The first time I came in contact with volunteer tourism, I was staying with my family in Swaziland. A company there had paying volunteers and I got to know one of them very well. Her name was Lucy and she was from Georgia, 'Muhrica. She had a thick Southern drawl and entertained the political belief that certain people in America just 'popped one' out to live off child support. How this girl ended up in Swaziland 'helping Africa' is something that I haven't figured out to this day, nor why I was attracted to her. But these two inexplainable facts combined gave me an unfiltered insight into the world of commercial volunteering, and it hasn't stopped amazing me until this day.
Even though most will intuitively think that international volunteering is an act of charity, the largest chunk of it world wide is facilitated by companies who pay out profits to their owners. Of the money that volunteers pay, considerable chunks don't make it into the destination country and very little ends up with the charities where the volunteer finds themselves. Sometimes the work the volunteer does is useful and based on his special skills, sometimes the volunteer is simply deployed somewhere to stay out of harm's way, and sprinkled with a feeling of usefulness, entirely transactional.
Why would it be bad that volunteers are wrongfully given the idea that they are 'saving Africa'? For one, it gives people who are born with a geographical advantage a gratuitous feeling based on their relationship to another part of the world. Secondly, it gives people the idea that they are actually solving problems that are very real.
And this brings us to the other side of the problem: the gullability of the European and North-American do-gooders. Moved by laudable doses of idealism, volunteers are too often willing to believe that, like themselves, the world is concerned about the plight of the needy.
Lucy told me that she and her covolunteers were asked to put up fences in a game park, staying out in the middle of nowhere. One could claim that they were taking the jobs of locals who, no skills needed, could have managed the task. But she was also asked to help with a game count, about which my cousin remarked: "Ah! They're off to count the 13 rhinos again!" Useless as it was, that activity seemed solely included to make the experience for the paying customer a more memorable one. In the meantime, the owner of the company drove a very big car.
When I had to pick a topic for my master's thesis in 2009, I looked in depth, during a 6-month period of field work, into the world of South African voluntourism. But as these things go, the 132-page monster that I wrote, landed on a shelf somewhere and I would be seriously flabbergasted if anyone outside my thesis supervisor has ever read the thing.
Durring my past years as media studies lecturer at the University of Amsterdam I kept pursuing the matter as a research interest, and have rewritten my PhD proposal a handful of times, not finding any department happy to fund the research that covers so many disciplines at the same time: digital media, tourism, development theory, postcolonial studies, anthropology and history, to name but a few. In the meantime, when mentioning my subject, people would always tell me: "But that is such an interesting topic!"
I finally happened to change direction when my friend Kuba, producer and film maker, asked me if I'd like to turn the story into a documentary. We set out in several different directions – scripting, applying for funds, etc. – until we decided to take the plunge. In early 2014 we started fliming the Dutch industry side of things. But the paradigm change that actually brought us to the film we're currently making, only happened during the European summer of 2014.
Over the years that I have been researching voluntourism, the running gag has been that I should apply my knowledge, start a volunteer company and get rich. Kuba and I had joked before that we should rally up our own army of volunteers, not only to pay for our trip to South Africa, but also to have them make our movie for us. We'd laugh about the crassness of the proposition, branded ourselves as horrible people for even coming up with the idea, and leave the matter. But then, one afternoon, it clicked. We realised that if we were completely open about our intentions, there would be no ethical concerns towards our volunteers. Whether it was possible to find these volunteers, we didn't know. But what we did know was that we had created a situation in which we could not lose: we would film ourselves setting up a volunteer organisation. If we managed, we would have a volunteer organisation. If we'd fail to find our volunteers, we'd have a wonderful movie about desparation and disillusionment.
And thus, I am currently awaiting the arrival of my 12 paying volunteers from the Netherlands. We will teach them how to film and edit and they will portray the volunteer industry for us. We film the whole thing for our documentary. Will we be able to change the volunteer industry? My hopes have slightly increased. The discussion in the Dutch press about voluntourism has picked up. The argument might still be phrased in simplistic terms, but this is where our material can provide. We expect to show a caleidoscope of stories from the Capetonian volunteer industry. Good, bad and ugly. Through these stories we can offer potential volunteers the instruments to assess volunteer organizations' legitimacy and their own skills and motives. And with more critical customers, we expect that the industry can do nothing but follow suit, and become more transparent and accountable.
I have no idea where Lucy is at the moment, or what she is doing. I seriously doubt whether I'd still like her if I were to meet her now. But if I would bump into her somewhere, she could count on a big thank you, since it is because of her that I'm doing what I love today.
Reinier Vriend is co-founder and president of the Volunteer Correct Foundation, a non-profit organisation promoting transparency in international volunteering through research based media production. He is also co-director of the documentary film "Making a Difference", that is due to premiere May. In February he was in Cape Town, South Africa, for Volunteer Correct's first project, "Project Cape Town". The articles and videos made during Project Cape Town can be found on volunteercorrect.org. To stay updated, find them on facebook.com/volunteercorrect.