Volunteer-tourism or 'voluntourism’ is promoted as a meaningful and ethical holiday choice, offering authentic experiences that are also beneficial to host communities. The central component of volunteer-tourism is for the ‘voluntourist’, usually from the Global North, to be entertained whilst simultaneously helping others, usually in the Global South.
Common voluntourism activities include English Language Teaching (ELT), medical aid trips, and visiting schools and orphanages. Such is its appeal that voluntourism is now a multi-billion dollar industry that sees over 1.5 million well-meaning individuals volunteer overseas every year.
Voluntourism has been promoted as an effective tool for boosting cross-cultural understanding and exchange, which could ultimately encourage greater critical approaches to global issues such as poverty and inequality.
However, there is also a growing body of critique from academics, activists, and beneficiaries who argue that voluntourism actively harms the communities it targets, let alone benefitting them.
At least 90% of all voluntourism projects take place in the Global South: Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia. This brings accusations of power imbalances, the reinforcement of structural white privilege and even ‘neo-colonialism’.
One of the biggest critiques of voluntourism is its tendency to send unskilled individuals from wealthier countries to poorer countries to work in jobs they would be unqualified for back home.
In many cases, this also leads to saturating the workforce in many countries that already have chronic underemployment. Problems exacerbate as many volunteers have little or no training and often deliver assistance in short-term stints.
The lack of skilled volunteering is compounded by a tendency to work in areas where the real needs of the target community are largely ignored. Typical critiques describe how certain voluntourism companies arrive in a ‘third world’ village, build a well or a school, without even assessing whether they were even needed in the first place.
In my own experience, I visited a school in South Africa someone had donated tablets to be ‘used in the classroom’. The donors had forgotten to include chargers for the tablets, or any instruction on how to use them for pedagogical purposes, and so they ended up being used as coasters.
The influx of unskilled labour also causes its own additional issues. One former volunteer described taking part in an orphanage-building project in Tanzania, in which local men dismantled the structurally unsound work they had done each night, relaying bricks and resetting timbers while the well-meaning students slept (Brown 2014).
The most cynical critics state that volunteer opportunities are more significant in changing the volunteers’ social media feeds than changing even their own perspectives, let alone the communities themselves.
One academic suggested that volunteers are not necessarily driven by goodwill but are instead '...discerning consumers who carefully choose their field of activity and expect a fundamentally self-interested return on their investment, whether it be in the form of self-actualisation, work experience, Facebook profile picture or college reference.'
Satirical newspaper ‘The Onion’ captures this more succinctly in its spoof headline: ‘6-day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture’.
Meanwhile, another study found that volunteers tend to maintain a misrepresentation of a generic abstraction, such as ‘Africa’, that is biased and perpetuates misunderstandings of poverty.
In such cases, a racialized needy ‘other’ is (re)constructed as a passive recipient awaiting the benevolent hand of the West. Many volunteers also adopt antagonistic and superficial understandings of poverty, seeing poverty at home as different to poverty ‘over there’, effectively missing the point on shared systems of inequality that affect all people in poverty regardless of geography.
Furthermore, and despite stated aims, voluntourism often fails to bridge the empathy gap, and can even reinforce negative, even racist stereotypes of the target communities.
Perhaps the strongest critique of voluntourism is that it actually reinforces the underlying structures of poverty and inequality that it seeks to alleviate.
Journalist Tina Rosenberg argues that voluntourism is built on 'perverse economics'. She explains: "The aspiration to help the most vulnerable [...] is a noble one, but the booming business of voluntourism sustains practices and institutions that actually do harm".
Indeed, governments in voluntourism hotspots around the world are often reluctant to fund anti-poverty measures when treatments for the symptoms (e.g orphanages) essentially drop from the sky.
Recent studies have also found an inverse relationship between profit and responsibility whereby companies that charge the most are also the least transparent, and so fall the furthest from voluntourism’s central ethic.
