Development Tourism: thinking out loud…

2 Jul


I can tell from the analytics on this site that this particular post has enjoyed a bump in popularity of late, mainly from pro-volunteer organizations and individuals. It’s important to read this post in the context of my other writing on this subject. It’s also important to understand that I in no way agree the international volunteerism is a good idea (MSF is an outlier and an exception in my opinion), nor do I condone the practice at all. International volunteerism amounts to bad aid, and in 2015 there’s no excuse for it.

This post is about “development tourism”–the practice of taking non-aid, non-development workers to visit programs/projects in-progress, in the field. While I see development tourism as mostly negative, at least as it is commonly carried out, I also see both some need for it, and also possibility for doing it well. See the post itself for this discussion.

My more recent thinking on the intersection of international volunteering and bad aid:

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There has been some very stimulating discussion on development tourism in the aid-work blogosphere lately (in case you missed it, see at least here and here). I want to contribute two things (one’s kind of long) to the overall conversation:

1) First, for the record: I have, at times against my better judgement, taken non-aid workers to see development projects of various kinds in action (some would call that “development tourism”) and seen extremely positive results come of it enough times that I am not willing to black-list the entire enterprise. Not just yet, anyway. I’m not saying that it’s all good. I’m not saying that it’s even mostly good. I am saying that there is some good in there. It’s not all black and white.

2) I think development tourism (and all of the other “ourisms” that subsume into it) needs closer scrutiny, more thought. Not so much analysis of specific projects or even development tourism or voluntourism organizations (although these analyses can be very illuminating and provide great case studies), but the subject more broadly. In particular, I think that through that scrutiny, we (all) need to consider at least the following:

Appropriate, structured cultural exchange can be a very positive thing. This, I think, is an important starting place. We all (I include myself) have a tendency at times to rail against those who don’t get around as much as we do. It’s easy to think ill of the rednecks in the state where I live for confusing Bangkok with Hong Kong. It’s also easy to sneer mentally at some of my non-aid-worker friends who tentatively, fearfully leave the hallowed shores of North America to brave the wilds of a vacation… at a resort… in Puerto Rico. We blame lack of having traveled and lack of awareness and understanding of international issues for everything from Third World Poverty to the fact the George W. Bush initiated the Iraq war. But then, when someone has the idea of taking some ordinary citizens from “here” and letting them see what it’s like “over there”, we’re very quick to pick them apart for that. And perhaps in some cases, rightly so. But we ourselves offer no alternatives.

It’s tough. We all want to be one-with-the-poor, riding in a not-white, not-Landcruiser vehicle out in a dusty village somewhere, eating cassava and having deep discussions with marginalized community members in the local language. What we don’t want to do is have to schlep some clueless, too-loud, sweating white people with a million annoying questions around the jungle or the desert. But still…

We need an accepted mechanism for exposing aid-work-outsiders. Our work is critical. It is (or should be) making a difference. NGOs and aid work are increasingly part of the general context, from the local to the regional and even at the global level. I think it’s important that people – our home-based constituents, if you will – have at least a rudimentary but also accurate view of what we do. We’ve all wanted to hurl at some of the saccharine-coated NGO promotional material out there. I don’t think any of my neighbors would have the first clue about how to find UN material on aid, or even how to understand what they were reading if they stumbled on it. Only two episodes in, and I’m already horrified at the message of this new show called “The Philanthropist” (Ruggedly handsome for-profit CEO with muscular black sidekick, pitches up in Lagos – or is it Yangon? – with a wad of cash and a can-do attitude, and in just a few short days sorts things out. Even if he has to ride a motorcycle barefoot through the jungle).

I confess – I don’t really want it to be my job. But we need a way to meaningfully and appropriately expose our work to our third audience: ordinary people in our home countries. I’m not saying development tourism is the answer. But it’s one possibility.

Everything is context-specific. There is no one-size-fits-all. This basic caveat (some might call it the ultimate cop-out) just has to be in the mix, whether we’re deciding generally whether development tourism is a good or bad thing, or we’re designing a specific project. What works in one place very possibly won’t work in another. Pepy Tours ( might be able to get away with sending gaggles of western women biking across Cambodia in tight shorts, but that would be asking for serious trouble in, say, Bangladesh.

Obviously it all has to be structured and handled in a way that does not objectify and demean beneficiaries, and that will necessarily mean that some projects in some places never ever ever get visited as part of development tourism. But again, I have personally seen enough instances where project beneficiaries were very happy – positively stoked, in fact – to receive as visitors “ordinary citizens” (their exact words – apparently I was not ordinary) from the USA and Australia, that I believe it’s possible to have such visits in ways that show respect to beneficiaries and that do not demean or objectify them. We need to look at what works, and then discover where and how it can be adapted.

Here, at least as much as in other areas of aid work, we will need to fight the urge to widely cut/paste replicate. Some regions probably lend themselves better to development tourism (or appropriate aid-work cultural exchange) than others. If I had to guess, I’d say Central/Latin America and Southeast Asia might be places to start, whereas the Middle East and Central Asia are probably places to avoid.

We need some common language for talking about this subject. Not that the aid industry needs more jargon or acronyms, but it seems that there is development tourism, and there is development tourism. We need to be able to make sense of things. I’ll throw some initial ideas out, here for the sake of discussion:

  • Development tourism: Any planned, structured activity that intentionally brings non-aid workers (those ordinary citizens) to visit development or relief activities for the purpose of learning or cultural exchange. This definition is meant to rule out the occasional stumbling onto a development project by a tourist (happens frequently in Asia.. don’t know about other regions). It also rules out visits to projects/programs by, say, HQ staff. This definition might include visits to programs by donors, board members or other constituents. In my view, this definition would include students studying abroad in development or relief contexts. By this definition it doesn’t matter who does the planning and structuring – could be an NGO, could be some entity in a host government, could be an educational institution, could be a travel/tour company.
  • Volunteer: (In the context of this discussion) somebody who participates somehow in the implementation of a development or aid project with neither the hope or promise of material compensation. This definition implies that the person actually does contribute in some way – they’re not just visiting for fun or to learn. A volunteer does (or should do) actual work. They just don’t get paid. At least not in money.

