Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Curse of the Voltourists

No, I am not writing today about a new breed of dazzlingly attractive vampires about to rampage across the Italian countryside...

The term, Voltourists or voluntourists is a fairly new idiom coined to reference the new breed of travellers, keen to link sightseeing with doing-good. I’ve written about this before but will write again as it seems that this issue is a growing trend across the world; the negative impact of volunteer-tourists upon communities across the globe.

The concept in itself is bred from a worthy and virtuous consciousness, and it is a concept that should be credited with the charity which inspires it. There are hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful projects at work across the world; linking skilled volunteers with communities to work together. However, there is such a great deal of negativity that comes with this growth and I find myself facing it day in, day out here in Tanzania.

The basic concept, as mentioned, is worthy. Many people wish to share their wealth, their time, their care and support and (in many cases) their skill with others, and allow positives to come out of both sides of the equation. And for many of these projects, these positives bloom brightly. On the flip side, however, there are huge rumblings of negativity surrounding the growing population of companies and projects supporting voluntourism with, in my opinion, three main areas of concern arising from this growing trend:

  1.     In-country corruption
  2.    The merit and sustainability of projects
  3.    The negative ripple effects nourishing the telling of The Single Story and encouraging a    dependency syndrome.

Finally appearing in the national press this week was the unearthing of the darker side of Nepal’s emerging orphanages. Fuelled by a growing trend in tourism, many of the orphanages developing in popular tourist destinations have become highly successful business models extracting money from well-meaning tourists to go, not towards the welfare and livelihoods of the children but (more often than not) into the pocket of a fat-cat. 

How does this work? Well, for a start, many of the children residing in the growing number of orphanages are not technically orphans; having one, or in some cases both, parents alive. In many instances parents are being duped into sending their children to these centres with the promise of an education; an education that they perhaps cannot afford or provide due to their family circumstances. Thus, on the outset, the orphanage centre seems a positive move for the family. On the other end of the corruption spectrum, well-meaning tourists are coming to visit these orphanages, seeing the large numbers of children requiring support to fund their housing, food and education and thus provide the funds to source these needs. But, in so many cases, the funds go no-where near the children, instead falling straight into the pockets of the manager, owner or fat cat running the orphanage. In the report from orphanages across Kathmandu and Pokhara (two of Nepal’s tourist hot-spots) the findings are that tourists and voluntourism may be unwittingly complicit in child trafficking. Read more here:

This is not an issue isolated to Nepal. It is happening across the world. It is, for example, happening about five minutes from where I am currently living, here in Tanzania.

One of the reasons I have come out here to work on my books is because of the high levels of negativity surrounding aid and development in this area of the world and the orphanage business is just one of the groaning problems emerging.

The growth of orphanages here in Arusha, one small town within the vast country of Tanzania, is immense. Ten, fifteen years ago there were perhaps a smattering of orphanages across the region; namely because of the strong sense of community that exists here. If a family tragedy strikes and a child finds themselves orphaned, more often than not they will simply be taken in by the wider family community. Most people here that I know would call all children in their immediate family “their child” – not their niece or nephew; no discerning of the fact that the child belongs to their sister or their brother. There is no literal translatable word for niece or nephew in Swahili; simply a phrase meaning “The child of my brother or child of my sister” or, what is most frequently used, “my child”, as community here is strong. Thus a child moving to live in an institute outside of the family is a rarity.

The landscape today, in 2014, in this small region in Arusha is littered with orphanages. Literally. You cannot go more than five minutes along the main tourist route without seeing a sign for an orphanage or a children’s centre.

Do I think it is because, all of a sudden, community values and the strong teachings of ujamaa have left the people of Tanzania void of the ability to take in these youth? No. I think it is because of the growing trend of voluntourism. In fact, I know it is.
Do I think that many of these orphanages are legitimate? No. In fact I know that they are not.  
Do I think that many of these orphanages are running in the same negative way as the ones mentioned in the press this week? Yes I do.

One I know well: Good Hope Children’s Centre, an orphanage that I spent a bit of time with last year. Knowing that there were over sixty children living together in a very dark, damp and decrepit building; many of them out of school, it was obvious from the outset that this was not a happy place for children to be living. Many of the children were out of school, as the orphanage did not have sufficient funds to pay for their schooling; there were holes in the roof, a lack of sufficient food to go around and little in the way of Hope to be found.  I originally went with the intention of trying to work with Mr Elisante, the owner, on finding more sustainable ways to bring income into the centre beyond his reliance on tourists driving past and giving them money. However, when I spent time with him, spent time looking at his accounting books, spent time talking with people in the local area, I unearthed a much darker picture; one completely void of Goodness.  

