6 Feb 2014

Hey Voluntourist, Take A Back Seat!

By Weh Yeoh

Tourists who travel to developing nations to dig wells or assemble wheelchairs might be well intentioned, but is their feelgood experience at the expense of the locals, asks Weh Yeoh

Last year, I spoke with an American woman who brought troupes of foreign volunteers to do a few weeks of “giving back” in Cambodia. The main objectives of her non for profit organisation are to provide tourists with the experience of helping out those who are less fortunate, in international locations, so that an intercultural learning experience occurs. If the people in poor countries benefit, it seems like a fortunate by-product.

I stumbled across this organisation in my work with a small organisation called CABDICO, that works with people with disabilities in poor communities in Cambodia. The American organisation was giving adult-sized wheelchairs to children with disabilities, because despite their suppliers making adult wheelchairs, they preferred their volunteers to interact with children.

The wheelchairs are designed in the USA by a partner organisation. They are made in China, flat packed in containers, and shipped from Shanghai to the destination of need. Once they arrive in the country, such as Cambodia, they are assembled by local workers or volunteers.

These people don’t need any particular skills to assemble them, and in fact the design is intentionally dumbed down so that, for example, unskilled tourists could assemble them together at "wheelchair parties”. On top of this, they are made from parts that can't be found locally. If they break down, the communities can't repair them.

Wheelchairs such as this are manufactured offshore, then delivered and assembled by volunteers, who brand the wheelchairs with their own names, at "wheelchair parties". Photo by Weh Yeoh.

In the process of being given to recipients, the distributor works with local partner organisations to “verify need”. Yet, as this occurs right at the end, this step seems somewhat tokenistic. The need is verified, but there are no other possible solutions because only one type of wheelchair exists.

So even if the product doesn't fit the need (adult wheelchairs for children), there is no alternative available. In the absence of any real alternatives, it’s hard to imagine that any poor family would refuse something if it is given for free.

A representative from another local organisation in Cambodia recently told me that he estimated that 75 per cent of these wheelchairs aren't used as wheelchairs. Instead, they are commonly used as pieces of furniture for other family members. We can probably speculate that this is because they were inappropriately prescribed, or they broke down and were unable to be fixed, or the need changed and there was no follow up or reassessment.

On the website of the manufacturer and distributor, Free Wheelchair Mission, they claim to have delivered 8,250 wheelchairs to Cambodia. The cost of one wheelchair, according to their site, is $71.88: incredibly cheap for a wheelchair, but expensive for a piece of furniture.

This means that they have been responsible for delivering the sum total of $445,000 worth of IKEA-like furniture, direct from factories in China, to Cambodia. There’s your aid money at work right there.

When I raised my concerns about the effectiveness and dangers of this program, the organiser's response was to say that she was inspiring people from developed nations to care. She was “lighting a fire” underneath them, so that they would do more good in their lives in the future. My response to this was "what is the point of this, if you don't make a difference to people's lives in Cambodia?"

A "voluntourist" hard at work in Cambodia. Photo via WhyDev.

As nonsensical as this approach is, this kind of “voluntourism” is rife in places like Cambodia, and not just in the disability sector. “Orphanage tourism”, where rich white tourists are able to visit orphanages, play with children for a while and generally feel good about themselves, is a booming industry in Cambodia. Yet the dangers are well documented. Supporting a system of institutional care for vulnerable children, when there are better alternatives, is only one reason why this is problematic.

Elsewhere, unskilled Western tourists have been transported at great expense to build schools, churches and other buildings in poor places, often supplanting local labour and hence depressing the local economy.

It’s perhaps too easy to sneer at well-intentioned, clueless foreigners who come to poor countries to help. Perhaps they don't know better. However, there are a range of better initiatives that do make a difference in places like Cambodia.

Regarding wheelchair provision, some Cambodian people, aided by foreigners who play a supporting role, are tackling some incredibly difficult problems step by step.

