I can’t believe it is nearly nine years since I travelled to Kenya with Dr. Cheryl Mvula, to write about the extraordinary work that she had been doing with Maasai communities in Kenya’s Masai Mara. I had only started writing really, following completion of my MSc in Responsible Tourism Management. But the people I met and places I visited on that trip of a lifetime were not only the greatest reward for my studies but also the greatest reminder that giving voice to people who deserve it was what I wanted to do most in the world.
In that article I wrote mostly about the Maasai people themselves who had worked so hard to combat some of the most unethical aspects of tourism in their homelands. Today I want to write about Cheryl who helped facilitate that change for the Maasai people, something that she does with both skill and sensitivity. Cheryl is a responsible tourism consultant with Tribal Voice Communications, a wildlife conservationist, anthropologist and all round feisty woman who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to good practice in tourism. And she has also been awarded an MBE in the 2017 Queen’s New Year Honours list, for these services to responsible tourism, community development and conservation in Africa. Over the years, she has worked in partnership with a number of impressive NGO’s such as the Born Free Foundation, Travel Foundation, Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), the Kenya Association of Tour Operators, Mara Conservancy and the Zambia Wildlife Authority. I am also a huge fan of (but pathetically tiny donor to) her charity, High Five Club through which Cheryl tirelessly offers her time to impoverished African rural communities living in wildlife areas, through a hand up rather than handouts approach. Do check it out if you want a transparent and transforming charity to support for just a fiver a month that helps reduce poverty in African countries in a sustainable way.
I also want to give a mention Manny Mvula, Cheryl’s husband who is Zambian, works alongside Cheryl on many projects, is one Africa’s top safari guides, a wildlife conservationist in his own right and a field trip leader. He regularly makes trips back to Zambia to work on wildlife conservation and community development projects in the Luangwa Valley, the area in which he was born and raised. It was he who proudly contacted me to share the news about Cheryl’s honour. And proud he should be.
One person who would also be rightly proud is Ben Rramet, one of the Maasai villagers who worked closely with Cheryl in turning their tourism experience from a frustrating into a fulfilling one. I met Ben on my trip there, and was honoured to host him in my home a year later when he came to England for the first time to talk about his work to other tourism operators at a conference. My children were both in awe of him and inspired by him. He came and spoke at their school, and indeed he taught us all so much and left us with so many fond memories. Sadly, he died a young man, just a few years ago, and I am certain that Cheryl will be dedicating this honour to his memory. Because that is the sort of woman she is and pretty much sums up the wonderful way in which she works.
I remember challenging a friend of mine when she put a post on Facebook a few years ago about how proud she was that her twin 16 year old boys were going to help build an orphanage in Uganda for a month during their school holidays. They were trying to fundraise for the trip, thus the Facebook post, the target amount being £4000. Or £8000 for twins. With photos of Ugandan children being hugged by 17 year old Londoners just to get the message to really hit home, at first glance I thought they were raising money to help fund the orphanage. But it didn’t take long to realise that they were actually fundraising to pay for a holiday. A four week holiday in Uganda, ten days of which was to be spent helping paint a wall or two, giving an English class and playing football with local children, the rest was on safari, with six beach “chill out” days and, if we wanted to ‘fund raise’ for the optional extras, getting their PADI course and summiting Mount Kenya. So, I chose not to ‘like’ and, in addition, made that ultimate faux pas of questioning it. Which, needless to say, didn’t go down well with the mum.
My friend’s main argument was, at the end of the day, this was a fantastic experience for her boys. I couldn’t argue with that one. And that the trip would, according to the travel company that sold the holiday through the school, get them 70 UCAS points (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) for their university applications. I bit my lip, until recently, as my own son’s year group is about to be sold the same shenanigans. I am glad to say that he is old enough to agree with my challenges, as below, which still remain the same. If you agree with them, I ask that you spread the word to geography, science or heads of year teachers who are somehow buying into the notion that these are ethical holidays that make a difference to those on the ground, but also to other parents who might be considering handing over thousands of pounds. The choice is theirs of course, but perhaps just think outside the box a little before starting the cake sales:
How can it possibly benefit a small community in Uganda (or many other places that have projects waiting for 17 year olds to fix) having school children paint their walls, play football with the children and so on, when there are expert NGO’s there already working round the clock to break the poverty cycle? As well as, in many cases, expert local and international adultwho are qualified to do the job. Or could be trained by experts to do so.
