Questioning Aid Abroad

Originally published at

“Voluntourism,” a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, has become a buzzing topic in debates on foreign aid and discussions for summer plans.

We see it on our newsfeeds, in profile pictures of classmates smiling with poverty-stricken kids, and in statuses about changing the world, but what isn’t commonly seen is the background behind the debates and the industry’s growing recognition in academic and social communities.

Graphics by Katie Wong.

Graphics by Katie Wong.

Greg Madeley is a professor of voluntourism at Seneca College and the co-founder of Hands Across the Nations, a non-profit organization that hosts trips to South America and West Africa promoting health, education, and water projects. He said careful consideration needs to be taken by understanding their goals and intentions when deciding which voluntourist group to travel with.

“Voluntourism to me is when someone gives up their basic holiday and replaces it with travel abroad to volunteer,” he said. “It’s a very broad term with mixed emotions to it.”

From his experience with Hands Across the Nations, which he said he draws on in his teachings, Madeley said voluntourism trips have the potential to create change in the participant and allow them to gain a greater understanding of the world.

“It has real impact when a young person comes back and says ‘I need to make a difference in someone else’s life other than my own.’ I think voluntourism opens up the person’s mind, showing that there’s more out there than them,” he said.

But Madeley said not all young people have that intent.

“Some are looking for that feel-good asset for their resumé,” he said. “I think it all started off with easing that pain of the selfish lifestyle. Now it’s grown into an industry.”

Although Madeley said he has received criticism for his work with Hands Across the Nations, he emphasized the need not only for help in these developing countries, but also awareness and education that participants can bring back to North America. That, he said, is the difference from simply sending money overseas.

“Since the world is getting smaller, more people are seeing the need. My eyes get opened wider every single time I travel,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean other people will see it, but I do.”

Madeley said he sees this same drive and awareness in his students. Understanding the international development side as well as the business side of the voluntourism industry are both important. Madeley  said his course at Seneca teaches both of these aspects, exemplifying the course’s value. Other institutions such as York University, Trent University, and the University of Toronto offer similar “voluntourism” courses, but focus on the financial side or the international development side, and rarely both, he said.

Although some would say volunteer trips have started to become “trendy” in the past few years as a result of their increasing popularity, Dominique Marshall, a Carleton history professor, said the concept of trips based on humanitarian aid is “an old idea that goes back to the early mission.”

She said it stems from the world wars when countries not directly involved reached out to help the most vulnerable group of the population, which every culture could relate to.

“When children are suffering, these movements go across borders,” she said. “In every culture, there is a sense of common trust that children are the responsibility of the community.”

This, she said is the basis of humanitarian aid and remains the focus today. But the means through which foreigners are helping developing countries in crisis has changed.

“In the past 20 years there’s been disengagement in publicly-funded international aid. States have diminished projects for foreign aid and they are relying on private philanthropy or on charities,” she said.

With less direct public funding overseas, private organizations gain more recognition and credit for humanitarian impact, which Marshall said could be a good thing.

“Private organizations are more responsible, accountable, efficient, and you don’t need public money to do these private initiatives,” she said.

In terms of its progress since the idea of humanitarian aid began centuries ago, Marshall said it’s impossible to come up with a concrete answer.

“The role and effects of humanitarian aid are very difficult to guage,” she said, which is why it is important to question young people’s intentions and goals of travelling overseas on humanitarian trips.

Marshall said there have been well-known philosophers, such as Austria’s Ivan Illich in the mid-1900s, who believed travelling overseas to help developing countries is never the answer and will always hurt more than help. Although he was a radical critic, she said there is some truth to his statements.

“It’s always problematic, there has never been a clear way of doing this right,” she said. “At worst you could say with voluntourism, you pay, come back, and have a clear conscience, but you have to remain constantly aware of these tensions because they won’t vanish.”

Laura Viselli, a recent global studies graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University, said she hopes to pursue a career in international project management. She travelled to Costa Rica for a two-week trip in May through Laurier’s chapter of the national organization Students Offering Support.

Coming from an international development background, she said she was aware of the downfalls of these trips, but said it’s the education and long-term relationships with the local host communities that make it a positive experience on both ends.

“They felt proud that we came to Costa Rica and they wanted us to experience all those touristy things because there’s a reason those things are famous,” she said. “It’s because they’re beautiful and have history and add to the economy.”

She said Costa Ricans wanted to learn about Canada just as much as they wanted to learn about Costa Rica, and that’s what made it beneficial for both groups of people.

“We ask them about Costa Rican weather and they ask us about Canadian weather,” she said. “There’s a great  cultural exchange that happens.”

Voluntourism is an umbrella term, she said, but unlike Madeley, Viselli doesn’t think the amount of time plays a part in its distinction from a strictly volunteer trip. “I could spend two years in Costa Rica, learn the language and get comfortable but I’d know I’m still a foreigner and that’s not a bad thing,” she said.

Like Madeley, Viselli said it’s important to recognize an organization’s history, experience, and goals when choosing who to travel with internationally.

Nikki Gladstone, a Carleton journalism graduate who has travelled, organized, and led various international trips through Carleton’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program, said the most dangerous yet common mindset trip participants have is what she calls the “saviour complex.”

“People going on these trips need to be realistic about expectations and their capacity for change in these communities,” she said. “It’s great to send young people so that they can become more aware of the world and it will influence their future decisions, but to go thinking you’re saving someone or giving skills that weren’t already there is perpetuating this negative side of voluntourism.”

Gladstone has travelled to both Guatemala and Mexico twice with ASB, trips she refers to as “community engagement projects.” She emphasized its focus on being interactive with the community and their needs, which has been the basis of their strong long-term relationships.

“If I hadn’t gone on that ASB trip there’s no way I would’ve been working in international development right now,” she said, explaining how she just got back from an eight-month fellowship in Uganda with the Aga Khan Foundation.

“It depends how people in these programs are taught to look at their experiences,” she said. “It’s about being open about cross-cultural learning and finding out about the world in a hands-on, tangible way you wouldn’t get from a classroom.”

With the growing voluntourism “craze,” as Madeley called it, the word has become more than a buzzing label for profile pictures and inspirational statuses. It has become an industry, with its own set of criticisms and time in the spotlight. With programs dedicated to it in colleges and its growth in popularity, it looks like this “craze” is only just beginning.

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