“I’ve come to help”

Can tourism and altruism mix?

By Benjamin Sichel

November 2006

Imagine arriving at work one day and finding a new co-worker has joined your team. He comes from abroad, and he’ll only be working with you for a little while—-after graduating from university, he wanted to come to a different country and volunteer for a spell, just to gain experience and “help out however he can.”

You are somewhat skeptical: you’ve seen this type of person before. But being the welcoming soul you are, you answer his many questions, help out with his difficulties in English, and nod politely when he talks about how things are different (better?) at home. You listen to, and half-heartedly try out, some of his new ideas for your organization, even if you think they’re off-base. You are a bit miffed that as a guest, he seems to enjoy privileged access to your boss. After a few months he leaves, and leaves behind a half-done project which never gets picked up.

Now consider the myriad programs you’ve heard of in which people from Canada, the US or elsewhere travel to the Majority World to intern or volunteer, often combined with academic study or research. Right now in villages and shantytowns around the world, enthusiastic young people are teaching English, volunteering in orphanages, and planting community gardens; while groups of middle-aged church folk hand out medical supplies, build schools, and assemble sewage systems.

It’s difficult to say just how widespread this phenomenon is—-travel is often officially considered either “business” or “pleasure,” and international volunteers may avoid stating their purpose to border authorities for fears of sticky paperwork. However, a Google search for “volunteer abroad” yields almost 700,000 hits, and a scan through the first 500 or so demonstrates the vast range of opportunities for such experiences. Such programs generally invoke thoughts of generosity and sacrifice, friendships, partnerships, and deeply meaningful personal awakenings to the realities of global inequality. But what other impacts and implications might these programs have? Are they truly an effective means of achieving their implied or stated goals—-that is, improving the lot of the poor, or just making the world a slightly better place? Or, more provocatively, are they simply a glorified form of tourism wrapped in a veneer of altruism—-call it altourism, or development tourism—-with few real benefits for receiving communities?

“Altourists,” or development tourists, are motivated to varying degrees by both a desire to make a difference and a thirst for adventure. People want to change the world in whatever ways they can, and hands-on work far from home seems both more interesting and more satisfying than sending a cheque to a big foundation or volunteering at the local soup kitchen.

But as many of these travellers discover, altourism is often fraught with its own ethical and practical quandaries. For instance, if I’m going somewhere to “help people,” what am I assuming about those people? How effective a worker can I be in a place where I hardly speak the local language, and where my specific skill set might bear only a passing resemblance to what is actually needed? And—-one of the most difficult questions of all—-do the people I’m working with really want me there?

Participants and organizers of most volunteer and work trips to the Global South would certainly object to their programs being referred to as “development tourism.” The term can indeed sound disparaging, as it turns the noble idea of doing service work for the poor into a relationship in which the workers, as tourists, are the true beneficiaries. And certainly, not all participating organizations are deserving of the label. But a smattering of reports from the field, combined with some sober consideration of the phenomenon as a whole, should still lead those of us who have been bitten by the travel bug to consider carefully both the good and the bad of our well-intentioned excursions abroad.

A brief history of altourism

The earliest precursors to modern globe-trotting altourists were Christian missionaries, dispatched to all corners of the non-white world to convert the masses and “improve” (i.e. Westernize) living standards. French Jesuits came across the Atlantic to “New France” as early as the 17th century, and missionary work combined with development projects continues around the world to this day.

By the 1950s, Western governments had begun to realize the various benefits of sending young people to the Global South. Not only did participants gain valuable education and experience, but they also modeled the virtues of their home countries to those with whom they interacted. The Peace Corps, possibly the world’s best-known volunteer-abroad program, was founded in the 1960s in part to counter the influence of young Soviet professionals doing service work in the Third World, and continues to play a role in the current American battle to win over “hearts and minds” in the Middle East. In Canada, the Canadian International Development Agency has been an important source of funding for similar placements abroad since 1980, culminating with the creation of an official International Youth Internship Program in 1997, which now sends about 400 young adults to the Majority World every year.

But the altourism phenomenon, of course, goes far beyond youth-targeted government programs. Today, the relative ease and low cost of international air travel have made altourism into a major niche market of the global travel industry. Websites like goabroad.com and volunteerinternational.org list thousands of opportunities to travel and do every type of volunteer work imaginable. Groups like Habitat for Humanity and eco-tourism companies that tout more “sustainable” brands of tourism also offer experiences that blur the lines between traditional tourism and international development work. And almost every university in North America has programs that send its students to the Majority World.

Ethical minefields

Marc Epprecht, professor of development studies at Queen’s University, takes a critical look at work-study abroad programs in his article “Work-Study Abroad Courses in International Development Studies: Some Ethical and Pedagogical Issues” (Canadian Journal of Development Studies, December 2004). Although these programs are clearly beneficial and often life-changing for participants, Epprecht writes, institutions need to do more to address a range of possible negative effects on the communities that host them. A common assumption in International Development departments—-which, according to Epprecht, needs to be questioned—-is that development-themed work-study abroad programs are “so intrinsically valuable” (emphasis in the original) that their benefits must outweigh any possible adverse effects. Not necessarily, says Epprecht.

