Thursday, June 7, 2018

Thoughts on Volunteer Tourism

A professor from Michigan State poked me on Facebook, asking for comments on the following video about some of the problems with volunteer tourism (or 'voluntourism'):

So for this week's random post, my response: 

Travelling to places and performing 'service' can be and is often valuable - so long as you recognise and make explicit that it is service learning. The trip should be understood by all parties as an investment in the professional and personal development and worldivew of the traveller, at least as much as (and generally more so) a concrete form of support for a host community.

The inherent inequalities in the relationship also need to be addressed: Oftentimes, volunteer tourism involves a privileged person going to an underprivileged place and interacting with individuals whose level and types of privilege will not allow them to travel in the other direction. Tourists, hosts, and programs should consider how they want to tackle this issue - both within the trip and more systematically.

For my PhD, I spent time with three local organisations as 'free' staff while conducting fieldwork - but I wasn't really free labour; I interrupted work patterns and required plenty of attention and care. And I will always worry that I got more out of it than they did.

One concrete action I took in response to this concern: After my fieldwork, I used some of my research funds and applied for an additional grant to bring youth representatives from the organisations that had hosted me to a conference in the UK. Two of the students had never been on a plane or been able to leave their home country before. It was an absolute joy to be with them as they experienced a new place, and actively challenge the dominant flow of humans, expertise, and cultural exchange in the world.

Travel has massive impacts on people. It's up to us to make those impacts as positive as possible, and as equitable as possible. That means questioning when and where we and others can and can't go and why - and once we know some of those answers, to try and change them.

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