A college student in the U.S, months after applying, finally gets accepted to serve as a volunteer at a school for 3 weeks in Uganda, and will fly out there to teach English. A couple in their mid-forties book a trip on the new Carnival social impact cruise, Fathom. The week-long journey will allow them time to enjoy their cruise, fun in the sun, and spend three days volunteering with local nonprofits in the Dominican Republic.
Is there a difference between the two?
The debate is still up in the air. Everyone seems to have their own ideas as to what exactly “voluntourism” is. Some see it as a vacation that was planned, that happens to have some volunteering blended into it, others view it as any volunteer work done outside of ones home country, whether or not the sole purpose was to volunteer. Either way, the constant critique is about the impact it may be having in countries around the world. With recent news about Carnivals plans for 2016, the buzz has only grown.
More and more people are spending their vacations volunteering, it’s a trend we see growing and Carnival cruise lines is getting in on that. Carnival cruise line has created a new view on social impact travel, it’s called the Fathom. Travelers will go on a week-long cruise where they will spend three days “tackling profound social issues through a sustainable business model” said President Tara Russell. They are currently set to arrive in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic in April 2016 teaching English, building water filters, and cultivating cacao plants. Carnival aims to train travelers prior to the arrival through conversational Spanish lessons, impact activities, and other workshops.
So the question is, is Carnival’s cruise doing “good” service? Will they actually be helping, or are they just using it as a marketing tool?
I cannot fully answer that question because I don’t know the relationships they have built or the training they might have, but I can safely say that not all volunteering is good (Carnival, I would love it if you reach out to me and told me more) . Some people are baffled by that, I hear it a lot, “we are giving our time to serve others, how can it possibly be a bad thing?”
People want to do good in the world, and they may have good intentions, but it’s not just that simple. There are many things to think about- Are volunteers displacing workers in that community? Are they creating more work for the community if they are unskilled in the tasks? Are they using up resources that may be better used for others? Is this a sustainable project or is it creating dependency?
Voluntourism doesn’t have to always be negative, it can have a positive impact, it just takes work. The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University says, in an article on ethical inquiry, “Ultimately, if volunteers are cognizant of the imbalance, understand what they can and cannot do, are cautious and work hard to truly develop relationships with locals, perhaps both volunteers and host communities can benefit from volunteer tourism. However without the right preparation for such volunteer trips, voluntourism has the potential do more harm than good.”
The issue with Voluntourism is that it has to be appealing. If the work they are doing is not something that people will buy into, then it will not be successfully sold, and the companies will not make money. Working directly with the community and figuring out what the needs are is key. The closer you are to the people, the more empathetic you can be, and the more empathetic you become, the easier it is to share the story with others. Telling a story is ultimately the best way to get other engaged, so tell the communities story well, and you can get the buy-in and customers you are looking for. I urge companies engaging in this type of work to spend the time building relationships, really address the need, and tell the story of the community well, this will work towards better change in the world, not finding the projects that can easily be sold as fun.
If you are still skeptical to the idea that service can do more harm than good, read about an experience a college student at Ithaca had in her travels to India. Her eyes were open in a way she had never expected, or Pippa Biddle as she recounts her high school experience volunteering in Tanzania.