In other words, those of us who work or volunteer in the Majority World need to ask ourselves an unsettling question: Is it possible that our presence can do more harm than good?

Discussions I’ve had with people who have travelled south to do development work, as well as those in the South who receive them, suggests that the answer, at least some of the time, is yes. What follows is a sample of some of the concerns these discussions raised.

1. Attitudes

“[W]hile Americans have a great supply of sympathy,” writes US journalist Meline Toumani in “The Truth About our Good Intentions” (alternet.org, October 2003), “we do not have nearly enough empathy for those who are burdened with our ubiquitous attempts to help—-and are tortured by the implicit inferiority that is always part of the deal.”

Indeed, the very notion of “help” can justifiably ruffle some feathers among its intended recipients. The tacit assumption built into many volunteer-abroad programs—-especially shorter, group service trips—-is that it is appropriate and useful for travellers from the North to go to the South and do physical and/or menial work simply because they are wealthy and educated.

What attitudes does this assumption suggest towards those on the receiving end of this help? Are they too lazy or stupid to build schools, dig trenches, or mind children in orphanages? Would they be unable to work on development projects, or build basic infrastructure, if “we” weren’t there to help? Toumani exposes the arrogance of such assumptions with a rhetorical role reversal:

We do not have brigades of well-meaning volunteers from, say, the Netherlands arriving in our neighbourhoods with bold promises of teaching us how to run our schools. We do not have representatives from Singapore engaging in optimistic efforts to reform our legislature, or teams from France trying to develop our media. Scruffy Swedish twenty-somethings, fresh from college, do not take up residence in our midst and teach us about the importance of government-sponsored healthcare.

There are, of course, many examples of well-thought-out work trips abroad based on solidarity with local efforts, as opposed to feel-good charity. It should be noted, however, that although many participants gain insight into the true nature of poverty during their trips, promoters often still rely on sentiments of “Northern do-goodism” to attract participants in the first place. Marc Epprecht points to the common image of the “smiling white girl…helping dark-skinned people” on websites advertising work-study abroad programs: too often, he writes, marketing for such programs plays on the altruistic “conceits” of its target audience.

Condescending attitudes from participants on development trips can sometimes lead to behaviour that is troublesome to locals. One Central American volunteer coordinator (who requested anonymity) lamented the fact that Americans who volunteer at his parish have a habit of giving candy, toys and other “shit” to children. The children have started to “wait around the church for [the Americans],” reinforcing useless stereotypes (in the minds of altourists and locals alike) about generous white donors and poor, needy brown children.

2. Issues pertaining to money

While travellers may stereotype their Southern hosts, so too do these hosts make presumptions about them, especially in regards to wealth. A common assumption is that Northern visitors = money, and that the primary purpose of the foreigner’s visit is to give it away.

There is good reason for this assumption: visitors on development work trips frequently bring financial or in-kind donations with them, or else are affiliated with organizations that do. For some people in the Majority World, interaction with the North can be predominantly about receiving, be it in the form of straight-up charity or more conscientious development work.

Not surprisingly, these perceptions can lead to some awkward interactions between Northern visitors and local residents. Nearly all trip participants report some sort of uneasy interaction concerning money, whether it be constant begging on the street, a host family looking for money to put a child through school, or a volunteer-hosting organization soliciting donations. “We were expected to fill the fridge and give money,” said Montreal native Maxime Barbeau of his experience volunteering for an NGO in West Africa.

Although this type of relationship may make Northerners uncomfortable, it is quite understandable from a Southern point of view. Visitors to development projects in the South are almost always wealthier than those they visit, both in absolute and relative terms. They also have an ostensible desire to “improve” the lives of their Southern hosts; therefore, why shouldn’t they be expected to give money away? If these visitors can afford to buy a passport and a plane ticket, surely they can spare a few dollars for those they have come to “help”—-especially given how much a few dollars can be worth in local currency.

Even more important to remember, however, is the genuine hospitality and generosity most altourists report receiving in the Majority World. An awkward request for financial help can too often overshadow, in the mind of an altourist, the fact that he or she was given a private room to stay in, privileged access to food, water and other resources; or a host’s precious time spent showing the visitor around. Disorientation and differing cultural expectations might mean that altourists consume a large proportion of available resources without even realizing it, causing undue strain on a community’s supplies.

Altourists may also have an exaggerated sense of the value of their own (volunteer) labour, and therefore expect in-kind payment (room, board, etc.) far exceeding the value of the work they’ve done. For this reason, many WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) placements in Central America actually charge volunteers up to US$40 a week for room and board for the privilege of volunteering there. What might sound to you like a request for charity may in actual fact be your host’s awkward attempt to cover costs or settle accounts.

