29 May 2012

Al Jazeera Takes on Voluntourism


The past week has seen voluntourism looked at with a magnifying glass by Al Jazeera. The Stream (above) discusses voluntourism in the context of the recent People and Power documentary that looks at orphan-aimed volunteering in Cambodia (below).


The discussion is one that will almost always bring out polarized views between those who support voluntourism as a way for people to learn about the world around them and do some good and those who oppose the practice saying that it does more harm than good and money could be better spent. The Stream has that very discussion. What is interesting in this case is the examination from the business side. The head of Projects Abroad, the for-profit organization covered, participates in the discussion and refutes some of the characterizations in the film.

Overall, the AJ investigation shows some serious problems with voluntourism in Cambodia.
Yan Chanty and Kong Thy ended up on the streets of Phnom Penh when their French-funded orphanage, Enfant du Sourie Khmer, was closed down after it was discovered that the director embezzled money meant for the children. Now in their mid-20s Chanty and Kong tell us how the director forced them to act happy to encourage more donations. 
Both young men are deeply traumatised by their removal from their parents and life in the orphanage. Yet, Chanty and Kong are the survivors. They tell us how half of the orphanages' former inhabitants are now homeless and living on the streets, while many have mental problems and some have even died. 
And it is not just Cambodians who are said to be benefiting from the money being made in this business. International volunteering companies are also tapping into the profits. 
Having volunteered in Cambodia for the past three years, Australian Demi Giakoumis was surprised to learn how little of the up to $3,000 paid by volunteers actually goes to the orphanages. When volunteering through one of the world's leading commercial volunteering company, Projects Abroad, she says she was told by the director of the orphanage she was placed at, that it only received $9 per volunteer per week. 
Indeed, the overall picture that Demi paints of the industry is not charitable at all; children being kept in deliberate poverty to encourage ongoing donations from volunteers who have become attached to them and organisations that repeatedly ignore volunteers' concerns about the children's welfare.
The discussion in the form of aid bloggers feels a bit beaten to death. At this point I want to see actual evidence and information on the impact of voluntourism. The children should be interviewed, finances should be analyzed, volunteers should be tracked, overall tourism should be measured and more. The disagreements remain theoretical and I admit that I am more likely to find myself agreeing with people who express concerns about voluntourism. However, the lack of actual evidence and the reliance on anecodate is rendering this conversation moot at the present moment.

If anyone happens to know of some hard evidence, research and reports please do share. I think domestic examples could apply well. Volunteering is done in various ways across the US that could serve to inform how international volunteering may or may not work.

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