Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Voluntourism and Edu-Tourism

Voluntourism organizations have been booming for the last 5 years or so. I've worked for (not volunteered with) and done research with two of them briefly. These organizations exist on a spectrum. On the one end are those that are simply interested in placing bodies and collecting fees. They tend to be the most cynically idealistic in their advertising and the least concerned about what the volunteers actually do when "on site." These organizations are bad.

On the other end are organizations that only accept volunteers who actually have proven skills that are needed to accomplish one of its goals. The two organizations that I worked with were closer to the later end. They are better but exclude a lot of the well-meaning people who get sucked into the organizations at the other end of the spectrum.

Those who call themselves "Edu-Tourism" organizations seem to be trying to chart a middle path by acknowledging that throwing bodies at projects doesn't do any good but also that well-meaning people and their money need a responsible travel option. Edu-tourism drops the arrogant conceit that any Westerner can go to a developing country and "help" without knowing anything about the country or even having a specific skill. This is very welcome. Instead edu-tourism packages, as their name implies, try to educate participants about their destination country so that they perhaps can start thinking about development problems from an informed perspective and then maybe "help." Even this more modest goal is a very tall (ridiculously unrealistic?) order but at least it is honest and less arrogant.

I do have one minor beef however.
I am playing with the idea of starting my own "Edu-Tourism" organization and while doing research on the subject I found this.

In this guide there is a list of questions that it says would-be operators should ask themselves about their potential projects or packages.
All the questions are good ones. Their basic thrust is that operators should know the places and the people they are working with pretty damn well. The second thrust is that if you want to help people you must talk to them so that they can tell you what they need and involve them in securing those needs so that when you are gone they can continue to be met. This is all well and good, standard development advice.

But to be a little provocative, is that second part really necessary? And if I don't want to do it am I a bad person? Do I have to be concerned with the development of the "community"?

What if I am simply interested in learning about say....whale sharks off the east coast of Africa and in having a great lifestyle while doing it. And instead of begging for money from donors I want to fund my research and my lifestyle by hosting paying volunteers who are also interested in marine research or some other aspect of the place in which I set myself up. Now of course to make this little operation run I would hire local staff and if needs require train them. But I won't have any grand desire to "help the community," or even necessarily establish deep relationships with it. Mostly because I'm not really sure what that means, or that those who promote it do either.

What do you think?



  1. I think you must have worked for Blue Venture or Azafady. Good hustle for the organizers and not bad vacation for the troops, esp if you like to live on rice and beans.

  2. Voluntourism is a great opportunity for all people. Now people can travel and have a wonderful vacation quite inexpensively while helping out others who are less fortunate, it is a win-win!
    To explore voluntourism opportunities and to read stories from people who have done these events, please visit

  3. I like the logo design of your voluntourism. I'm speaking at an international edutourism conference down in Havana in early November (8-9). You might want to check it out as it can relate to what you want to do.