A few months ago I wrote a blog about voluntourism which explained why I feel the overseas volunteer industry isn’t doing enough to ensure volunteer projects make a positive difference to the fight against poverty. Too often projects are orientated towards the needs and interests of the volunteer rather than those of the community they are placed in.
So I was interested to read about the rise of NGO package tours in the Guardian recently, where donors are given tailored trips to see the effects of their contribution in action. They get to meet the local communities where the projects they fund are based and see for themselves the difference being made.
Now, poverty and tourism seems like a strange combination to me. Anyone who has travelled in a developing country will have probably seen the slum tours or the day trips to orphanages on offer to tourists. These trips are usually based in communities close by to tourist hubs such as capital cities, and they will receive a daily parade of gawking tourists.
For example when I was travelling in India last year a popular excursion was the ‘Mumbai slum tour’ – where you basically go for a guided walk around a community living in extreme poverty to ‘experience’ how horrible the conditions are and try to get a picture of kids that look like the ones from Slumdog Millionaire. It didn’t really appeal to me but during our travels we were certainly confronted with poverty in other places in India. Seeing this first hand has given me a much richer understanding of the reality of extreme poverty and I think the experience means I am more likely to donate to a charity working in India, especially in any of the local communities I travelled in, as I feel a connection to those projects.
So the idea of NGOs setting up package holidays where their donors are able to go and visit the local communities they work in doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me - if it's done appropriately. The trip would hopefully create a long term commitment and enthusiasm in the donors, and they would no doubt spread the word to their friends and family when they get home.
We also have a problem with the public’s perceptions of poverty and aid at the moment. The marketing that many NGOs have been using to fundraise for the last 30 years has unintentionally created stereotypes of helpless poor people and the idea that aid is changing nothing. A trip which puts donors into these communities so they can see first-hand the dignity and agency of the people that live there could go some way to addressing this.
These NGO organised trips also tend to visit remoter communities not usually visited by tourists and the visits are infrequent – meaning they are not turned into a tourist attraction being wheeled out each week for the visitors. I would also hope that an NGO organised trip, as opposed to something a tourist organised by themselves, could be more targeted and responsibly planned so that the money tourists spend while they are there goes to local businesses.
Some of the packages seemed to include some kind of volunteering in two week trips (build a school, teach the kids etc.). As I’ve written before, I don’t think short term unskilled volunteering has a positive effect on poverty and local communities. But an awareness raising trip in which donors are given exposure to the communities they are already connected with through their giving, allowing them to gain an understanding of those communities and wider country which is three dimensional rather than based on stereotypes and preconceptions, could have a very positive effect in the long term.
What do you think?