Would you want a group of unknown seventeen year olds coming into town to take over your children’s education and building projects without any sort of vetting or professional expertise? And then be hugged by them to be spread all over Instagram, #volunteer #love #awesome
Why are young people put under huge pressure to ‘fundraise’ for something that isn’t a charity? These are profit making holiday companies that throw a bit of community work into the package because ‘doing good’ sells.
Why would UCAS favour young people who have paid £4000 for some UCAS points? (see more below, but quick answer is – they don’t)
Mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed
What stands out for me, however, in the case of volunteering holidays that are being targeted at school children is that young people are being mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed. Mis-sold because the reality is that these aren’t ‘do good’ volunteering trips that are all about charity. They are holidays. With companies making a lot of profit out of them. Give even half of your fundraising directly to a grass roots charity on the ground, and see what they can do with it. They would build a lot more than a wall, or paint a classroom. Mis-treated, because education is competitive enough at 17, without young people being pressurized to raise £4000 to keep up with their friends. And mis-informed because these trips do NOT guarantee extra points towards university. In fact, having just embarked on our UCAS journey and university open days ourselves, not one of them said ‘you know what, go and build a wall in Africa for £4000, and the deal is sealed.’ What they do suggest, is get involved in your own local community, political or social justice groups – now that would be interesting. Oh, and study.
The UCAS point of view
To clarify, I spoke with UCAS about this issue of volunteering holidays being a way to gain university points. Ben Jordan, Senior Policy Executive at UCAS:
“Volunteering holidays in themselves do not attract UCAS Tariff points. However, some volunteering programmes may offer an accredited qualification as part of it. For example the ASDAN award is an accredited Level 3 qualification that can be delivered through such programmes. But, far away volunteering breaks aren’t the only way to achieve such a qualification and they can be delivered more locally. It’s important to remember that although the above qualifications are recognised in skills development by some, not all universities will accept them as suitable for entry and not all institutions use the UCAS Tariff points system. Therefore it’s vital that students research the claims of such programmes properly and look into the requirements of the universities and courses they’re interested in.
What anyone applying to study should be aware of, is that universities take a wide range of factors into consideration when recruiting students. This includes grades, relevant experiences relating to their chosen course and their personal statement. Universities are also aware that it won’t be possible for all people to engage with such volunteering programmes, therefore no learner would be disadvantaged by not attending.”
The children who don’t have a choice
Most importantly, however, in this debate is that children being sold these holidays have a choice whether to go or not. The children who don’t have a choice are those in the destinations where our seventeen year olds are going to spend time. And this is where the companies that promote themselves as selling ethical school expeditions must really be held to account. Do they adhere to strict responsible tourism guidelines when it comes to working with young school children abroad? What child protection policies do they have in place? Do they seek qualifications or at least some experience from those people paying to volunteer if they are going to be teaching or caring for young people abroad? I contacted various expedition companies that target pre university young people to get their feedback on this subject, and to get more details on their ethical policies. One example is Frontier – One of their projects is to work in a Cambodian orphanage, where on a two week volunteering holiday kids can “help take care of them (orphans) and give them the vital education they need for a better future.”, the highlights of the trip being, “Teach and care for fun-loving, orphaned children, earn your TEFL certificate absolutely free and assist in the operational running of the orphanage centre.” At date of publication, I had no reply or feedback from Frontier. I am not a lone voice in this belief, however, with a lot of experts trying to get the message across about how volunteering in orphanages can actually have a damaging impact on children and their communities – despite whatever good intentions are involved. See Save the Children’s excellent advice on the subject as well as responsibletravel.com.
