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Changing the Focus

  Recent months have seen increasingly negative articles on voluntourism being published in media around the world. The focus has predominantly been on the commercialization of poverty and the negative affects that untrained volunteers can have on vulnerable institutions such as orphanages. Many of the points that have been raised are most certainly valid – but does this mean that voluntourism has no chance of doing good? The number of voluntourism companies has steadily been increasing around the world. The gap year boom started in the mid 1990’s, and between 1997 and 2005, was one of the fastest growing forms of tourism in the world: Millions of people now take voluntourism holidays each year. The motives for organisations to enter this industry range from total commercial gain to total giving back.  Some organisations pride themselves on the balance in the middle, or what is considered a combination of both charity and business.   Due to its immaturity and surge in popularity in a relatively short space of time, the governance of this industry is lacking behind many other sectors of Tourism or non-profit organisations. There are several associations such as the WISE Volunteer and Work Group, The Building Bridges Coalition, and The Year Out Group, but they are all either focused to a region or sub sector of voluntourism, meaning that there is no overall official authority covering the whole industry.   With the rapid unregulated increase in voluntourism, the degree of difference in all aspects of this industry is vast. Voluntourism is generally spilt in to two levels of quality: the service that a volunteer gets, and the level of impact that the volunteer provides to the conservation or community project of which they are serving. It is easy to assess the level of service a volunteer gets; however, the level of impact that a volunteer or a volunteer organization make, is not so easy to establish. This is nothing new. NGO and charities all over the world are still very much in debate on how to evaluate and asses there impact on the areas in which they work. Like voluntourism, non-profit organisations have many different people with many different motives and many different outcomes. You can also say the same for business: many provide negative impacts to the world, but many provide positive impacts!   Non-profit work has - and often does - fail on massive levels. People and Organisations with good intentions can have extremely negative effects. For instance, flooding local markets with imported gifts such as clothing, shoes and food, to imposing ‘Western’ policies, procedures and rational without even considering local customs or culture. Worst of all, spending or giving money inappropriately: to the corrupt governments that many third world or developing countries are living under.   Like Voluntourism, non-profit organisations use the causes that they support to market themselves. How many adverts of starving children have you seen on TV? Yet this is not specific to the volunteering and non-profit industry. Businesses in general are increasingly being forced to think more responsibly. Corporate social responsibility departments are now as common-place as HR departments in multi national companies, with businesses modeling themselves on being ‘responsible and green’. Again, the range of efforts made in the corporate or business community is vastly different. Some business initiatives can be all for show and achieve nothing; some can truly change lives and be a bigger help than any charity or government.   The voluntourism industry is often seen as the good side of business but the bad side of charity. They are businesses with a moral backbone but their charity work lacks authority, purity and proper evaluation. Voluntourism sits on the fence, straddled between Business and Charity. Some Voluntourism organisations are non-profit and some are indeed profit-making (occasionally working alongside their own charity or non-profit trust). However, whether for profit or not does not define their ability to make a positive impact or not. Like Charity and Business, there are responsible operators and there are irresponsible operators. The challenge for this industry is to quickly regulate itself to recognize the success stories, educating others on how to make Voluntourism the positive force that it can be. Claiming that Voluntourism is entirely negative is the equivalent of non-profit organisations declaring that Business can't help improve poverty, or Governments saying that Charity is not important. It is easy to find the bad in all areas, and just as easy to shout about it, but the challenge for everyone is to find out what does help, and to discover ways that we can help each other.   ... To join in the debate, leave us a comment and let us know what you think.   For more information on ourUK-registered charity - The Happy Africa Foundation - please click here

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