The locally made and designed wheelchair. Photo by Weh Yeoh.

This wheelchair is a good example. It has large bicycle wheels so the person can travel longer distances and a smaller castor that drops down for manoeuvring indoors. The user can travel by road, while also being able to use the wheelchair inside their own house.

I spoke to the Cambodian man who leads the team that makes them. He has worked with foreigners, like myself, previously with some good success. For example, he worked with a British engineer who listened to what the Cambodian people needed, provided his own technical expertise, and then worked with him to come up with the design. Once he left, the work could be continued independently by Cambodians.

The story of this Cambodian man is in itself quite inspiring. He only graduated from high school during the civil war, travelled overseas to educate himself and source ideas, and now works virtually unnoticed making and modifying equipment like this for people with disabilities. He is so humble that he wouldn't even let me take his photo. His team of 18 mechanics trained by him all have disabilities.

Often, the answers to all the problems are often right in front of us. Foreigners should take a supportive role in helping people access resources, be they financial, technical or otherwise — not pretend to help while really putting ourselves in the picture. 

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Posted Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 14:20

Thanks to Weh Yeoh for this great story.  Not only does the locally designed wheelchair looks much 'cooler' (as a youngster would call it) but also more versatile as well as sturdy.

The core point however is that if the developed west wants to help the developing world, then we have to do it not through handouts and doing the manufacturing for them, but we have to help them to find independence and opportunity within their society and thus build a future for themselves where then they no longer need foreign aid.


Posted Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 14:33

A small NGO working in this area of disability aids in developing countries is MEND. Based on excatly that model of self-help, they have been doing some great work in Asia, particularly Nepal, India & Kashmir and in Africa:  http://mend.org.nz/wp/about-mend/

Posted Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 17:32

A good story and it fits with my experience. I also want to add that volunteers do little to increase the skill of the locals practitioners, there is no follow up and sociial development is a slow incremental activity not a box ticking or diasbility porn activity,  and taking one or two (largely photogenic) people from a community often leads to rivalry and jealousy - in extreme cases leading to ostracism. I have heard that some orphanages (some very well known) are used by sex tourists posing as volunteers, for grooming and recruitment..

The photo of the plucky vol. down the hole was hilarious, as I can only conjecture on what was going through the headsof the bystanders.Maybe therein lies a competition?

if you reallt want to help the developing world, reduce your carbon footprint.

Posted Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 18:29

Thank you, Weh Yeoh, warning of the perils that come when first world thoughtlessness and narcissism encounters (and generally ignores)  the needs of people in the developing world.  Is there a possibility for people in-country to offer inductions to such groups, and/or do evaluations of these organisations?  After all, rich donor countries require evaluations of their aid programs to poorer countries!

Some people will say it's better for people to stay home, but my own thoughts are "it depends".  One of the richest possibilities that can come out of the insights in this article is a conversation that leads to real change, not just when the country is visited - but after visitors go back to their home country.  Do they keep a relationship going?  Do they raise funds? Do they put those funds at the disposal of the community they are offering to assist, or is it tied?

We are interdependent.  The conversation can be mutually empowering - as long as both have the skill to listen, and the gift of being heard - and that is where the aid intervention may be needed in the dollar-wealthier country!

Posted Thursday, February 6, 2014 - 22:40

Adrian, thanks for your thoughtful comment. In regards to people in country doing evaluations, I think that's a wonderful idea, except that it would have to be initiated by the group coming in from overseas of course. In fact, I was asked whether or not the group with disabilities had rejected the adult sized wheelchairs for children. However, in the absence of other options my gut feeling is that people are most likely to take whatever they are going to get, so this obviously didn't happen.

As for your second paragraph, that's an interesting discussion I'm also having with a colleague of mine who has greater experience working with volunteer groups. I'll get him to give you his own 2c on the matter. Thanks again.

