THE ROAD IS PAVED
The Hidden Dangers of Volunteer Tourism
The volunteer travel industry comes with noble intentions, but choosing the wrong one can also do harm in ways the traveler may not know about.
Death and taxes are frequently said to be the only two things that are certain in life, but I would definitely add the law of unintended consequences to the list. Frequently, our attempts to make the world a better place end up creating new, unforeseen moral and ethical dilemmas.
Single stream recycling, for example, and its method of crushing of contents together began as a way to get more non-recyclers to participate. The ease of turning in all of our recycling using only one bin, however, wreaks havoc on glass, turning one of the most recyclable materials into a contaminate, making recycling less effective, sending more of it to the landfill.
A similar pattern emerges in the industry of voluntourism—travel with the end goal of doing charitable work. The volunteer travel industry comes with noble intentions and (often enough) good results, but as I’ve discovered in looking into opportunities for future trips, choosing the wrong one can also harm in ways the traveler is unaware. Fortunately, recent happenstance also reminded me that while the unintended consequences can sour a thing, focusing on only that can miss the possibly lesser-known benefits.
Voluntourism takes on many forms—a gap-year program in conservation, picking up trash in a national park, or even a travel vacation with an opportunity to help the poor. If, like me, you love ecotourism, then voluntourism (its close cousin) can be an attractive option.
But the volunteer-travel world is a fast-growing, complicated, and relatively unregulated, global industry thought to be worth billions annually, and that means it will not always reflect ideals.
Building a school abroad may feel like a selfless no-brainer, for example, but critics note that untrained voluntourists traveling for building projects may only create unsafe structures. That work may also be taking opportunities away from locals who need jobs—meaning, the thousands of dollars in travel may be better used to help train and employ those locals. In fact, even performing volunteer work as a tourist can be illegal in many places globally, so check a country’s immigration information before leaving.
So there you have your unintended consequences: do-gooders give up vacation time and end up creating unsafe structures, stealing jobs from locals, and breaking international laws.
Complications like these recently became a plot point in an episode of The Good Place. The demon Michael has an epiphany after wondering why so few people in the modern world are getting into The Good Place when they die. He discovers (spoiler alert) that “Every day the world gets a little more complicated and being a good person gets a little harder.”
As he learns, a guy named Doug didn’t get into The Good Place because “he ordered roses using a cell phone made in a sweatshop. The flowers were grown with toxic pesticides, picked by exploited migrant workers, delivered from thousands of miles away, which created a massive carbon footprint.” Doug’s money also went to a billionaire, racist CEO who sends his female employees inappropriate pictures.
When it comes to voluntourism, or perhaps any charitable act, it is easy to imagine all of us finding ourselves to be a “Doug.”
Consider orphanage tourism, for example. It’s a nice idea for a church youth group to travel to build an orphanage to help impoverished children, however, it turns out that your group may also inadvertently be helping child exploitation.
Many orphanages that participate in these forms of charitable trips have been shown to separate children from their parents. According to Unicef, for example, approximately 85 percent of all children in orphanages in Nepal actually “have at least one living parent.” Some orphanages even promise parents that their children will have better opportunities, like schooling, but the reality is that kids spend much of their time with unvetted volunteers (sometimes alone), rather than getting an education.
In other words, you may have flown to another country, created a massive carbon footprint to build an unsafe orphanage (without a work visa), all the while helping someone to exploit children, who may be paired with potential child predators also on the trip—and oh right, the kids aren’t really orphans.
Welcome to The Bad Place.
This side of orphanage tourism has rightly fueled outrage and raised important questions. Is voluntourism just a form of poverty tourism, where wealthy white Westerners treat impoverished countries as their own exhibit of the unfortunate—with selfies for good measure? Is it a form of “neo-colonialism,” where Westerners march in to claim expertise and push aside locals in a land to which they don’t belong—a worry that occurs in the world of medical tourism?
