Thinking about voluntourism

a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity

As you know, I recently visited Bali, attending a conference. Whilst there, I visited an organisation which runs a program training young women to work in the tourism industry. The organisation also conducts a number of practical and educational programs promoting ecological sustainability.

The programs and their goals are, in my opinion, entirely worthy and appear to be working well.

My beef is with the way I saw the programs being managed: by foreign volunteers  who were interning for weeks or months.

I was reminded of a ‘vacation’ recently taken by a relative. The vacation was organised by a well known charitable foundation and was focussed on building an ablutions block at a Cambodian school. The cost of the vacation included a four figure donation and my understanding is that voluntourism always includes a financial commitment as well as donation of labour. My question, as yet unanswered, is “wouldn’t a more sustainable outcome be to make the donation and use it to pay local builders” I can’t help but assume that builders would do a better job of the construction than would a group of Australian office workers.

Do you know what? I don’t think that would fly. I think that the volunteers’ goal is to donate their time and labour, even where they are unskilled. There is social kudos in the exchange “What did you do on holiday?””Oh, I helped build an ablutions block at a Cambodian school” You can see the halo shining, can’t you.

Let’s move our gaze from the voluntourist to a project, let’s say a Cambodian orphanage. Apparently donating your time at an orphanage has a great deal of cachet. Is our voluntourist a nurse? an anthropologist? have they relevant experience? No. But they are delighted to spend a few hours per day for a few days feeding babies and playing with young children. And, heaven knows, the orphanage looks as though it can do with all the help it can get. Sadly, this scenario rarely benefits the children who are confused by an endless procession of carers. Worse, they become fodder for tourists who visit the orphanages for photo opportunities. Further, I understand that orphans are so attractive that families are encouraged to surrender their children simply to build the orphanage stocks.

Am I actively discouraging you from doing great stuff while you’re on holiday? No, not at all. I am asking you, though, to do your homework, to consider the effects and ponder whether your time and money can be used differently for a sustainable outcome.

For a different view, please read Ken Budd’s post ‘Unpacking Voluntourism’

I decided not to post any photos from my trip. I hope you like Todd Lawson’s (source: Getty Images)

Humanitarian aid volunteer talking to villagers about malaria prevention.





The action or process through which something is changed so much that it appears to be entirely new
– Oxford Dictionary

Yes, I’m back from Bali. Sadly, I didn’t return with a tan, though my skin will probably thank me for this in years to come.

To prepare for my talk, which was luckily scheduled for the second working day, I researched reinvention and meaningful lives. I made assumptions about my fellow attendees. I wrote my presentation three times and do you what? I presented my life as a case study and I’m happy to report that it was well received.

The research was really interesting. Of course it was – it’s a topic which interests me. I was surprised, though, to find that a number of commentators did not view reinvention as being a positive activity.

Closer investigation revealed that these writers were all reflecting negatively were including the mantra “want it hard enough and work hard enough, you can have it, do it, be it” as a version of reinvention. Here’s the reality check: however hard I want it, however hard I train, as a woman with a few years under her belt, I am never going to run a sub-10 second 100m.

We see public figures reinventing themselves constantly. Madonna has been any number of people since she was desperately seeking Susan in 1985. Indeed, she likes the word so much that she adopted it for her 2004 tour. And haven’t we all seen some very odd plastic surgery?

I feel that reinvention, like invention itself, is born of necessity, a necessity to make the best of the situation in which one finds oneself.

My own reinvention has been both personal and professional. As an expatriate spouse, my reinventions have been direct responses to limitations such as language skills, visa conditions and family needs. I still look back at the first time I actively reinvented myself. I was in my mid-20’s and a new mum. I had a degree in applied science which I’d never used because I’d spent the intervening years in countries where I was unable to work. Here I was in another of those countries and with a new baby, joined a mums and bubs group. The groups magazine needed some editorial help and my studies had included a little about preparing copy for the printer (in analog days this was by hand on cyan gridded layout paper). Voilá, unemployed mum becomes member of the editorial team, pro-bono, and a instantly a worthy member of society.

My Bali presentation concentrated on reinvention within limitations, and I don’t use this word with negative connotations. I skipped over professional reinventions, and with good reason – I wanted to talk about what I know best and my knowledge has come from changing circumstance, generally geographic circumstance. My knowledge comes from a peripatetic life throughout my adult life, where I’ve lived in (and I have to count them on my fingers) seven countries, courtesy of my husband’s career. I’ve had a couple of children, we’ve had times when we’ve been unable to live together as a family, we’ve lived in isolated communities, we’ve lived in small communities, we’ve lived in truly beautiful places and we’ve lived places you would not choose to visit.

Wherever we’ve lived, we’ve had to change out ways according to circumstance, and it has surprised me that many we’ve met have not been able to adapt at all. Case in point: living at the beach in Thailand, a Dutch colleague was annoyed, seriously put out, that he couldn’t ice skate during the winter months. Not only was he grumpy about missing his skating, he was unable to see that there were some attractive alternative. Sailing anyone?

It is my ability to plant myself and, back in the day, my family in a new environment and and to build a meaningful existence which was the impetus for the invitation to speak at this Bali conference about building a meaningful life and the art of reinvention.

To labour the point, it is reinvention which brings me to writing this post. I am working for a not-for-profit which is not making the most of new media. So, I’ve undertaken a short course to extend my skills in the area. An assignment requires me to work on my writing and here I am, writing and using ‘new’ media.

What about you, dear reader. Are you envisioning a change?

Are you a new visitor?

Hello Dear Reader and thank you for visiting Tracking the Thread.

The original purpose for this blog was as a class assignment for a subject in my post grad Media and Communications study. My original posts are still here.

This blog is a personal exploration of the things which have excited me and those which have gotten under my skin.

As a knitter and sewist, there are posts about things I’ve made; and as a person living in the world, there are posts about politics and other current events. I feel free to write about them from my point of view and hope you will respond from yours.

I have a long term goal, too – to improve the photographs I take. Let’s hope the progress is visible