Want to know how to be an effective “voluntourist”? OK, here are a five steps to achieving that. I promise, there are no immunization needles needed:

Step 1:
Make a plan. Nothing is ever successful without a plan. Plan how long you are going to stay, what you want to do when you get there, where you are going to stay, which organizations you are going to work with. Maybe even plan to take a few days off and vacation, go to a national park, or a resort nearby (beaches are a popular destination). Plan and save for the budget you are going to need for your entire stay. Then inflate it by 25% just to be on the safe side. Don’t want to be stuck in deep dark Amazonia without a way back now do you?

Step 2:
Make sure you make contact with a local person at an organization before you leave. Find out what he’s all about and what their skills and capabilities are. This will allow you to see where you fit in, where you can make your biggest different. Because after all, you want to maximize your effectiveness. You want to make a difference. You want to make other people’s lives “over there” much better. Who knows, maybe you feel a little guilty about your privilege and you want to exorcise that nasty feeling. So plan well.

Step 3:
The day before you execute your plan, take a moment, just one day, and do something you’ve never done in your community. Here’s an idea, withdraw some of that money, go up to a homeless person and take them to a nice restaurant. Depending on how comfortable you are, you could even take them for a make over before dinner. Buy them a nice dress/suit. Wine them, talk their ear off, maybe do a little bit of listen about how they live their life. Make sure to take plenty of before and after pictures. Then at the end of the meal, pay the bill and walk out of the restaurant.

Step 4:
The next day, cancel your trip. Withdrawal the rest of your saved trip money and walk to Western Union and send the money to the contact in Step 2.

Step 5:
Blog about it. Post all those pictures from step 3, with the nameless homeless person you just saved for a day. Tweet about the transformative experience, how much injustice they are going through. How it changed your life. Go hog wild. Don’t hold back about your do-goodedness, how it has changed/gave you perspective. The world wants to know just how awesome you are.

Congrats, you have done some good in the world. The money you sent to your contact was going to be spent there anyway. So you won’t miss it. The life changing experience of dressing up poverty in step 3 is exactly the useless kind of experience you would have taken 6 months to experience halfway around the world. The status quo would still be in place after you left as abruptly as you did the restaurant. But who cares, you just did something awesome!

  1. Teddy, you have no idea how timely this is. I’m going to PM you (on FB) a description of a series of projecs that he college that I teach at has embarked upon. Well said. I had no idea you could be so sarcastic! I have obviously not read thhat side of you in previous postings!!

    • Thanks Jared. Sometimes humor is the best medium for getting the message across. I tend to use snark quite effectively when necessary. Not always effective to be angry and reactionary.

  2. Dear Ruge,

    Not sure how much time I should spend commenting on your somewhat shallow perspective of development but I am just back from a small community in Bolivia (where I should make it clear I was not volunteering). This community (and many others I have traveled to) have various needs that require financing. There aren’t too many ways in which they can finance those needs;

    1- Philanthropy via Western Union (as you suggest)
    2- Dig a hole (open a mine)
    3- Manufacture and Trade (agriculture / fishing)
    4- Tourism (that support the local economy)

    So this brings me back to this small community in Bolivia…that do receive charity (but there is no Western Union counter). They do not have any natural resources to exploit or manufacturing potential so that leaves tourism as a potential source of income. When I was there…It was quite obvious that the local government nor the national government could support social development (health, education, nutrition, access to clean water) unless they would borrow for international donors.

    Strangely enough….travelers bought their travel package from the US, Europe, Asia and little of that money actually supported the development of that community. Even if you would increase the flow of tourist/travelers by ten fold…the pressing community needs would never be addressed through the little taxes that they would collect.

    All this to tell you that the volunteer activity combined with an economic activity (tourism) offers the best opportunity for a remote community to generate new revenues to address social infrastructures as well as effect social transformation.

    Meanwhile if you have any doubt about development versus philanthropic activities alone ….I would be happy to invite you on one trip and explain that to the community.

    ……..oh yes! Adding a volunteer activity to your international travel doesn’t preclude you from doing something in the community that you live in.

    There is no cookie cutter approach!

    • Luc, thanks for your input. I am a big proponent for tourism. That community in Bolivia should probably look into increasing tourist activity or actually implementing the 4 options you outlined. That’s at their disposal to execute. Please don’t assume that my post is shallow because of inexperience. Our Women of Kireka project ran on volunteers for a while before we realized how damaging that was to the community at large.

      If you want to be really effective, purposefully take a lot of vacation to impoverished areas and spend a lot of money locally on food and services. Doing things for people doesn’t help them, it makes them dependent. Paying them to do it, creates economies.

      I’ve said this before, CIDA funded volunteer projects for example (don’t get me started on the irony of CIDA/First Nations disconnect), only help the volunteer. They do little for the local capacity.

