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The give and take of 'voluntourism'

No longer content with simply soaking up the sun and gawking at the sites, many tourists and students are seeking opportunities to give back to the less-developed countries they visit through volunteer work.

No longer content with simply soaking up the sun and gawking at the sites, many tourists and students are seeking opportunities to give back to the less-developed countries they visit through volunteer work.

Called voluntourism, it's a trend that sees westerners working alongside local residents on simple tasks such as gardening, painting or caring for animals and, in some cases, taking more complex assignments that include teaching English, building schools and providing health services.

Often, the voluntourists live with families or in basic accommodations; occasionally, the work is part of a luxury vacation.

Colin Medhurst spent almost three weeks in Sri Lanka this spring with others from the Richmond Firefighters Association, building a medical-dental facility and a nutrition centre as part of a voluntourism project through AIM International Aid. He described his time working near the village of Akmeemana as priceless, and said he plans more trips with Vancouver-based AIM.

" 1/8It 3/8 was the greatest experience of my life, for I was given the opportunity to truly connect with the local people, helped to build an amazing project with a long-term positive outcome, and I explored a country that is so rich in culture and history," he said.

While his team included experienced builders, not all voluntourists have such skills. And that raises questions about whether voluntourism has become more fad than function.

It's not uncommon for high schools to organize work trips abroad for students in the hope of opening young eyes to the realities of life in other countries.

A school in the Slocan Valley has gone a step further, offering a full-semester academy in community building along the line of sports academies in Metro Vancouver schools that includes service trips to Mexico.

Tourism companies also offer philanthropic adventures that they promise will nourish and inspire.

"Return with treasured memories and incredible stories, knowing you have touched lives," says one advertisement for luxury voluntourism.

Proponents say voluntourism benefits everyone: Western tourists feel good about helping people in under-privileged countries and develop a better understanding of global connections, while communities in under-developed countries receive much-needed services.

Or do they?

Daniela Papi of The Education Abroad Network argues that in many cases they do not voluntourists just don't stick around long enough to find that out.

She recalled, for example, being part of a school group years ago that went to Cambodia to build a school, not knowing it would never be used because the community had no teachers.

Speaking at a recent conference in Vancouver for international educators, Papi said tourists who aren't skilled and students, in particular should forget about trying to help and concentrate on learning.

Too many voluntourism trips turn out badly because the participants didn't do enough research, designed projects based on their own needs, and had an inflated view of what they could offer, she said.

"Every single student should have an experience abroad, but it should be a learning experience," she said in an interview following her presentation to the NAFSA Association of International Educators.

"You have to learn before you can help, so go abroad to learn."

Ruby Peppard, a teacher with the Quest for Community academy at Mount Sentinel secondary school in South Slocan, has wrestled with similar concerns.

The academy, now two years old, aims to teach social justice while offering students opportunities to do volunteer work locally, in other parts of the province, and in other countries.

On one such trip, 17 students from the academy and their adult chaperones landed in Haiti expecting to do humanitarian work.

Instead, within hours they were caught in the devastating earthquake of 2010. They were stranded for several days until they were rescued by the Canadian military. Now they look for destinations with better infrastructure.

The academy grew out of a service club called Project Help, founded by Don Warthe, a teacher with carpentry skills who wanted to organize trips abroad for young people to work on construction projects, in orchards and on other activities identified by the local community.

While Warthe and Peppard were pleased with the connections that students developed during these trips, they were troubled by the attitude among some that their lives were better than those they were serving and, hence, they could provide help. Those students were surprised to find at the end of the trip they had gained more than they had given.

Peppard described it as Western arrogance, adding: "We really wanted to combat that in a big way, so we designed the program to teach the kids that the service they do isn't about helping others. It's about them, as young teenagers, being able to offer something for the opportunity to learn from others."

The two teachers began looking for new opportunities. Now, instead of travelling abroad to build houses, the students will pay to work on organic farms in Sierra Norte, for example, where they experience small-town Mexico.

"They come out of it feeling honoured that people welcomed them," she said. "We don't go down to help. We go down to learn, and working is our medium."

The academy also won't participate in projects that involve teaching English, even if that's what the community wants, because it could contribute to culture stripping, she added.

Peppard has mixed feelings about voluntourism.

"We're homogenizing the planet, and I do worry about that. On the other hand, when you have an experience where you're able to change someone else's life, it has a big impact on you as well. And the more people we have in this world who want to be a positive force, the better. It can be done properly, but for the most part, it's not."

Heather Smith, principal of the Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI) middle school in Abbotsford, wrote her doctoral thesis on the long-term impacts of an MEI program that sends as many as 100 students and staff abroad every year for what they call a service-learning experience.

After talking to students who had participated in the program, she concluded their experiences had been life-changing.

Many told her they could no longer watch a disaster unfold in another part of the world without thinking about how they might help.

Sure, students could send money and supplies to other countries instead of paying for expensive airfare, but Smith said that wouldn't have the same impact.

"Living with the people, serving, seeing students experience the Third World is just such a richer learning experience," she said.

"I've been in education for a number of years and I haven't found anything that enables students to discover themselves and develop that sense of otherness to the extent that these trips do."

Randy LeGrant, executive director of GeoVisions, a U.S. company that organizes volunteer trips abroad, said he's discussed voluntourism with Papi and they disagree about its purpose.

"Voluntourism is not development," he said in an email. "With development comes a sustainable project, money and time spent to solve a problem, and a long-term commitment to this project. In the end, that project is complete, problem solved, and locals are empowered to sustain it. In voluntourism, the chief resource is cultural exchange."

While Papi is not keen on voluntourism overall, she agrees some trips are worthwhile and has compiled a checklist at to help travellers ensure their philanthropic efforts abroad have the desired results.


Voluntourism self-check guide.

Daniela Papi of The Education Abroad Network put together this list, to help voluntourists ensure their philanthropic efforts have the desired results.

More details are available at

1. Partner organizations and host communities

- Responsibly identify partner organization.

- Build relationships based on collaborative project management and assessment with the partner organization.

- Ensure beneficial relationship for partner organization and host community.

2. Volunteer Projects

- Design projects based on local needs and input as well as volunteer sustainability.

- Provide on-site project management to ensure a safe, educational and successful volunteering environment.

- Consider the impact of giving "things".

- Prioritize child safety.

3. Participants

- Provide information and clear expectations for participants.

4. Marketing

- Be honest marketers.

5. Responsible Tourism

- Exemplify, educate, and promote responsible tourism.

6. Responsible Development

- Exemplify, educate, and promote development best practices.

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