Voluntourism and the unethical schemes of it´s agencies
Volunteering is popular with old and young, especially when it combines idealism and adventure. The need to do good became a business – including all its side effects. To fulfil the lust for adventure while doing something good and pimping the CV is not only attracting youngsters but also working people and retirees.
The term “voluntourism” is being used more regularly and describes (often short term) volunteering combined with a high level of adventure and experiences (tourism). The phenomena is popular since a couple of years in the U.S. and now finds more and more supporters in Europe aswell. A study, published by ECPAT, Brot für die Welt and a working committee for tourism and development, claims that there was a raise of 48,7 % of volunteer programs supported by the government between 2008 and 2013.
Strongly believing to do good and behave altruistically, the committed people often have no idea about the business machine behind volunteer programs which achieves several billion Euros of turnover every year. The unethical behaviour of the agencies working in this part of the tourism business are being examined in the following.
The interplay of supply and demand
Not all agencies behave and work in the same way. Firstly, a distinction has to be drawn between agencies which are certified and supported by the government (for example http://www.weltwaerts.de/en/) and commercial agencies. Thanks to the steady growing demand the number of commercial agencies exceeds the certified ones immensely.
The programs offered by commercial agencies are rather expensive. For example, a two week volunteer program in a conservation project in Cambodia costs 1660 Euro, without the flight. This is the cause of the problem: The agencies turnover is immense. Therefore they offer more spaces then volunteers are needed.
A video by Aljazeera examines this subject demonstratively: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2012/05/201252243030438171.html. Projects abroad demanded a reply in relation by Aljazeera. It is presented in http://www.fairunterwegs.org/ and states that the agency is paying the volunteers supervision, full board, accomodation and insurance. The local institution gets 90 Euro in total. Therefore, only a small fraction the fee goes to the local projects. The agency keeps the biggest part. In reverse, the demand of programs has to be fulfilled. One strategy is to create orphanages which are not needed and put children in them who aren´t orphanes. This is a phenomena which is popular mostly in Cambodia, Nepal and Ghana. In the book "Das Gegenteil von gut ist... gut gemeint" [The opposite of good... is meant well] Daniel Rössler examines the orphanage-business in Ghana in a very interesting way.
Picture: From the campaign „Children are not tourist attractions“
According to the study „Vom Freiwilligendienst zum Voluntourismus“ [How volunteering becomes voluntourism] of all the children living in more than 500 orphanages in Cambodia, 85% still have at least one living parent (cf. Unicef 2011)
How to recognise dubious agencies
Especially projects working with kids, which are the most popular ones, create other problems aswell. There are not enough or none background checks of the volunteers. In the study mentioned above 44 agencies are being examined: Only 21% ask for a CV, only 44% for a police clearance certificate. Many companies advertise with the fact that EVERYONE can join, no matter which qualifications you have or which language you speak. The safety of the kids is not guaranteed. This generated an even bigger problem if the person is not only working with kids but also living with the host family.
In this context, there was a scandal at projects-abroad, where a former volunteer was arrested in Cambodia in 2011 because of pedophile offences. After heavy critics projects-abroad noted that the man was not working as a volunteer while he committed the crime or while he was arrested. Nowadays, projects-abroad asks for a police clearance certificate for mostly all their projects. The agency is still one of the most successful in the business but has to deal with critic regularly.
There are more criteria that mark dubious agencies: Preparation and postprocessing courses are often missing or can only be booked after paying and extra fee. These courses are essential to prepare the volunteers for their projects and to teach them how to deal with their experiences. Short term programs are also not recommended. To work in a school for two weeks will only confuse the children and not teach them anything. They often learn the same phrases over and over again, from different and fast changing volunteers. Their language level therefore remains static and low.
Tourism-watch has prepared a list of important tips and information.
Many agencies even advertise with the fact that you can teach your own class even without any pedagogic or professional skills.
The programs, no matter how short they are, apparently are sustainable and of high quality, although experts state that they even destroy social and local structures. Furthermore, one should question if the work couldn´t be done by locals and if the program has bad effects on the local labour market. Further signs for untrustworthy agency are programs where one can start at anytime and which do not work together with local organisations and do not offer contact persons. They often sell their programs by working with “poverty-orientated marketing”. The misery is sold with shocking pictures to generate the volunteers sympathy. You can even get a discount by booking several projects at once; doing good on sale.
How to use the trend reasonably
Obviously, not all projects should be condemned. The wish to do good should be fulfilled by working with agencies which are certified by the government and which actually offer sustainable programs. Booking a program with a commercial agency should only be done with a lot of preparation and critical examination. The agencies should get a seal of quality to make the choice easier. Organisations like tourism-watch ask for more surveillance and differentiation regarding volunteer programs. The agencies will generate more money and misery until new laws are being implemented and the volunteers are being sensitised. First steps into the right direction are already done. The project endhumanitariandouchery demonstrates this is in an entertaining way.