      Sympathy or philanthropy doesn’t build a nation, business and trade does.

      • Ok Ruge!

        I read your blog again….and it did sound like you are suggesting sending money via Western Union (I would call that philanthropy via one of the most expensive company). I find “shallow” the blog content because other than complaining about something that you “might” know little about is unfair to the other programs that are working extremely well.

        Maybe your friend ran a well intentioned program with expectations that she could not manage ..offer the community or vice-versa. Who do you really blame? The fact that the local government can’t address the needs of their people? The person running the program? The volunteers?

        If tourism would work the way the world think it’s working…Jamaica should be the richest country in the world. You can read this article to understand the macro economics of a country that depends …almost entirely on tourism — http://www.caribjournal.com/2013/02/20/op-ed-whats-wrong-with-jamaicas-international-monetary-fund-deal/?mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRovvazJZKXonjHpfsX67%2BQqW6G1lMI/0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4ESMVlI/qLAzICFpZo2FFcH/aQZA%3D%3D

        I will use the case of Bolivia again….but there are many other countries that I can use as example. You may want to come and see the disasters created by mining in many fragile economies/environments. Manufacturing puts a lot of pressure on infrastructures that most of these countries CAN’T afford. Quite often the energy required to supply these new manufacturing plants will further push people into poverty because of rising prices of water, electricity, natural gas. The increased demand and pressure on infrastructures that comes from manufacturing can’t be mitigated…therefore the cost is passed on consumers. (so you would have to believe at that point that the salary paid to the employees for good that nobody really wants to pay for would be high enough to create positive conditions).

        Let’s look at agriculture….please take a look at this article. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44180&Cr=food+security&Cr1=&mkt_tok=3RkMMJWWfF9wsRovvazJZKXonjHpfsX67%2BQqW6G1lMI/0ER3fOvrPUfGjI4ESMVlI/qLAzICFpZo2FFcH/aQZA%3D%3D#.USaGxmdEAUl

        You can also read this one from MCC about the impact of their own program http://www.mcc.gov/pages/results/evaluations

        Quinoa is the new super food…Bolivia is one global supplier (best quality). While some producers are gaining (please refer to above mentioned MCC impact evaluation report) by rising food prices, most people in Bolivia that do need Quinoa in their diet can’t afford it any longer.

        So that brings me back to Tourism again….what conditions would exist so that the whole community gains from the income generated by tourism? How do you mitigate the impact of waste management, pressure on fragile infrastructures, social needs, etc? Some would believe that travelers should be paying more and that through complex, unaccountable, non-transparent process — the money would be redistributed to meet the social needs of communities via TAXES or CSR programs. (please refer to article on Jamaica)

        I go back to that small community in Bolivia …and that little girl (infant) that sat in front of the hotel every day. The community gets a fair flow of tourism because of its incredible resources (none of them protected because they can’t afford it). The national park collects taxes that goes to the national government but that does little to that community….so even if you increase the flow of tourism into that community…you would never generate enough income to help meet the needs of that young child…would charity work? or can a mix of tourism and community engagement create better conditions for social transformation and income generation? If I pay more for my hotel room, the sandwich, the guide….that all of this would be redistributed fairly to meet the needs? Another great example is CUSCO (Peru) …a major hub for Machu Picchu…if you have a chance go there….if you stay within 3 blocks of the Plaza…that place is just heaven…lots of police, controlled environment so that travelers feel safe…somewhat fair pricing for goods (gringo prices) ..and a controlled number of vendors so that prices are kept high and only a few selected get to sell directly to travelers.

        Once you reach that 3rd block and cross that magic line into the unsafe zone (not that much police, somewhat chaotic informal economy, visibly more poverty….depleting infrastructures, etc! Once you enter that zone….you are at risk to get robbed, attacked, and yes see the real Cusco..not quite so beautiful and perfect. The only reason someone would rob me there…is that they do not see the benefit of tourism…and it’s the same in Mali, in Vietnam, etc.

        I speak the language so I understand how things work locally….in the safe zone…prices are controlled…in the unsafe zone…I can negotiate a better price (pay the price of a local)..which bring an interesting question – should I pay more because I am Canadian? Would paying more ensure a fair redistribution (taxes, etc). I experienced the same all over the world (not that it bothers me) but should I pay a different price….while in Mali…my local friends would tell me …Luc…let me go and purchase it for you…because if they see you …the price will change.

        All this to say that paying more doesn’t equal (fair) economic or social development.

        Maybe a blanket statement, like the one you made, about a global activity doesn’t really bring anything useful to what is currently happening in a more complex changing world.

        I think you should celebrate the fact that someone wants to go out there and change the world…if you aim any lower…you plan for failure.

