Thursday, March 24, 2011

Voluntourism: Is it helping them or you?

As of late I've been contemplating the issues surrounding tourism and volunteering and the issue of responsible tourism.

I hear from and meet a lot of travelers who pass through Siem Reap in my role as the founder and lead moderator of the Siem Reap-Angkor group on CouchSurfing. Many are here only for a few days, while others stay slightly longer.

It's only a few who actually choose to stay in Cambodia for at least a month. Many of these folks often look for places to volunteer. And most of these volunteer-seekers think the only alternative is going to an "orphanage" to play with or teach children. They have no idea about where to begin and often look for recommendations of places to contact.

My first recommendation for these volunteer-seekers is to visit the ConCERT Cambodia website. ConCERT describes itself in the following way on its homepage:
ConCERT – "Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism" - is a non profit organisation based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our aim is to reduce poverty, and we do this by bringing together people who want to help, and local organisations that need the kind of support they can give.

At ConCERT we have information on a range of organisations that are engaged in humanitarian activities, all of whom need your support. They are wellmanaged and financially transparent, and work in partnership with local people.

We also have a wealth of information on the causes and effects of poverty in Cambodia; this information explains why there is such an urgent need for your support.

At the ConCERT office in the centre of Siem Reap we have information on a range of organisations engaged in community development and support activities, and which supplement the work of the government.
What I really LOVE about ConCERT is that its founder, Michael, has made a huge effort in checking out numerous local organizations and charities within Siem Reap.
All our member organisations need your support and are well managed, financially transparent, and work in partnership with local people. Every organisation is different and requires different types of help. All our member organisations need your support and are well managed, financially transparent, and work in partnership with local people. Every organisation is different and requires different types of help.
Being a teacher for a hotel and tourism school, I feel it is even more important to be "in the know" so that I can be a responsible teacher. After all, it's these same tourists who they will depend on for their jobs once they finish their training.

I've also been reading posts from Daniela Papi on her Lessons I Learned blog, and have been both empowered and dismayed. There is a lot of dialog going on, but the key point I keep hearing repeated is that there is a need for more transparency and willingness to share. Sharing can take the form of ideas, lessons learned or even just simply talking things out in the open.

I am empowered to provide the most accurate information about volunteering and speak out as much as possible about making well thought out choices for how to support the work happening in Cambodia. I do this by posting as much information I can and directing people that I meet to places like ConCERT.

At the same time, it is disheartening to encounter the numerous well-intentioned people who are seeking "easy" ways to volunteer and "help" the poor in Cambodia, while ignoring what would and should be good practices in their home countries simply because "this is Cambodia."

Somehow, these seemingly well-educated people think it is OK to disregard safe and responsible practices. They leave their logic at the door because to them, any help is better than no help in a developing country like Cambodia.

Why should it be acceptable to just walk in to any village, school or children's center and just start "volunteering"?

When I read articles like this one, "UNICEF Concern Prompts Cambodian Investigation of Orphanages," it makes me wonder what it's going to take to get tourists to change their perception of volunteering. Part of the responsibility lays in the hands of the tour agents and operators. While the other half is tourists themselves who need to start re-adjusting their thoughts as to the wider impacts of such short-term volunteering on the local population who must put up with the revolving door of volunteers.

It's going to take a paradigm shift for both tourists and tour operations in order to adjust their view of "voluntourism," which has become the de facto model for "helping" the poor and less fortunate, particularly in Cambodia.

Daniela Papi has provided some excellent links that I have found extremely useful in framing my position on this issue.

Where do we draw then line when good intentions for the sake of doing good is not enough?

How to evaluate an orphanage, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do, by Ian Birrell (despite this article, tourist STILL think it's perfectly OK to walk into orphanages for dance shows, buy for child sellers, or give money handouts to beggars.)

Cambodian Orphanage Tourism, on Aljezeera

Orphanage Tourism: The Catch-22 of Orphanage Funding, by Eric Lewis

Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia: Good Intentions are Not Enough, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

A Protest Against Orphanage Tourism, and other orphanage tourism related posts on this blog

Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund reminds us to be generous and use our heart, but to “ask the tough questions”

Here's my own useful link for some really useful ways for giving back and helping back without mucking about in the lives of people where the author provides 8 rules for “econ-travel.” Is There a Right Way to Spend Money When Traveling?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Is There a Right Way to Spend Money When Traveling?

I ran across this article from the New York Times through a CouchSurfing friend who posted it on Facebook. Some of the more interesting points involve the author's rules for "econ-travel."

Is there a “right” way to spend, tip and give money when traveling?

The idea of “responsible tourism” has taken hold in recent years, largely in the guise of eco-travel, in which environmental factors become central. But one stumbles into many other ethical issues when traveling. One of the most unavoidable — especially when in the developing world — is how to help.

But what if you travel on your own? Are there ways to make your spending matter? How much should we tip the bellhop? How aggressively to bargain? When to give to panhandlers?

Repeatedly confounded by these questions, my wife, Joan, and I started to compile an informal rule book for what we call “econ-travel.”

1. Fix a daily or weekly budget.

2. Overbuy gifts for yourself and others. “Crafts are the best thing to buy; they have people’s dreams woven into them.”

3. Don’t bargain down price, bargain up quantity. Too many people want the cheapest price regardless of the seller's income potential. Bargain according to what you think is fair, but is also a win-win for both you and the seller.

4. Try to be more than a consumer. Local citizens “may be economically poor but they are often culturally rich,” says Harold Goodwin, professor of Responsible Tourism Management at Leeds Metropolitan University in England. So, engage in their culture by getting off the large bus and taking an interest in how they make their living. . .The rule is simple, Mr. Goodwin says: “Treat them as you would like to be treated.”

5. Let others earn a living by helping. I’ve learned to relax and let someone else carry my suitcase. It’s a rational way for local residents to feed their families, and certain people have turned luggage-carrying into an art.

6. Don’t give to panhandlers. Handouts send a multitude of wrong messages about dependency and the value of work. Plus, handouts encourage more begging, often by children (an awful alternative to school). Long-term change never starts with a quarter or even $10 stuck into someone else’s palm.

7. Instead, buy stuff on the street. The hawker’s life is a tough one, always a fight against weather, traffic and crime. So if you want to help, buy more than you usually might. . . Why not bolster that small-business spirit?

8. Sample local food. Tourists in the developing world often eat at a limited number of hotels or restaurants deemed safe by guidebooks. There’s logic to that, especially where food-borne illness is concerned. But you’d be missing out on part of the reason you travel in the first place.

“Buy food and beverages from local producers, taste the locally produced foods and enjoy this as part of your holiday experience,” Mr. Goodwin says. For instance, you haven’t really tasted a banana if you’ve never had one grown for immediate consumption (compared with ones modified for export and sold blemish-free in United States supermarkets). Peels help keep the fruit safe, as does boiling in the case of a cup of local tea. The winners are the farmers, who often are at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

My favorite quote from Rule #2 is, “Crafts are the best thing to buy; they have people’s dreams woven into them.”

I'm also personally fond of Rule #3 since I encounter numerous travelers who are only interested in the cheapest prices without considering who their stinginess is really affecting. It makes me rather sick when I hear behavior like this.