Back to university today? Beware the flashy voluntourism brochures promising a chance to save the world, writes AUT lecturer Daniel Crouch.
It was my first day as a lecturer, February 2018, and I was feeling pretty nervous as students filed in. Just before the nine o’clock start, a young woman approached me at the front of the room and greeted me with a handshake and a “Daniel, right?” She asked if she could make a quick announcement about volunteering opportunities for my students. I welcomed the students in, and handed the floor to her. Then I stood by, dumbfounded, as she offered the students the chance to work in an orphanage and go white-water rafting in Cambodia, or build a well and paraglide over the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. She wasn’t a colleague – she was there to pitch voluntourism packages for a private company, and she was doing it from the front of the lecture hall.
Voluntourism is a relatively recent phenomenon. It involves packaged tours in low-income countries. These packages contain short stints of volunteering, such as working in schools, or orphanages, and perhaps building particular projects. In addition to short volunteering stints, voluntourists also get stuck in to more traditional tourist activities. Many of those who sign up for voluntouring will raise funds to meet the cost of these packages, which are sold by New Zealand operators as an opportunity to ‘impact your world’, and ‘educate the next generation’. What could be wrong with that?
Well, a few things actually. Spending upwards of $7,000 for five-day trips are unlikely to carry a positive impact for the impoverished brown faces carted out to entertain the voluntourist. It most definitely will not educate a generation. In fact, voluntourism is an industry which turns the world’s most vulnerable populations into tourist attractions. Worse, as these vulnerable populations become points of profit for voluntourism companies, the industry requires that the vulnerable populations being visited remain in their conditions of vulnerability. And it’s a very profitable industry – while hard to pin down an actual figure, 2017 estimates of the sector indicate US$2.6 billion per annum.
This isn’t new information. Here on The Spinoff, Hannah Reid has shared her own experiences of voluntourism, and rightly points out that in order to bring about lasting change volunteers will need more than simply a ‘dash of enthusiasm’.
To be clear, AUT is not the only university being targeted by voluntourism operators. Pamphlet drops and information sessions are happening at other universities every year too. It took me years to complete a PhD at The University of Auckland, and those pamphlets turned up every February. Universities are constantly being targeted by recruiters vying for access to our students. On the whole, our universities are pretty good at turning them away. However, not only are voluntourism companies presenting from the front of lecture halls, students have received voluntourism product information to their email addresses forwarded on by university staff. Why is this?
At the start of my second year as a lecturer, I got in touch with several people in an attempt to work out how we were allowing such access to students and, more importantly, how we were ensuring that AUT wasn’t endorsing an industry so closely related to the exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable people. I was eventually told by AUT that these companies are being booked as commercial clients.
In spite of an intent to limit the interaction between corporate clients, such as political parties, and university students, voluntourism operators have enjoyed spectacular access to students without any apparent oversight. I’m sad to say that after nearly a year of communication back and forth with various people here at AUT, I’ve not seen any consequential movement to restrict access to students by voluntourism operators.
And so another year starts, and some flash pamphlets promising a chance to save the world and pet a cheetah are going to find their way back into our universities. And recruiters for an industry built on exploitation are going to turn up in your lecture halls. Just remember this. Children aren’t tourist attractions. Go on holiday. Or go volunteer with a real and reputable aid organisation whose whole point is to work itself out of a job. Don’t mix the two.
And always question what you hear from the front of a lecture hall.