        ….and oh…by the way…I am Canadian yes but not necessarily a fan of CIDA’s vision (or lack of) on development. NB (not that this makes me an expert) but I have worked and traveled to many of the First Nations’ reserve in Canada. The “First Nations disconnect” that you mention….. is again …not something that will be resolved (if it needs to be resolved – not my pejorative) by a cookie cutter approach.

        Ok back to work now!

  3. I am not so convinced by the over zealousness in that post that seeks to point a finger of blame souly at the PNP in Jamaica. I’ve spent considerable time in that country over the last 22 years (being married to a Jamaican) and that article does what most aritlces from western think tanks do: they frame the arguement entirely within the dominant frame work of western capitalism and the expectations that small previous colonies need to simply get on board. Most previously colonized countries have done exactly what the IMF, WTO or te World Bank have asked, and most are in a shambles for specifically following the advice of those organizations. When the IMF told Patterson that he had to drop all trade barriers, it crushed the indigenous businesses as the flood of subsidized products from North America overwhelmed the local economy. Most of those indistries have not recovered to this day. The US and Canada ocontinue to subsidize many agricultural industries, and those products continue to make their way to Jamaica, under cutting locally grown produce. It leaves the famers there in a perpetual state of immizeration. When Clinto was in power, he went to bat for Dole, Delmonte and Chuiqita because thhey were complaining that Jamaican banana farmers enjoyed an exclusive relationship with the EU. At the time, those US corporation controlled 95% of the banana production and export business globally. What hapened? The WTO ruled on the side of the US complaint. Lapointe, I think you need to dig a little deeper, and take off those glasses that are causing you to see the world from such a Eurocentric, neo-colonialist mond set.

    • Jared…oh by the way …it’s Mr Lapointe to you!

      Yellow shaded glasses I do wear (really that’s not a joke)! I am glad that being married to a local makes you an expert on the subject. Here are the fact on Jamaica that you know more about than I do…I am no talking bananas here….or imported cheap products. When you look at imported goods… please look at the cost of producing those goods…Jamaica doesn’t have green energy…still burns fossil fuels and to my knowledge doesn’t have the financial capability to develop anything that would replace fossil fuel burning (just bear that in mind when you do your analysis).

      The Jamaican economy is heavily dependent on services, which now account for nearly 65% of GDP. The country continues to derive most of its foreign exchange from tourism, remittances, and bauxite/alumina. Remittances account for nearly 15% of GDP and exports of bauxite and alumina make up about 10%. The bauxite/alumina sector was most affected by the global downturn while the tourism industry was resilient (new fashionable adjective), experiencing an increase of 4% in tourist arrivals. (source http://www.indexmundi.com/jamaica/economy_overview.html)

      So the fact that tourism is one of the main pillar of the economy and will remain for many years to come my point is that even if I pay more to travel and stay in Jamaica….the tourism industry (the way it is structured right now) will never help finance the needs of people who live in Jamaica. You can sell all the bananas you want…that won’t fill the gap!

      Please keep (and you have the right not to) the conversation constructive — you do not know me so don’t categorize me.

      Have a great weekend.

      • Once again, you over simplifiy the issues. Being married to a local does not make me an expert, but going there often for 22 past years, studying it, and teaching about it does put me up there. It is quite simple, the IMF and the WTO speak the same language, and it’s open trade, regardless of the size of the country or the market, and in that arrangement most European powers and North Amercica come out the winners. PAC countries, so long as they have to play by the rules of the IMF and WTO will lose, and so long as the US controls the circus, the rules will be built in their favor. The WTO has ruled against US subsidies. What doe the US do about that? Nothing. What does the WTO do about that? Nothing. The issues are far more complex than you suggest. It begins with colonialization and it ends with all those countries being excluded when the rules were set down at Bretton Woods in 1944. Little has changed.

    • Jared,

      Out of respect for Ruge…stick to the subject (volunteer travel). As a departing note the psychology of change and perception is important to take into consideration when “expert” provide comments (Example: pour a $500 wine into a known cheaper bottle of wine …and if you give that wine to a connoisseur…he will look for everything bad about that wine.Take a $20 wine and pour it into a very expensive wine bottle…give that wine to that same connoisseur and he find everything good about that wine.

      In the original posting from Ruge, the perception of people who do little to understand the changing spectrum of development / aid delivery…you will automatically look for what’s bad with it….instead of looking for how it can be better.


      • It seems to me that you posted that article on Jamaica’s fiscal problems, thereby diverting the theme of the author’s post.