Others…? Please chime in.

We have to be honest and also transparent about motivations and expectations. I see this as possibly the most critical element in the whole development tourism discussion. Why would we do it? What outcome do we expect? I won’t be specific here, but those volunteer, voluntourism and development tourism ideas/projects/organizations that I personally have the biggest issues with are those that can’t seem to come to terms with their own motivations and expectations. In my own opinion, it is legitimate to have learning be an outcome. At the same time, I seriously question the extent to which development tourism or voluntourism or, if I’m honest, even straight volunteerism can legitimately be said add value to projects in the field. In most cases that I’ve personally encountered, the best case scenario is that the value add is intangible – a general sense of goodwill and interest in the project because of some strange foreigners who, for three weeks, managed to not offend anyone too terribly.

Further, in the area of expectation I actually believe that there’s an issue of responsibility to the development tourists or voluntourists: they should not be led to believe that they’re directly contributing anything other than cash to a development project on the ground. I’m willing to be persuaded, I suppose, but thus far I have not seen a model in action where the contribution of short-time visitors added real value. More often than not, they suck time and resources from a project, and reduce efficiency (despite sometimes strident claims to the contrary). All the more reason to be clear about motivations and expectations up front, for anyone contemplating some kind of development tourism program.

* * *

This is my thinking out loud. I hope this is somehow helpful to someone, even if only to stimulate other discussion.

I welcome comments, feedback, flat disagreement…

If you have not done so, I recommend that you read at least the following strings:

On Good Intentions Are Not Enough

On AidWatch

19 Responses to “Development Tourism: thinking out loud…”

  1. Daniela Papi 2 July, 2009 at 8:47 pm #

    I very much agree with your final paragraph: “voluntourists… should not be led to believe that they’re directly contributing anything other than cash to a development project on the ground.” The fact that many voluntourism and even longer term “volunteer” projects, marketed as ways for people to aid the aid industry DON’T include financial contributions when they often suck resources from the groups they are meant to serve drives me nuts. We make it clear to those who travel with us at PEPY that the impact they are having will come after they leave: 1) with the funds they are donating to the projects as part of the trip fee and hopefully donations in future years as well as 2) the impact they will have on the world when they change how they travel, give, and teach others about their experiences in the future. Changes do not come because people worked with a community to paint a mural about not drinking unclean water from a pump. Changes come from community members working together to do research about clean water and educating each other about the ways they can stay healthy, and the foreigners who painted the mural with them can fund that.

    We didn’t always make that clear on our tours. In fact, in our first year(s?) of tours we patted ourselves and each other on the backs for our part in “changing peoples lives”. Now, if I hear people say that at the end of one of our tours I cringe and realize we haven’t made the most of our nightly readings/discussions on that trip (unless of course they are referring to changes in their OWN lives, which is usually the case and the best goal we can hope for). We used to have people complain that they didn’t get to build, dig, make, help, give, or serve enough. Now we make it clear from day one that their value add is in the funds they provide and the lessons THEY learn, and their post-tour feedback usually says they “wish they could have gotten involved in the projects more but recognize that we wouldn’t have added much value.” and that they will “continue to travel and give differently in the future because of what we have learned.” Success is no longer tracked by how much we “accomplished” on our tours, but how much people learned during their time with us and the support generated for the ongoing projects designed, not to be run by visiting tourists, but by local community members with long-term investments in the results of their work.

    Thanks for adding the discussion!

    PS – I enjoyed picturing the idea of “gaggles of western women in tight shorts” here at PEPY. Makes me more aware that we need to change the image that we project – which I know we need to change in an updated website, avoiding skewed press written about us etc. We had only one bike tour last year, we ask people to cover up when not riding, and I’m not sure how many a gaggle is, but I think we’d be lucky if we got near that many people to come join us😉 But I appreciate the thoughts and do very much agree that what works in one place will not work exactly the same in another, even in the same country. Thanks for sharing this – I enjoyed reading!

    • J. 2 July, 2009 at 9:27 pm #

      Daniela – thanks for reading and for your comment. Good to hear your perspective🙂 I may be motivated to write additional posts on this subject.

      By the way, the “gaggle of western women” was not meant to sound or to be critical (just trying to be funny).


  2. Daniela Papi 2 July, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    No worries, I didn’t take it as such🙂 And yes, please do write more on this. I’d be interested to read more – but I think my pile of real work would prefer if I hadn’t spent the whole evening reading development tourism thoughts! Ha! Back to it….

  3. Saundra 6 July, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    I very much like what you said about not objectifying the aid recipients or turning them into cultural curiosity pieces. There is a need to understand their situation and needs, but it should be done in such a way that they are treated as real human beings with their own abilities and values, and they need to be really heard, not just looked at. But it also needs to be done in such a way that it benefits them, imagine having to take time every week to explain your situation to a foreigner without ever receiving any benefits from all your time and work.

    I also really agree with you on both the fact that volunteering should be done over a long period of time to have any value, and that motivations as to why people are volunteering are key. If we truly understood and admitted our motives, we might choose different avenues for meeting our personal needs.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.


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