The worst culprits have also become adept at hiding or misrepresenting their finances, masking excessive profit margins to the detriment of target communities and volunteers alike.
Meanwhile, working with young people in particular risks perpetuating feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. When children are dependent on random strangers for affection, it stunts their ability to form healthy attachments particularly when volunteers disappear after a few weeks.
Perhaps the darkest side of voluntourism has been revealed over the previous years in the case of orphanages. Following decades of research into childcare, orphanages in much of the ‘developed’ world have been replaced by foster care; yet people from these same places are nonetheless maintaining a stream of charitable giving that makes orphanages viable businesses abroad.
Donors, usually from religious groups, often set up orphanages as ‘short-term’ responses to crises such as conflict or natural disasters; but the steady stream of donations encourages these orphanages to stay open longer-term.
The demand to work in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal has furthermore been found to contribute to the abandonment, or even abduction of children from their parents to fuel the tourist boom.
The negatives are so severe that the Australian parliament is considering a law to label orphanage tourism as ‘child trafficking’ and ban it entirely.
In 2016, the London School of Economics also set up a consortium of universities pledging not to advertise orphanage placements to their students. With any luck, the trend of orphanage volunteering will dissipate as a result.
Given these criticisms, it is easy to see why there are increasing calls for people to volunteer closer to home and avoid volunteering abroad altogether. Sadly, voluntourism as an industry encapsulates how the best-intentions of volunteers can lead to the detriment of target communities. Can international volunteering only reinforce structures of inequality and dependency? Or is there a way to make it more sustainable and ethical? At any rate, the demand for voluntourism is not going to disappear overnight, so perhaps there is value in trying.
Were you thinking about going voluntouring before reading this article? As explained above voluntouring isn't just harmful to local communities but it is also an expensive endeavour for the volunteers themselves. How about instead of paying the recruiters hundreds and thousands, you take yourself on a nice holiday and donate the money you save? Your money will have much more impact with established effective organisations.
The Max Foundation is one such organisation. The Kinder vetted charity focuses on two outcome areas in South Asia: improving child health and providing water sanitation services to households. The foundation saves and improves the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, every year. By donating below, you too can have a positive impact on the lives of these people.
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Isabel Cristina Zuleta is a human rights activist in Antioquia, northern Colombia, where she works for the Ríos Vivos Movimiento de Afectados por Represas (movement of people affected by dams). According to the NGO Global Witness, 27 activists were murdered in this country in 2017 alone.
Since 2010, Zuleta has opposed the construction of the Hidroituango hydroelectric dam on the river Cauca, Colombia's second most important. Ríos Vivos is trying to raise awareness of problems the dam could cause – including environmental damage, forced evictions, and the impoverishment of local residents whose livelihoods rely on the river.
Because of her activism, Zuleta has faced threats, harassment, attempted forced disappearances, criminal charges as well as sexual violence. In 2013, she said she was kidnapped by agents of the government’s so-called Mobile Anti-Disturbance squad who also photographed her “partes íntimas” (‘private parts’) while she was in detention.
According to a 2018 report by the Fondo de Acción Urgente (Urgent Action Fund, or FAU) human rights network, when Zuleta reported this treatment to the Attorney General, she was told that it “was not the important thing”, and instead she was accused of promoting attacks against the company building the dam.
In August, Zuleta told 50.50 that activists had received a myriad of recent threats, including: people approaching them to say they cannot protest, or threatening to kill them; people tailing them on the streets; and death threats via text messages, phone calls and Twitter. The next month, two family members of activists from her organisation were murdered.
“I think that land and environmental defenders, we confront capitalist interests, and this means [our work] involves a higher level of risk”, Zuleta told 50.50 via a WhatsApp message voice recording. However, “without this land we don’t have any life possibilities”, she added. “We cannot negotiate our lives”.
In November, seven men were found guilty of murdering Berta Isabel Cáceres, a Honduran indigenous campaigner who'd long battled to block the construction of a dam on the Gualcarque river, considered sacred by the Lenca people.
