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.

The most typical voluntourism activities are notionally educational or infrastructural in nature. This might mean some kind of teaching, or maybe labouring work such as helping with the building of a school. In these examples, some might then determine that students are getting an education that they would otherwise not have received: an undeniable benefit. When other voluntourists bring funding, free labour and so on, contributing to a construction that may not otherwise be built: again, some may see this as a benefit.

For some others, that approach to evaluation may not be good enough; recognising that assessing voluntourism programs is not nearly as straight forward. This is especially so when recognising a very unregulated marketplace.

"The lack of regulation in this sense includes questionable legal legitimacy as much as it does the marketing and delivery of programs."

To attempt an assessment of what makes voluntourism detrimental or beneficial to a given community is a task that first and foremost is to be distinguished from an attempt to assess which voluntourism program best suits an individual voluntourist. 

The former is clearly putting due focus on ‘The Community’ while the latter task prioritises the particular criteria a prospective voluntourists set for themselves during their decision making when choosing an experience.


Photo by bill wegener on Unsplash

We can see similarity in these tasks, and they are clearly related, but without attention we may often conflate the two and in so doing miss the differences in very important ways. The extent to which they are conflated may in fact be a pointer to questions of detriment and benefit for a community in contrast to the voluntourist.

Prospective voluntourists will consider the location of the destination, cost to themselves, program duration, proximity to ‘off-piste’ activity, safety, and any number of other similarly personal considerations.

"In this way, the prospective voluntourist is behaving much like a consumer looking for the product and service that most closely meets their desires; albeit desires that are probably fully loaded with good intentions." 

We’re not then surprised to find that in their marketing material voluntourism agencies put a great deal of emphasis on a response to a wide variety of the potential considerations a voluntourist might have. An evaluation of a program on this set of criteria clearly has the voluntourist as customer – customer satisfaction will be to the extent that those desires are offered and met.

However, in addition to such criteria we may hope that voluntourists also include in their considerations something that for them resembles authoritative reassurance that the program they choose delivers ‘benefit’ (and no harm) to a community. Here we have a confronting realisation; what does authoritative reassurance, from the perspective of the prospective voluntourist, look like in this case? And if, as is likely, that authority is the agent rather than the community, what are the implications?

A clue to answer this may be found in one explanation for the popularity of voluntourism: accessibility.

"In other words, if you have the inclination to leave home and spend your time and money in a community undertaking a project that engages you with the lives of others less materially secure than you, there’s a program for you and one that’s probably only a few mouse clicks and registration away." 

To sustain this accessibility, an education of the prospective voluntourist is no more than the information provided on agency websites and promotional info sessions. Such websites and info sessions do not equip prospective voluntourists to ‘evaluate’ benefit and detriment to a community.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

So, if we want voluntourism programs that requires a higher threshold for access, a lot changes.

"Fully extended, we may even come to realise that very few are eligible to ‘voluntour’ and very few of those who currently take the role of ‘authority’ in front of voluntourist actually hold an authority to both evaluate and communicate to the voluntourist on behalf of a community."

Tightening the definition of voluntourism, and accounting for its accessibility to prospective participants, can be seen as a quality-control matter for programs where ‘quality’ is linked to community benefit, rather than customer satisfaction.

In reality, what this might mean is that time, money and inclination are not enough.

To voluntour, we must be skilled and qualified in the activity we wish to undertake (more like acting pro bono for example).

In this model, being able to speak English is not understood to mean that you can actually teach English. To be available to teach English is not to be understood as meaning you have a working with children clearance. The ‘quality assured’ program would therefore have rigorous recruitment processes that a significantly smaller number of prospective voluntourists would successfully navigate than currently do.

This scenario leads us into some of the value judgments that we encounter in voluntourism debates. For one, is having a well-meaning, albeit unqualified and unvetted teacher, better than no teacher at all? For another, if we truly want the best for a community (rather than actually for ourselves) could that not inconsiderable amount of money, spent by that voluntourist, have been better spent – for example, funding the teacher training of a local teacher? Judgements taken on these should be seen as judgements on quality control and therefore as indicators of the potential for a program’s benefit or detriment – the core objective of an evaluation.

So, what makes particular programs detrimental to the community and what makes them beneficial? The ultimate consideration is really to ask: who has the legitimacy and authority to evaluate detriment and benefit for a community at the hands of voluntourism? To which, surely the answer is, the community itself.