Volunteering and Responsible Tourism

Volunteering World Responsible Tourism Day

(click on image above to watch video of 2012 debate on volunteering at World Responsible Tourism Day)

The panel on volunteering at WTM last November was a lively discussion about what needs to be done to make volunteering more responsible. This year promises to be no different.

Ben Goldfarb writing for Forum for the Future estimates that as many as 10 million well-meaning travellers are flocking to work abroad, volunteering in construction, education, conservation and health projects.  He suggests that people volunteer abroad – there are after all plenty of volunteering needs and opportunities at home – because it offers a way to ‘get under the skin’ of  someone else’s place.

This is big business. Ben Goldfarb is raising the issue of what the destination, and in particular destination communities, get out of it. Both the volunteers and the beneficiary communities need to be satisfied with the experience. The volunteers need to feel that they have made a worthwhile contribution, that they’ve achieved something. The community needs to feel that hosting the volunteers has created benefits for them, that it was worthwhile for them too. That the benefits are larger than the costs incurred.  Unskilled, inexperienced, volunteers can do more harm than good, stories abound of unfinished buildings and of local layout displaced by volunteers.

Real Gap and i-to-i are amongst a number of operators working through ABTA to develop new guidelines for voluntourism.  In a piece on the Independent’s website this year headlined ‘The tragic rise of Gap year voluntourism‘ Ritwik Deo writes about irresponsible volunteering:

“My own village in East India has been visited by gap-year travellers. Last year I saw an unskilled 17-year-old digging trenches in my village, dressed in a marigold garland and a red vermilion tikka. His arrival had consigned the local labourer to a footnote. An unsatisfactory half-dug trench was left to be worked on by the next batch of fresh faced volunteers.”

These issues are not going to go away. They need to be addressed and managed.

volunteering issues for responsible tourismThere are plenty of resources available for those who want to get it right – whether consumers or providers. Tourism Concern and peopleandplaces have resources available for those who want to know how to find a good volunteering placement abroad and Tourism Concern is working with operators to develop guideline.

There are really three separate areas where there needs to be substantial improvement in practice in the organisation and delivery of volunteering abroad:

• Misselling or promising in the recruitment process experiences and conditions which are subsequently not delivered.
• Failing to care for and manage the volunteers in destinations
• Failing to deliver interventions which adequately benefit communities with sustainable outcomes

The first two of these areas of concern are already covered by consumer law and the codes of trade associations – volunteers who buy these experiences should seek to enforce their contracts in the same way that other travellers do.

Travellers themselves need to take responsibility for checking out the organisations they choose to travel with and complaining if their expectations are not met. If an organisation claims that its projects are sustainable, volunteers should challenge them if they think that they are not.

There is a lot to be done by consumers and the industry.

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Harold is Professor of Responsible Tourism at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he teaches and researches in the Centre for Responsible Tourism. Harold researches on tourism, local economic development and poverty reduction, conservation and responsible tourism and teaches Masters and PhD students. as well as the industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists. Harold also undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism which he founded in 2002 and which promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration.

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