The supreme court ruled that Caceres’ murder was ordered by executives of the company Desarrollos Energeticos SA behind the Agua Zarca dam project because of delays and financial losses linked to protests led by the activist.
Cáceres was 44 years old when she was shot dead in her home on 2 March 2016, after receiving death threats for years. Her murder shocked the world and brought greater international attention to the plight of human and environmental rights defenders in Latin America.
According to Global Witness, at least 207 human, land and environmental rights activists were murdered around the world in 2017 – 60% in Latin America. This region is also home to the country with the most recorded deaths: Brazil, where 57 people were killed, 80% defending the Amazon rainforest.
While most of these recorded murders were of men, the NGO noted that women activists also “faced gender-specific threats including sexual violence”.
It said in a report: “They were often subjected to smear-campaigns, threats against their children, and attempts to undermine their credibility; sometimes from within their own communities, where macho cultures might prevent women from taking up positions of leadership”.
The FAU network also monitors the situation of women defenders in the region and provides them with logistical and financial support. In 2018 they published another report that highlighted the ongoing challenge of impunity for perpetrators of violence.
They also drew attention to the specific vulnerabilities and different types of violence that women activists face – including criminalisation, threats, harassment, attacks and femicides (gender-based killings of women and girls).
One of the cases covered in their report was that of Lottie Cunningham, at the Centre of Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN) civil society organisation.
She works with more than 100 indigenous communities who've faced attacks, assassinations, kidnappings, crop burning and forced evictions. Denouncing these human rights violations has earned her repeated death threats.
One of the messages she received said: “In our country trash exists like these people who dedicate their lives to diffusing trash… against the government… I’m sick of these trash [people] and if I have to defend my blessed Nicaragua against this trash then it will be an honour to do so”.
Cunningham was also followed in the streets and told there were “rumours” she would be murdered.
Another case covered by FAU's report was that of Macarena “La Negra” Valdés, in Chile. In August 2016, one of her children found her hanged from the beams of her own home. She had also received death threats for months before this.
Valdés had campaigned against the construction of another hydroelectric power station by the Austrian-Chilean company Global Chile Energías Renovables, in Paso Tranguil, where she was a leader in her community, the Mapuche.
Her former partner, Ruben Collío, told 50.50 that Valdés was murdered in "a clear attempt to delegitimise our fight and try to make us react with violence”. He said: “It is so hard to ignore this basic instinct and fight them with their laws”.
Collío insisted she hadn't shown signs of depression, but authorities claimed her death was the result of suicide. He said her family requested a second autopsy – which showed that her body had been arranged to simulate this.
He is still fighting for justice. Two years after her death, state prosecutors have not acknowledged the second autopsy; Collío and the Mapuche community continue to search for evidence to prove she was murdered.
At the regional level, the FAU is calling for the UN resolution 68/181, which was adopted by the general assembly in December 2013, and focuses on protecting women human rights defenders, to be enforced and respected.
Cases of violence must be better documented, FAU says. It's calling for new observatories to focus on this – as well as more thorough, independent investigations into threats against women defenders of land and human rights.
Hema didn't shy away from our request and, on Twitter, a company's spokesperson replied that efforts to produce a vegan rookworst are indeed underway:
We can only be happy about Hema's decision to look into the feasibility of a vegan smoked sausage.
However, as indicated, it might take a while before we'll be able to cheerfully sink our teeth into a vegan rookworst.
Replicating its peculiar texture (in the words of a connoisseur, the fat that "splashes out" when you bite it) and distinctive meaty flavor in a plant-based recipe doubtlessly represents a remarkable challenge.
Last December, I published on Forbes and subsequently on Kinder World an article on why — if we want to tackle today’s global challenges — we need to start thinking of planet Earth as a single entity, beyond the narrowness of national borders.
Ruminating over these issues, I bumped into a freshly-launched Dutch organization called Spacebuzz that is working towards this goal.