Ethical volunteering guidelines are a must
For a truly ethical volunteering holiday, ethical guidelines must be followed. You can see examples of these here on responsibletravel.com. In my view, a truly ethical volunteering holiday will place the needs of a community first. And although I know my seventeen year old would do his bit if he went to Uganda, I also know that he will not be making real difference to a child’s life there. Nor will he make a big difference to his university application.
My main hope with this blog is to spread the word among schools and school parents. Please question these £4000 trips. Demand transparency when you go to the sales talks. How much profit is being made from these trips? Can schools really justify this concept of ‘fund raising’ which is no more than a profit making exercise? Teachers and parents should question if they would want unqualified, unvetted people coming into their children’s school when they were four years old. They should ask the volunteering holiday companies about the details of their projects. How many walls are being built? When was the last wall built? Are there no builders that can be employed in Uganda or Peru? And, most importantly, and controversially, will the company vet and police check their children before going out there? Oh, and please post this on Facebook.
What can you do to help?
1) Please share this article with your friends, family, teachers and colleagues on the hashtag and, in particular with regards to the orphanages issue, use #StopOrphanTrips.
2) Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips too
3) If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign.
At the last view, 415 people had watched the debate which took place at the World Travel Market in London in November 2012 on volunteering tourism on YouTube. Not exactly viral. However, if you are one of the million people who are thinking about using your valuable holiday time and money to volunteer next year, I highly recommend taking an hour of your time to watch this panel discussion about one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism which, to date, is still unregulated. Also, you could then prove one major player in the industry wrong. Richard Oliver, Chief Executive of Year Out Group, an association of leading gap year providers, responsible for sending 24000 young people abroad during 2011, claims that ‘For the volunteer, research and planning is essential …. and I have to say that young people don’t do it very well…. I am routinely disappointed that parents don’t get involved at least to take a discreet interest in what their children are doing…when things go wrong, parents are the first to jump on the bandwagon’ .
Year Out Group does not organise volunteering tours per se. They represent other organisations which do, and there is indeed a wealth of information on their site for volunteers to sift through, including a long list of questions that you should ask a gap year or volunteering holiday provider in order to get a clear picture of the work you will be getting involved with. There is also a Code of Conduct and Year Out Group’s members must ‘provide annual confirmation that they continue to meet these criteria’.
The criteria which volunteering holidays must meet in order to feature on Year Out Group’s site include guarantees on financial security for their clients, accurate websites and literature, professional support and welfare which ensure that all programmes are vetted and monitored by member organisations and that security and safety procedures are in place (all of which are basic legal requirements anyway, surely?). As well as this, member organisations agree to adhere to ethical considerations, albeit down at the lower end of the Code’s List of priorities. These include protecting the environment, respecting local culture, benefitting local communities, conserving natural resources and monitoring pollution.
All great on paper, but with no actual obligatory regulation, bar the British Safety Standard BS8848 for group activities which may not apply to certain volunteering holidays anyway, the thing which ‘routinely disappointed’ me was not the fact that parents didn’t do their job, but that Year Out Group which represents all these volunteering holidays doesn’t do thorough checks on their babies. According to Oliver, “Ethical issues are important but with so many activities in so many countries it has not been possible for Year Out Group to audit and we therefore do require the individual volunteer to do a considerable amount of research and planning for themselves to check out the organisation and to check out the individual project”.
Oliver goes on to emphasise that the young internet generation is only interested in “instant response”, and “this doesn’t work for international volunteering” and that as a result these volunteers are, again, ‘routinely disappointed’ and that ‘the provider is disappointed too because they’d like to be able to help but can’t’. And yet, somehow it is acceptable for volunteering associations, of which there must be many around the world at this stage, to use the internet to promote thousands of volunteering opportunities, so many in fact that they don’t have time to audit and who claim that the best auditors are the volunteers. But hey, when in doubt – blame the parents.