It appears that Mr Elisante had duped the assistance of a well-meaning German lady seven years ago, who set up a fundraising website for him to gain funds to build a school. The school – built and furnished by wonderfully generous friends of this German woman – is now Mr Elisante’s house.

It appears also, when angered Germans stopped helping the orphanage, that Mr Elisante then duped the assistance of a well-meaning American family, who (again) started a fundraising website for him to provide money for food, for better housing and for education for the children. Lots of money was raised through the website (now shut down, but records standing) but none of this money was in the accounts; none of this money was visible in the shoddy housing; all of this money was in Mr Elisante’s pocket.
One of the first things Mr Elisante asked me to help with on the day we first met was starting up a fundraising website…!

And yet, for many of the tourists driving past and stopping on the way up to the Arusha National Park for their day’s safari, it seems a desperately needy place; a place that encourages them to give their money to help. Because, like it or not, corrupt foundations or not, it remains that there are sixty kids living there who are suffering every single day. Not, however, because they are orphans in need of a family, but because they are a product of a very corrupt yet highly successful business-model.

This is just one example of one “orphanage” in one small street in one small town in one country of the world and I do not for a second think it is in any way unique in its corrupt practices.

Come back to the world of voluntourism. The second issue I feel that forms negative ripple effects is the un-sustainability of so many projects that are at work across the world. It is so very frequent to find projects where students are flying in to “dig a well” or “build a school”, “lay a water pipe”, “build some toilets” or “teach”. Volunteers spend one week, two, sometimes four weeks hard at work, doing their best to “help” and then, when the time comes to continue their journey, go on their safari, or head back home, the work stops. And then what? In so many cases, nothing.

Nothing, that is, until the next load of volunteers flies in. Often there are weeks, months, sometimes years between groups, meaning that in many cases the work has to be started again from scratch.  There are hundreds upon hundreds of half-built schools, crumbling wells, rusty water pipes, broken toilets and empty classrooms across the world; so many of them products of non-sustainable projects made for the sake of pleasing tourists and making them feel that they are doing something good.

Beyond that, I have seen so many cases of people being put out of a job in order for a well-meaning tourist to come in and do the job instead. In many countries that I have spent time in, I have known teachers who have been “temporarily relieved of their duties” by young eighteen year olds who have come to “teach”. The teachers are sent home for one week, two weeks etc, and are often not paid during their absence. Meanwhile, the unskilled youth is left in charge of their class for the duration; with no knowledge of the local education system, no training in pedagogy and frequently no understanding of the local language or curriculum. How can we be selling this to anyone as a good thing?

Add to this the influx of young people entering voluntourism projects to “build” or “design” houses, schools, wells, water pipes, irrigation systems etc. How many of these people have any skill, training or expertise in engineering, architecture, water-systems or agriculture, never mind any relevant knowledge of the problems of the local area? And, more to the point, why are local people, local skilled people, not being employed to do this work? Because we cannot for a second be na├»ve enough to think that there are not hundreds of builders, carpenters, architects, engineers, agriculturalists living out here in these communities. Surely providing local employment to solve a local problem is much more helpful in the longer term than flying unskilled youth across the world to do a half hearted, half finished job?
Here in Arusha, there are hundreds of volunteers  - they are “teaching” or “building” or “skill sharing” in some shape or form, and so many of them have paid an extortionate amount of money to come out here. But the merit of so many of the projects that they are involved in is so weak.

Here is an interesting article about the negative ripple effects of voluntourism in Cambodia:

As I keep saying, I do not for a second doubt the good intentions behind this industry. There are so many good people in the world who want to help others, and this is seemingly a great way to do that; giving back and gaining at the same time. And yet, the ripple effects of what is happening on both sides of the fence are so very disturbing.

On the one hand, young people across the world are being told that communities in non-industrialised countries need help. They need help with their schools, their orphans, their water supplies and their farms. And companies across the world (a growing market: there are now over one hundred companies operating in the UK alone who offer volunteer opportunities just in Tanzania, never mind across the rest of the world) offer students a comprehensive package of How To Help. It often involves paying a HUGE amount of money (where does the money go? Not very often to the people on the ground); often involves a month-long trip with time for lots of recreational activities in country too; often involves a project in one of the above fields and often involves no requirement of skill, language proficiency or in-country knowledge.