Posted Friday, February 7, 2014 - 12:26

Great article Weh and thanks to you and Adrian. Adrian, these are some excellent points and point to many so different angles for ongoing discussion. At the heart is the need to draw a distinction between the very different agendas of long-term volunteering at the request of the community, short-term unskilled voluntourism and immersion/exposure learning experiences. Weh has sufficiently outlined some of the issues with unskilled volunteering, so I'll leave that as self-evidently unhelpful in development terms.

There is a potential benefit to a visitor experiencing a culture different from his/her own. I would argue voluntourism does not provide this however, as the experience is one of re-inforcing a single story about the helplessness of the other, which serves to perpetuate bad development practice and reinforce notions of superiority among the privileged.

Longer-term volunteering, where volunteers use their actual skills - i.e teachers teach, nurses nurse, accountants count, (carpenters carpent?) - at the request and direction of local bosses, involving skill exchange with local staff (not one-directional transfer) not only has great potential in sustainable development terms, but allows the visitor to get a more balanced insight into the culture, the context and the people which avoids patronising, romanticising or insulting characterisations. I would argue that it takes more than a year to be fully effective in this regard, but more importantly it takes a willingness to recognise your Australian nursing degree does not make you more of an expert in every aspect of effective health care delivery in PNG than a local clinic worker, for example. There are, of course, still plenty of examples of bad practice in long-term volunteering (particularly where the host culture or mutual exchange with it is feared), but this response will be long enough without going in to all of them.

Immersions, which I'd define broadly as cross-cultural trips which aim to build understanding without pretending to contribute directly to development (though the line with voluntourism is often blurred), can offer some hope for enhanced mutual intercultural understanding. However in my 11 years witnessing (and recently, running) them, I have seen more examples of bad practice than good practice, as businesses, schools and charities rush to engage their members through this "unique" experience. Broadly speaking, the principles which inform good development cooperation should be at the heart of any immersion - dignity of people, full participation and decision making by local people, respect for the complexity of development, understanding the potential of unintended consequences, etc. Even in a potentially effective educational experience, there are some programs which fail to understand that the personal growth objectives of privileged foreigners should not be achieved at the expense of Cambodian people and communities. Additionally, as you correctly identify, interdependence is key, and participants should understand that perhaps the most effective change they can make as a result of the experience is in their own lives at home and in advocacy and ongoing support of well-designed effective programs. 

Of course, all this being said, some individuals with days and days of training and professional and skilled guides will still make the mistakes of naive interventionism when facing and being moved by poverty and injustice. For this reason, there are questions about the extent to which such programs should be about "building relationships" directly between individuals.  It is controversial because it may appear as if the facilitating NGO is attempting to control the interaction, but at the same time this can be necessary to stop the now-returned visitor slipping back into their presumptive "expert" status and attempting to start a program from scratch, thereby making all the mistakes most start-ups learn the hard way and which "beneficiaries" must repeatedly suffer as the foreigners do their learning.

Facilitating effective cross-cultural experiences for compassionate "northerners" is just as difficult (and fraught with issues) as supporting a good community development project. We should be wary and critical of such programs, particularly if they appear to presume that the experience is self-evidently a good thing, if they do not acknowledge and confront the potential harm or if they do not challenge the dominant culture and privileged thinking of the participants.

Pierre Pressure
Posted Friday, February 7, 2014 - 16:08

Very interesting article. I am sure I'd loathe the people who do this kind of do-good tourism, and I am sure that they benefit more than those they are "helping". The money should go to a wheelchair manufacturer in the host country. The difference between giving a fish handout, and teaching the recipient to fish for themselves.

Posted Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 04:29

Now, Now.

I've had this bull with giving money to hide our own shame and feed Fat Cats who do nothing but feed their own Ego's.

If we were not exploiting these Countries in the 1st place they wouldn't be quite so poor.