In other words, there is no ideal world for voluntourism, and even what we think is sustainable and ethical can get entangled with difficulties thanks to the law of unintended consequences.
Consequences like these are easily found, and I ran into more than my already cynical self could handle. But this is also where happenstance comes into the picture—where I found that while there may be unforeseen consequences, there are often benefits we might not see as well.
It started while cycling a developing Rails to Trails system in Brownsville, Texas recently during the Active Plan Tour of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I fell into conversation with Cary Dupuy, the Texas Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. She told me a little about their conservation programs and their desire help millennials and families with kids to become the next generation of conservationists.
My soft spot for the national parks was immediately hooked on learning more, and later on Dallas Kelley-Kerr, the Texas Centennial Campaign Manager for the NPCA, filled me in on what this looks like.
“National Parks Conservation Association is the citizen voice for the 417 national park sites that tell the American story,” Kelley-Kerr says.
“We work across communities and on Capitol Hill alongside our 1.4 million members and supporters—especially with our 59,000 local, Texas partners,” she explains. “We must ensure our parks survive the next 100 years and are ramping up a multitude of activities highlighting our Centennial Anniversary in May 2019.”
One of their initiatives is the NPCA’s EmpowHER for National Parks program, which sets out to bring in a younger generation of women in high school and to encourage them to get outdoors, learn leadership skills within the context of service work, and support the parks in places like Big Bend National Park.
Some of these students are connected to schools that see work like this as a well-rounded opportunity that takes learning and career-prep outside of the limitations of four walls.
“NPCA is one of those organizations we actively partner with to create Texas opportunities for Service Learning,” says Patricia Stone Reyes, business and community partnership facilitator for East Central Independent School District (ECISD) in San Antonio, Texas.
Students in these programs at ECISD travel to local, state, and national parks, says Reyes, and the program “uses the Department of Interior’s four Pillars of youth engagement on public lands: Play, Learn, Serve, Work.” This provides for a well-rounded, multi-pronged approach to education, meeting the state’s requirements, preparing students for higher education and career, while also “likely creating the conditions for lifelong stewardship of public lands.”
Like a real-world job, students apply for these limited openings. Through the Find Your Voice Civic Engagement lessons, students learn to employ their skills and gain public speaking experience. They have “toured, hiked, biked, removed non-native plants,” Reyes adds, and have served as witnesses for naturalization ceremonies. Students get to see the value of sound environmental practices early on in their lives, and where the opportunities are closer to home.
Part of the funding for this program, the NPCA tells me, was made possible by the outdoor gear supplier REI—which I was also interviewing to learn more about their own approach to ethical volunteer travel. (Full disclosure: I’m a REI Co-op member.)
According to Justin Wood, manager of program development and operations at REI Adventures, they partner with the nonprofit ConservationVIP to conserve the “iconic destinations” they visit by working “with local leaders on trail maintenance, habitat restoration, and native plant conservation,” as well as patronizing local businesses and service providers—like local guides—to help keep the dollars in the local economy.
Wood admits they don’t buy carbon offsets for their carbon footprint, but he says, they do re-evaluate their methods and emphasize “human-powered itineraries,” like “hiking or cycling or paddle-boarding.” (By the way, carbon-offsets, sometimes negatively called “greenwashing” behavior, can also come with their own unintended consequences.)
The down-ticket impact of their overall mission, however, comes from their annual grants for nonprofits, which Wood says, focuses “on environmental and cultural resource conservation in places where tourism has the most significant impact.”
It was REI’s Force of Nature Fund, promoting opportunities for women and girls outdoors, that provided a $25,000 grant for piloting the NPCA’s EmpowHER program.
Students may even be given a chance to become the next generation of skilled conservationists in the parks that make up their own backyards, which reduces their carbon footprints.
So maybe we aren’t always aware of the unintended consequences of our travel. No charitable organization is perfect—and yes, we need to try harder to be better ethical travelers. But there can also be an outcome that feels more serendipitous, even if it doesn’t fully absolve our best intentions or get us into The Good Place.