Companies, Organizations, Providers – of the Voluntourism Industry

Note: This post was written on the 13 January 2018

Lately, my notes had me overwhelmed, as would any list of random thoughts that is my list of post topics! During my last year of university, one professor had us submit a brain map of the key concepts in the weekly readings. What better way to grasp the connections, ideas, weekly lecture, than to put it on paper? At the time, I did not want to learn how to do it on Word and he wanted it to be printed out. When I Googled it, I found Coggle; open-source and by Google – since I already had a Gmail account, I did not have to create an account for this one! If you see yourself using it a lot, you can always pay for extra features, but for now I have stuck with the basic version. Well, using Coggle, I have been able to make sense of my post topics! Or at least the ones relating to voluntourism.

So far, I have quickly introduced voluntourism and voluntourists. As mentioned, those involved in the industry are not limited to voluntourists. While they are possibly the most discussed, companies/organizations are also discussed quite frequently. The biggest players tend to be based in Europe or the United States and are most commonly tourism companies profiting from volunteers’ benevolence.

Before I continue, here are the about pages of those who will be mentioned in this post – but there are many, many more out there. While they are not a statistically significant sample, they do seem to mostly represent what is out there! First is WWOOF (this acronym can stand for Willing Workers on Organic Farms or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), with whom I went to Ireland:

WWOOF About
Screen shot taken 11 January 2018 from http://wwoofinternational.org/

Second is Projects Abroad (PA), with whom I went to Ghana:

PA About
Screen shot taken on the 13 January 2018 from: https://www.projects-abroad.ca/about-us/mission-and-values/
GoECO About
Screen shot taken on the 13 January 2018 from: https://www.goeco.org/about-goeco
Global Citizen Year About
Screen shot taken on the 13 January 2018 from: https://www.globalcitizenyear.org/about-us-2/
One World 365 About
Screen shot taken on the 13 January 2018 from: http://www.oneworld365.org/about-us

The theme is pretty clear. WWOOF is the only one that speaks not only of volunteers, but also of the hosts – the equivalent for the others being placements and communities. Incidentally, they are by far the least costly, ranging from 0-72USD. The others emphasize the volunteer, i.e. customer, experience. True, WWOOF provides less services to their volunteers, but while they do acknowledge the importance of the volunteer experience, they also emphasize the importance of work done for the host. You contact the host on your own and come up with an agreement that you can both be happy with – and if you cannot come to an agreement, you move on to the next host.

Does this mean the other companies do more work? I am not sure, but PA is the only one whose projects are their own. The remaining three outsource projects. PA always seeks to hire as many locals as possible, while also giving former volunteers (sometimes of other organizations) the opportunity to work for them on renewable contracts – work is still a relative term, though, as the salary is little more than a stipend. The three others do what seems to be most common; they place you with a local project on the ground. This is fine, especially when they are helping a local organization get much-needed workers, but this does raise various questions, such as:

  • How much money goes to the local organizations?
  • How do they choose the organizations?
  • Do they provide organization names so volunteers can contact organizations directly?

All of the above seems to be strongly influenced by the history of organizations. WWOOF has been around since the 70s, PA since 1992 and the others about a decade ago – GoEco in 2006, One World 365 in 2007 and Global Citizen Year in 2008. Notice how the ones from the 2000’s outsource all of their projects, despite such high fees.

Except for Global Citizen Year, destination lists are extensive and I was surprised to see they are not all in other’d locations. Although PA’s one project in the “developed world” is a refugee project in Italy; there is still an emphasis on other-ing in this project! (Note: this has changed since writing the post. Now, that project seems to have disappeared and the European destination is Romania, with various projects.)

Companies/organizations facilitate volunteer travel, even if minimally, but those interacting directly with voluntourists during their trip play the biggest, most direct role in the volunteer experience. Local staff (as stated above, these can be foreigners) pick up voluntourists, get them settled, and are a kind of home base; hosts act as the voluntourists’ families; placements workers and also …for lack of a better word, the “needy” – these could be the orphans, the patients, the farmers, requiring the voluntourists’ alleged/assumed expertise. Communities welcome voluntourists with open arms, and why not? They bring money to spend in their shops, bars, eateries, etc. Of course this is not to say communities do not appreciate the friendships they may acquire, but cultural differences may lead to disappointment.

Countless times, Ghanaians have expressed their appreciation with my friendship, complaining that other foreigners tend to leave, maintain contact for some time, to eventually forget about those they treated like a sibling (something worth noting is this can cause attachment issues with children in the long-run, seeing people come and go from their lives, never to return). It is normal to go some time without speaking to someone in Ghana and then to see them and pick up where you left off. In Canada – and my guess is this is also common in Europe, the States, etc. – a friend of that sort is something to treasure, as those kinds of bonds are uncommon. Let us not forget travels throughout the country and sometimes beyond. While working at a Beach Resort, I made many friends, some of whom I often discussed foreigners. We agreed that it was amusing to make friendships, but because this was a tourist town – the majority of foreigners were in and out within days, unlike volunteer towns, where there was a bit more time to build relationships – it was understood how foreigners may believe friendships were strong in the beginning, but would fizzle into forgotten names and faces over time. It was clear to me how foreigners were treated, depending on their position in the village; people like me who lived, or at least stayed for longer periods, there were treated much differently than those who came and went within days. I also could see the difference between how voluntourists treated these friends, as opposed to those in the volunteer village I know so well.

Voluntourists seeking fodder for their resumes and/or college applications, as well as company executives seeking to fulfill their bottom lines, overwhelmingly forget to ask themselves what impact they have on all these locals. But the fact is, the effects are vast and complex. Except for those of us who develop long-lasting relationships attaching us to communities, these effects are largely ignored. Yes, this is a bit of a generalization. I have met many foreigners to & in Ghana; of those who never return, some do think critically about their roles and some of those even go so far as to do something about it (career, education, at minimum discussing it with others). Of those who keep going back to Ghana and/or who move there, I would have to say that the vast majority could care less about the complexities of their relationship to that country and this is surely true of any “destination”. Just search expat (I hate this word, but it is the one in use) blogs for the country/region of interest!

I did edit this post a tiny bit before publishing, but for the most part it is what I wrote in 2018. I will continue this series when I have time, as it is a topic that is very important to me and becomes increasingly so every time I return to Ghana. It may not be very soon, though, as I am concentrated on my current project. What is that project, you ask? I am starting a business! I will very soon launch my business to be a sort of consultant for the nonprofit sector! As you can see in my posts, social and environmental justice are of utmost importance to me; all of it! Nonprofits cannot always afford a permanent employee, so that is where I will come in! I have the knowledge, the experience and the passion, so who better to help out?!

SO if you make or influence decisions at a nonprofit or a social enterprise, then I would be infinitely grateful if you would fill out my survey! It will take less than 9 minutes and if you complete all of the questions, you will be eligible to take advantage of my pre-launch deal!

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