Flip this around – we in the UK need help with our schools, with our youth, with our unemployed, with our flooding and with our farms. Imagine for a second that we were inundated with plane-loads full of eighteen year olds from unknown lands, none of them with any skill, training, qualification in any of the fields of help; none of them speaking English or knowing more than few vague facts about our country. We’d be appalled, we’d laugh, we’d turn them on their heels and send them home. And yet, somehow we have allowed this to become a growing model to dish out to the rest of the world.

On my journey out here in April, there was a large crowd of volunteers (all wearing big t-shirts that said “Project Africa”) at the check-in area at Heathrow airport. They took the same plane as I did and, sitting in a row in front of some of them, I listened in to a conversation they were having with a fellow passenger.

PASSENGER: So, what are you guys doing?
VOLUNTEER: We’re going to volunteer in Africa for a month.
PASSENGER: Wow, so where in Africa are you going?
VOLUNTEER: Well, we were going to Kenya, but it is now far too dangerous for us so we’re now going to work in Tanzania instead.
PASSENGER: Oh, ok, so what are you doing there?
VOLUNTEER: (laughing) We don’t actually know! In Kenya, we were going to be digging a well, but now that the project has changed, it’s not been sorted out for us yet. It will either be teaching, or building I think but I’m not too sure. But something helpful anyway.

I know this is just one little instance, but the idea of 30 sixteen year old school children (none of whom, I’d bet my life on it, are either teachers or builders or have any discernible qualifications in either field) flying out to a country they know nothing about, to do god knows what, but still thinking that this is a great and helpful thing just really pains me.

What these projects do is serve to fuel The Single Story that exists about non-industrialised countries; that they are all in desperate need of help in so many areas, and even a little unskilled sixteen year old can do good there. This is a lie. I know it because I was once involved with an unsustainable project and have seen the very real side of this farce. I know because I have seen the negative results of these projects in so many countries that I have been to. I know because, surrounding me every day here in Tanzania, I can see this happening.

On the flip side of this, a dependency syndrome is starting to emerge from local communities; relying on tourist money, relying on an influx of donations, relying on hand outs and fuelling a “dollar signs in flashing in the eyes” view of anyone from the west. Young kids here frequently walk past me in the streets and say “Give me Money”. This has not come from nowhere and saddens me to the very core every time I hear it; for so many reasons.

So why do I care so much? Partly because of all of the above reasons; partly because of the huge ripple effects that this model of business is having, on both sides of the ocean. And partly because it is only going to grow. Aside from the growing trend of “Gap Years” that has hit countries across recent years, it is now a common occurrence to find these projects being advertised and frequently implemented in secondary schools across the UK and (I am sure) countries across the world. There are, after all, volunteers roaming the streets here in Arusha, whose accents stem from all far-flung corners of the world.

Being on the ground in this area, I can see first-hand the negative impact of bad voluntourism. Listening to the volunteers speak about their work, I can hear first-hand the negative impact of bad voluntourism. Listening to the local community speak about these projects, I can hear first-hand the negative impact of bad voluntourism.

Knowing how young people back in the UK alone are being encouraged to take up these volunteer projects, being seen as “good for the CV”, I feel impelled to do something. Part of the work I was doing with Bright Green Enterprise was working on a new programme, teaching sixth form students about some of these issues. Part of the lecture I worked on for schools was surrounding the ripple effects of this system. Part of the book I am working on is focused on the scars of this model. I am not for a second wanting to take away from the good intentions surrounding volunteering, or for a second blight the wonderful models of sustainable and positive opportunities and projects that exist across the world. But I am not able to sit back and ignore the negatives; especially as they are growing as I speak.

For those of you who’ve come across the Twilight Saga, you’ll know that the Volturi are a powerful coven of Vampires who enforce the laws of the vampire world (yes, I know!) They are not supposed to be villains; they are supposed to be the foundations of peace and civilisation, people (well, vampires) who work to help and support communities around the world. And yet, the ripple effects of their self-serving methods are quite worrying; making them more of a curse than a cure.

Volturi…voltourist…. sound rather similar to me... 

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