Another of the key speakers, Paul Miedema of Calabash Tours, an organisation working in urban townships of the slums of Port Elizabeth in South Africa does not blame the parents however. He goes to the core of the matter by waking tourists and tourism providers up to his reality saying, “I am pretty annoyed at some of the volunteer tourism practices taking place…it seems to be the belief that we can be the play thing of people that come from the north and come and play with us in the south, have a wonderful experience and go home…. some of us are then left to pick up the pieces”. As Miedema points out, it is a lot more complex than that, and with a big boom in volunteering tourism happening worldwide at the moment “everyone is scrambling around looking around for projects, because that is what they need to sell’. He stresses the need for well-structured community centred volunteer experiences with deep insight into the local context, adding “We need to go about it the other way round, in my view. What are the needs of the local people is the starting point” and stresses that volunteering holidays “are not about selling a beach package. A lot of the work I do is about bringing people to people….creating a shared humanity’.
There is a clear contrast in outlooks here. Year Out Group is very volunteer centred, emphasising the CV credits that a young person gets for volunteering, assuring parents on their website that “Volunteering in a community overseas helps to develop valuable life skills, which can set young people apart when applying for universities and jobs” and which “enable young people to develop their soft skills, broaden their education and develop a wider perspective on life.” Whereas Miedema talks about Calabash’s process with much more of a community focus although not denying the importance of volunteer safety; “It is our responsibility to educate the communities about what the potential risks of this are, so that they can agree to do this as a community. What are the rights of children or vulnerable adults within these communities?”
Miedema also points out that in October 2012 a US volunteering organisation Peace Corps volunteer was imprisoned for fifteen years for sexually abusing children in an AIDS centre for pre-school age children in South Africa. “This is happening more than we want to admit”, says Calabash, “ It is our dirty little secret and it’s time we open that up and talk about it and talk honestly about that, and talk about the risk to volunteers but also to the communities”. And with a passioned plea, Miedema sums up by saying “Too much of what I see around me benefits only the volunteer… If you can’t do it in your own country, why do you come and do it in mine? If you are eighteen years old can you teach English here in a class? Can you work with children here in England without a CRB screening? Why do you want to do it in my country? Just because we are vulnerable? Just because we are in need? If you can’t do it at home, I don’t want you to come and do it with us.”
And so with a growth sector comes grave concerns. Sallie Grayson, co-founder of UK organisation People and Places, which was awarded the Best Volunteering Company at the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards in 2009, is equally frustrated with the desperate need for change in the industry, saying that ‘The big boys need to stand up and take responsibility of what is going on in the volunteering market” in her presentation. People and Places’ rules are simple and clear when it comes to volunteering holidays : They take their time to match volunteer skills with specific community led projects and these are always projects which already exist, and are not volunteer dependent; they carry out criminal record checks and work closely with all their project providers in situ to ensure that the volunteer role is genuinely necessary; they guarantee to her volunteers that their role is not simply a money making exercise which may, in the worst scenario, put a local person out of a job and, they are totally transparent about the percentage of the volunteer’s money which ends up in the community. And so consequently, she has serious doubts about volunteering organisations which offer discounted, last minute trips due to the fact that serious project and volunteer liaison is simply not possible in such a short time.
There has been no major expose of the volunteering industry within the media to date, with the exception of a superb documentary People and Power: Cambodia’s Orphans Business by Al Jazeera on child trafficking in Cambodia in May 2012 (see below). You can watch this on You Tube too, and interestingly it has had over 30,000 hits so far, although considering the fact that it exposes the vast profits being made by US volunteering organisation Projects Abroad, as well as its shabby practices in terms of fundamental child protection, informed consent in the community, transparency and project supervision, this film should be viral by now. But nothing is viral yet in volunteering tourism yet, it would seem, as so much of what really goes on is being kept under wraps. It is time to get the message spreading, volunteers speaking about their experiences, governments reacting and acting, and the media talking. That way, we can get the responsible volunteering message viral, and in so doing, stop the industry from becoming totally parasitic.