  4. I have to say that there are some effective “voluntourist” projects–often the short-term ones are the best. Some of the best offer people an opportunity to visit an area that they otherwise would have difficulty visiting and DO NOT sell themselves as a means to “help” a particular community. There’s no taking of local jobs. The more hands on and physical, the better–especially if it involves the visitors having to listen and learn. That experience of working alongside someone, having to learn, is significant. The “we know best because we’re from the west” attitude is chipped away. Also, the best “voluntourist” experiences require a straight donation to the program in question as well as include engagement with local tourist opportunities. The program exists before the visitors get there and after the visitors leave. The visitors are not saviours, they are there to learn. The visitors learn about the program and can encourage others back home to donate/raise awareness/think beyond their own home communities. But again, this is best done on a short-term basis.

    • Erin,
      Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to your comment. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with highly specialized internships or mentoring jaunts in high skilled industries. I think such skills transfer projects amount to knowledge sharing exercises and they are welcome. Industries that benefit from that include medical and engineering fields, and even the tech sector. I co-founded Hive Colab in Uganda [ http://hivecolab.org] and we have coding partners that fly in to work with our young developers on building their apps and strengthening their start-ups. I see these as essential skills based arrangements.

      I also don’t have a problem with cultural exchange programs either, if indeed the process is set up as a truly equal exchange. I’ve gone after UN Foundation’s GirlUp program for the inequality of that program. They’d fly girls in Western countries to developing countries to experience life of girls in those developing countries, but the girls in developing countries never received equal opportunity. That set up treats us like fish in a bowl or zoo animals. I attempted to correct that relationship in 2012 when we had [ http://villagesinaction.com ] conference in the village. We selected 10 girls in the village to have a tweet chat with girls in the US as a digital cultural exchange. Using social media, we put everyone on the same level and took away the cultural hierarchy.

      This didn’t require packing up your bags to fly halfway around the world to go teach or build an elementary school or build a borehole. There’s nothing about those skills that local capacity can’t do on their own.

      I’ve tried the short term injection model you are talking about with our http://womenofkireka.com project. It failed to work because our local women refused to take ownership of the project because of the presence of the interns. They became increasingly reliant on the interns to run the business and fix the problems that arose. The interns were there to teach the women about business development, product quality, customer service, etc. The essentials of running an international business. We had to cancel the program and watch the women flounder, realizing their safety net was gone. Took them 2 years to regroup and begin relying on each other.

      So I am not just attacking something I don’t know about. I’ve tried it in hopes of structuring it in more successful way, but the only thing it taught me that the only successful voluntourism opportunities are those where both parties are on the same level; educationally, economically, and socially.

      • It was one of those cross cultural exchange programs that put me in Africa (Swaziland) for a year back in 1989.

        Canadian Crossroads International, a Canadian based cultural exchange NGO partners with different countries around the world (it changes due to political issues) whereby recipients from one country exchange places with those from Canada. So I went to Swaziland as a teacher, and a Swazi came to Canada to do something based on their skill set, and a Nigerian or Ghanaian came to Canada, and a Canadian went to Nigeria or Ghana, and so on and so forth.

        I thought it was a great program (not sure how they do thinngs now), though it is not without it`s short comings. The successful implementation of the principles, philosophy, and the seriousness of what you are doing fall on the local chapters that screen candidates and then begin the process of educating or training you in your placement. Still, it was an amazing experience for me, and I met many people from many other countries from around the world who were changed people from it as well. I know, however, or think I know, that I got more from being there than they got from me. While there were safaris, and trrps to the markets, it was much more than that.

        Unfortunately, the programs that the college that I work at are of the on-the-ground-window-gazing kind, where there is no exchange, and our students go to different countries to mostly see how others do things. Though there are the projects where classrooms are built, and wells are dug, for the most part, that is periferal. Faculty have to attennd these junkets, and lead the students over the time that they are there in workshop like sessions exploring the experiences that they are having. And one of the biggest concerns for me is how the issue of voluntourism is or is not addressed by the particular faculty. In fact, it is a question that is asked in the selection process of faculty when they are being interviewed to go! In principle, I think it is a good idea, but the implementation of it is on very shakey ground because so much of what the students do and see is guided by a curriculum that could be wholely devoid of any real critical thinking that woulld force studennts to question why they are there in the first place, and do they really need to be there.

  5. Hello:
    I don´t write well in English, but I want to do the effort because this theme for me it´s really important. If I do some gramatical/ortography mystakes, sorry.
    I have had voluntourim´s experience and for me it has been very important to be in contact with local people, living with them, laughing, playing, crying, singing, dancing… a lot of things that I have lived with local people in this trips.
    I have traveled like a tourist and I don´t have this perception of the reality.
    I know that when there are two leves it´s very difficult, but it can be a good way to know and to implicate.
    I agree with Africa needs inversions and trade, but the voluntourism can near realities, can put in touch two very different worlds, this person can came back with other vision of Africa: a new vision if the person is able to hear, to look and to feel.
    I admire the people who doesn´t want aid, the people who wants to go on by themselves, I try to help them too.

Comments are closed.