In particular, they want to help children aged 9-12 experience the so-called “overview effect”, a cognitive shift in awareness reported by many astronauts that make them experience our planet as a boundaryless “tiny, fragile ball of life."
Since the logistics of shipping throngs of mini Buzz Lightyears to space might get a bit arduous, Spacebuzz figured out a nifty workaround.
They created an experience that combines VR and AR technology to give children a first-hand (or first-eye...) taste of the overview effect.
Sounds cool? Not cool enough for the Spacebuzz folks that decided to set up the VR/AR experience inside a real looking space rocket mounted on a truck and use it to tour schools across Europe.
Now, this is cool.
And since I like cool things, I reached out to Hidde Hoogcarspel, the founder of Spacebuzz foundation. I wanted to know more about the foundation’s work and where it’s headed. The answer? Far, really far.
To infinity and beyond
When we discussed Spacebuzz’s plans, Hidde pitched me his many ideas with a contagious, exuberant passion. The guy had a dream, that was doubtless.
Together with Dutch investor Zoran Van Gessel, he raised a pretty penny to build the epitome of coolness — a slick space rocket on wheels — but that was not all. Actually, in the long term, the rocket is not even that important.
“Our goal for the future is that people all around the world will be inspired by our mission and will ask us the VR video to replicate the Spacebuzz experience in their own country. The video is all you need to set it up,” Hidde told me.
Spacebuzz’s moonshot is that, in a few years, 100 million children will get to experience the overview effect yearly.
The hope is to raise a generation that — conceiving planet Earth as our shared home we need to look after together — will be cognitively better equipped to tackle global issues such as climate change.
But Spacebuzz’s plans aren’t just a bunch of grand ideas high up in the sky. The project is minutely detailed and well thought-through too.
“Children will embark on a journey that is composed of three phases: the pre-flight training, the mission, and a post-flight mission debrief,” adds Hidde, “during the post-flight mission debrief, for example, the kids will be asked to hold a ‘press conference’ to share some insights about their experience.”
To guarantee that the experience will actually have a positive impact on the children’s education, Dr. Max Louwerse, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Tilburg, will supervise Spacebuzz missions’ results.
Moreover, WeTransfer founder Bas Beerens and astronaut André Kuipers — the second Dutch citizen to ever make it to space — are Spacebuzz ambassadors. Kuipers' voice will also guide the children during their missions.
If Kuipers has been the second, physicist and astronaut Wubbo Ockels was the first Dutch citizen to ever travel to space, having participated in a flight on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985.
I'm not mentioning this information just to feed the curiosity of all the nerds of Dutch astronautics history out there, but because also Wubbo Ockels played a pivotal role in making Spacebuzz come together.
Wubbo Ockels’ dream
“His ideas profoundly influenced my world’s views,” Hidde told of Wubbo Ockels, “his dream is Spacebuzz’s dream."
The Dutch astronaut and physicist spent his scientific career researching how to make our life on planet Earth more sustainable.
For example, he developed a proof of concept for a 15-meter-long electric coach-like limo car capable of carrying 23 passengers at speeds of up to 250 kilometers per hour. The car is called “Superbus” and the assonance with “Spacebuzz” is no coincidence.
Wubbo Ockels died of kidney cancer in 2014. Before he died, he delivered a moving speech in which he expressed his dream to transmit the knowledge he gained as an astronaut to all the people in the world.
“Suppose that I can transfer the experience which I have to you,” he said, “then you would go out and see the Earth and you would see the blue sky. Not the blue sky that you see outside. In space, you see you’re the only one. You’re the only planet, you don’t have another one. And so you have to take care.”
“I had the idea to create Spacebuzz before I heard Wubbo’s last speech,” Hidde confided me, “But when I finally listened to it, it was really a powerful confirmation: yes, this is our vision - I thought - this is the dream we want to pursue.”
If you want to help Spacebuzz realize this dream, you can support them thanks to the widget below. A Kinder world is just a click away 👇🏻