Their Doctors come here to be rich on our rort system of health, leaving their own Countries the poorer for it. Then Foreign Doctors have to move in to help for free, while the local Doctor in now in Australia Driving a big Car and looking cool.

Australia should train its own Doctors and clean up its Foreign Policies before pointing fingers.

Posted Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 18:59

This article shows a unique angle on the topic.  Maybe the inadequacies that are discussed in this article are due to bureaucratic processes and lack of grassroots participation?  I'm not so sure that I can generate any negative judgements towards people who are willing to think of others and help in some way, especially if this involves time away from their normal lives when they COULD be having a holiday and spending their money on themselves selfishly rather than on what they perceive as "helping" others.  Maybe also the perceptions westerners and do-gooders have of helping these people is what is off-kilter somewhat...in that because other countries do not have our standards of living, technology, resources etc that they "lack" in all ways.  And the inventiveness and ideas of the locals with that wheelchair colourfully illustrate that intelligence, problem solving, initiative etc are in no way affected by material poverty.  Opportunities for education, skills sharing, sharing cultural views and collective resource sharing/utilising are certainly processes that add value to local communities without being demeaning or creating dependence.  One of the problems of any welfare programs that centre on passivity is that those in "need" are at risk of never moving from that needy socio-economic position towards interdependence, interconnections and participation in wider politico-eocnomic domains.  Unfortunately many of our internationally oriented charities use top-down approaches that completely leave out the local voice, participation and long-term goals/needs. 

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Sandie
Posted Tuesday, February 11, 2014 - 01:17

A great article Weh Yeoh, the idea of Chinese made wheel chairs, purchased by a US NGO then being assembled by volunteers when the local ones are so much more practical is surely another example of globaliastion gone mad.

In Latin America there are many volunteer schemes too. A young woman I met has just gone to Guatemala to assist on a community run textile manufacturing scheme. She is hoping to learn as much as she can assist.

I too found an interesting scheme which I would class as, like Nokenwari says, “short term voulntourism & immersion exposure”, it was fun & I think educational for us participants & of assistance to the community.

I “volunteered” on an Indigenous Shuar community here in Ecuador. The community had a website offering the experience which I found while nearby, so I took a bus to check it out.

The cost is $110 for a week for a room & 3 meals a day of basic local food. As an older woman I was asked to help a lady hand wash 20 odd blankets + some family items of clothing, her 2 children played around us & shyly asked questions. The community can't afford a washing machine so the women do all their washing by hand. They do all the cooking which women volunteers also assist with. We washed more clothes & 28 sheets & 15 pillowcases the next day in huge tubs, scrubbing on boards made of bamboo. Hard yakka but we made it fun.

At the time there was one other volunteer, a man in his 30s who helped with clearing land surrounding a new school for 60 children from this community & others nearby that the government has built. It had 5 solar panels as well as “street power”.

The hours weren't particularly long & it was a very relaxed atmoshere where the people we worked with were very interested to hear of how life is in our countries & enjoyed explaining their culture & of their protection of the forests from oil companies.

There was also an option on the community to be a “tourist”that is pay more but not have to work.

A young German guy there was on a program of some duration that had been organised in Germany (so I guess someone was making a profit). He was having a week long holidayon the community & having Spanish lessons before starting an intern ship in Quito for a couple of months as a web designer. Interestingly his Spanish lessons were provided by a non Indigenous Ecuadorian teacher who was paid to come from Quito to teach him, she also helped to explain to us the way of life in this community.

All 3 of us enjoyed a great, informative, if muddy, (rubber boots provided), walk in the forest where many of the medicinal plants & useful bush foods were pointed out & explained.

Another day we walked several hours into the rainforest again being shown the forest secrets & have a swim at a remote waterfall. We camped the night in the forest in a remote camp cooking on a great bush camp fire.

The highlight for me was being invited to a political rally as there are soon regional elections. It was an eye-opener & really interesting day.

So here the whole project is organised by the community in a way that is beneficial to both parties.