On April 2, 2015, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired the documentary “Volunteers Unleashed” after a controversial reworking of the film in response to threats of litigation from Free the Children, the superpower Canadian non-profit run by the Kielburger family.
The founders of Free the Children, a non-profit closely tied to for-profit volunteer travel company Me to We, were unhappy with their inclusion in the film, especially alongside a young writer who criticized the work of Me to We as misleading to young volunteers and potentially harmful to the communities that they purport to help (as reported by Canadaland).
I followed the news of “Volunteers Unleashed” being pulled off the CBC line-up, recut, and released in a sanitized, Kielburger-approved format very closely — mostly because I was the young writer in question.
Over the past year, I have built some semblance of a career speaking outabout the issues embedded in the volunteer travel industry, and am used tonot being the favorite person of companies and non-profits that run volunteer trips abroad, but I’d never been knowingly censored. I’d never, as the CBC did at the request of Free the Children, had my words altered to protect the feelings and financial bottom line of a company.
However, if all that were at stake here were my feelings, or those of a non-profit or for-profit entity, the issue would have quickly blown over. What’s really at risk is the ability of journalists, reporters, and the media in general to shine a fair but critical spotlight on a sector that is generating over $2 billion annually. A sector that sends predominately privileged and overwhelmingly Caucasian volunteers to developing countries for poverty experiences that all too frequently do little to create a sustainable impact in the communities in which they claim to be creating lasting change.
By shutting down criticism, Me to We, and organizations like it, are echoing the very same unequal power dynamics that they are creating in Africa, Asia, and South America — power dynamics that keep the poor poor and enable those who claim to serve them to get rich off of trip fees paid by unsuspecting and well-intentioned young people who don’t know any better.
Volunteer travel critic Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY Tours, is one of many industry veterans who have shifted their philosophy away from volunteer travel after seeing the downsides that so often come along with it. She has spoken out about the dangers of orphanage volunteer work, an industry that keeps “kids out of school to entertain tourists…all in the name of ‘service,’” and encourages travelers to recognize that “We need to LEARN before we can HELP.”
Writer Rafia Zakaria has voiced similar concerns, identifying the problem with volunteer travel or “voluntourism” as “its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”
Natalie Jesionka, Founder of the Prizm Project, challenges young people to ask questions of the programs they choose and to fully research the projects they want to take part in, in a travel column for The Daily Muse: “People will still travel and volunteer, people will still mess up, and lots of money will change hands. Organizations will need to begin to address this, and a system of accountability should be put in place…”
I agree with Natalie that organizations should put systems of accountability in place, but I would also take it a step further. Speaking about the industry in a general way, and entreating companies and organizations to make more ethical and solutions-oriented decisions isn’t working.
We need to be able to challenge specific organizations, and increasingly for-profit companies like Me to We that run volunteer trips, and demand a change in behavior or a cessation of activities. We need to hold them to the promises they make on their websites and to their volunteers, promises that they rarely deliver on, as it is in their best interest for communities to stay impoverished and dependent. We need, above all, to be able to voice fair and well-reasoned concerns that pinpoint exact issues, rather than broad stroke generalizations in the work they are doing, without fear of reprisal or censorship. And finally, we need to be willing to walk away from our dream volunteer vacation if we don’t get satisfactory answers.
In an industry steeped in good intentions, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it is, at its core, still an industry. By choosing to spend your dollars elsewhere, whether through a more open and transparent volunteer program, or one of the many alternative travel options, like Onwards, that are offering adventurous vacations that give back to communities without relying on volunteer work, you make a statement about where the industry needs to go, and play a role in helping it get there.
If you’re considering traveling abroad, don’t take the first option that comes up on Google or the one that does the best at silencing criticism. Be an active participant in building your experience by expecting more of the companies and organizations that offer international voluntourism trips. Your power as the customer and client should never be underestimated. Use it wisely.