And finally, in the big picture it’s worth remembering that the whole idea of a generous Global North lending a helping hand to the impoverished Global South (an idea that countless acts of altourism reinforce every day) has little basis in fact. According to economist Patrick Bond, Africa services its foreign debt to the tune of US$340 billion per year—-more than five times what it receives in development aid from the G8 countries! As in colonial times, wealth and resources still flow disproportionately from Global South to North—-not the other way around.

3. Lack of understanding of the complexity of the problems

Even if few today are naive enough to believe they can “change the world” in a few short weeks or months of volunteer work, many altourists do hope to make some sort of difference, however small. Upon arrival, however, many find that volunteering their labour in a foreign country may not be the best way to make the world a better place. Poverty in the Global South, as anywhere, is due to a complex web of factors (including in no small measure the policies pursued by the Global North), not an incapacity to work or a lack of available hands.

Depending on the nature of their program, the training it provides, and the participants’ own attitudes, many altourists may be remarkably uninformed about the true reasons behind economic disparities between North and South. Abby Hall, an American participant on three educational trips to El Salvador, wrote to me about a house-building delegation she met there from Las Vegas. “When talking to some of them, I was able to tell that they didn’t know anything about Salvadoran history or the current political/economic/social situation,” said Hall. Though the builders may well have felt good about their work, it certainly did not address “the core of the housing shortage”—-i.e. institutionalized poverty and the complex causes behind it.

The flipside of this kind of situation, of course, is the hope that, faced with unmediated exposure to the conditions in which the world’s majority live, altourists will be motivated to think seriously about the structural causes of poverty and inequality in the Majority World and work to address those causes at home.

Indeed, the consciousness-raising effect of such experiences on travellers themselves can often be their most lasting and beneficial impact. Many programs now realize the importance of facilitating guided reflections with participants before, during, and after immersion into a vastly different cultural and economic reality. Meanwhile, organizations like Global Exchange and Borderlinks specialize in running educational trips to the South, in partnership with or in support of local grassroots organizations, with no pretense of offering volunteer labour. As a result, participants of such programs gain valuable insights into the intricate connections between North and South, while at the same time drawing attention and resources to the organizations working for change. “For many, volunteer experiences mark the beginning of a lifelong commitment to ending poverty and hunger,” write the authors of Alternatives to the Peace Corps (quoted at volunteerinternational.org).

Travellers who recognize that they have at least as much to gain from their contribution as the people they’re trying to help are much more likely to make full use of the experience.

Is it worth it?

Given the natural human instinct to explore new frontiers, the genuine mutual benefits that can come from intercultural interaction, and the many people whose lives have been changed for the better by experiences abroad, rejecting the altourism phenomenon as a whole seems neither realistic nor appropriate.

“There are problems with internships abroad,” concedes Rebecca Tiessen, professor of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University. “However, the risks of no cross-cultural communication, which I see as increased stereotyping, racism, lack of understanding, lack of respect for other cultures, etc., are far greater than the problems these internships create.”

If that’s true, how can we in the North reap the benefits of inter-cultural experiences without causing problems for our hosts? How can we ensure that volunteer trips, internships and study-abroad programs are carried out in a spirit of mutual respect and solidarity, and that they bring genuine benefits to all parties involved?

One answer—-indeed a moral imperative for sponsoring organizations—-is to ensure adequate preparation of Northerners travelling to the South. For the sake of hosts and participants alike, organizations that send people to the Majority World need to provide them with some grounding in the political, social, and cultural context of the country they are visiting, especially as it relates to whatever role their home country has played.

As well, several respondents suggested that more reciprocity is needed in the realm of international exchanges. Currently, the focus of most work/volunteer abroad programs (whether or not they admit it) is on providing life-changing educational experiences for their Northern participants. Valuable as this may be, much more could be done to achieve equivalent goals for hosts in the South. An important part of achieving this end, according to Tiessen, would be for more Southerners (and not just the wealthiest ones) to participate in educational trips to the North.

The foremost reason this doesn’t happen more often is of course financial: communities that can barely put their youth through school can hardly afford to send someone on an expensive exchange trip.

But there are several examples of Northern and Southern organizations cooperating to bring visitors to wealthier countries. World University Service of Canada (WUSC) sponsors students to come from war-torn countries to universities in Canada. The Breaking the Silence network in Nova Scotia has brought several visitors from its partner organizations in Guatemala over the past 15 years. Canada World Youth programs bring Canadian and international youth together to volunteer both in Canada and a partner country. And the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation (ACIC) is currently sponsoring the First Voices project, an initiative which will bring indigenous youth from Latin America to produce a film with First Nations youth in Canada.

It doesn’t seem right to reject the notion that international travel can help bring forth positive social change. But considering the colonial legacy and power imbalance that continues to hang over relations between North and South, travel should always be undertaken conscientiously. Travelling specifically with the aim of improving lives in the Majority World is an even thornier endeavour, which, when not undertaken carefully, can sometimes do more harm than good.

Being aware of these dangers is an important step to avoiding the worst potential side-effects of altourism.

Ben Sichel is a teacher and occasional altourist based in Halifax.

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