the table. Six board members are debating a topic crucial to the organisation’s future.
The organisation is OIC Cambodia, a non-profit I founded in Cambodia in 2013 to establish speech therapy as a profession for the over 600,000 Cambodians estimated to need it.
While the debate’s being conducted respectfully, it’s clear that each person believes they are right. Brows furrow in opposition. Counter-arguments scratch at the backs of throats. No one appears ready to back down.
What happens when the private sector invests in solving development challenges in other countries? Positive things for the most part - impact investment for example. Primarily driven by a need for different models of philanthropic giving, and the understanding that traditional philanthropy on its own is not the answer, impact investment is when businesses invest to solve a particular social issue, with a financial and social return expected on that investment.
As the co-founder and founding coordinator of the ReThink Orphanages Network, I’ve spent years researching, lobbying and advocating against orphanage tourism, Through my work I feel like I’ve seen it all, including the explosion in demand for ‘orphan experiences’ through school and university exchanges, mission trips, gap year programs, and fundraising events – all in the name of helping the poor children. But today, while doing an image search for another project, I came across something new and equally disturbing: the phenomenon of military personnel visiting orphanages as part of their 'community relations' activities.
Ayana Journeys is an educational travel company based in Cambodia, that is fuelled by a mission to contribute to a more peaceful world. We do this by carefully crafting exceptional travel experiences that prioritise new insights through experiential learning; fostering a deeper sense of empathy; widening understanding of global issues; and reflecting on our potential as members of an international community.
SOME OBSTACLES TO EVALUATING DETRIMENT AND BENEFIT IN VOLUNTOURISM PROGRAMS
Evaluation of voluntourism programs is a task that is, in practice, quite fraught with contention. In the first instance, establishing agreement on what defines the specific voluntourism we’re talking about is an initial difficulty, then secondly, it’s a matter that is vulnerable to some significant value judgments. There certainly are other challenges to evaluation, but let’s use these two as a starting point.
"With voluntourism we are talking about communities that have been or are experiencing some kind of deficit in social, political, economic, and/or cultural capital."
So, at its most simple, a program’s benefit might be measured by the change in that deficit. In part, this is what we talk about when we critique voluntourism as seeing itself as a solution to a problem.