Voluntourism Debate, Cambodian Orphanages, & The Need for Better Standards and Data

Al Jazeera’s The Stream recently profiled a People and Power documentary on the so-called voluntourism industry with a new expose-style piece on Cambodian orphanages. The thirty-minute clip (below) raises several important questions and begs for tighter focus and analysis.

Watching the profile reminded me of the relatively loose terminology too common within today’s international volunteerism, study abroad, and service-learning. Development practitioner and blogger Aaron Ausland has worked to add some focus to the numerous related terms with his posts Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance and Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0.

While there are incredibly important moral and ethical issues at stake here, I was struck by the relatively loose analysis exhibited in the profile. The clip exhibiting the possibility of removing a child from an orphanage without significant vetting, for example, is a concern whether the individuals involved are engaged in international service, are working with an international service nonprofit or company, or are locals. As recently asserted at View from the Cave, this voluntourism debate is too heavily dependent on theoretical discussion and anecdote.

The conversation calls attention to the importance of emerging standards of best practice and sector-wide principles for ethical international service. Examples include the Principles and Practices of the International Volunteer Programs Association and Amizade’s model of Fair Trade Learning. Beyond principles, more study is needed. The domestic service-learning field has benefited from several years of focused study by academics cooperating with community organizations.

The strongest study on the effects of domestic service-learning for community organizations is Stoecker and Tryon’s 2009 The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. That study demonstrates: community organizations partner for numerous and diverse reasons (not only to simply ‘get’ volunteer hours or development assistance); community organizations are largely pleased with service-learning partnerships; and frustrations stem from poor communication and particularly short-term or one-off service experiences.

The Stoecker and Tryon study is comprehensive and includes clear best practice suggestions. (For academics partnering with community organizations, Stoecker’s 1999 Are Academics Irrelevant? is also a helpful article). Additionally, this exploratory study on short-term, immersive, Jewish service-learning and alternative breaks suggests these programs have long-term positive effects on host communities. Several doctoral students (I know of individuals at Temple University, the University of Maryland, and Penn State University) are currently completing dissertations relating to the community effects of global service-learning.

I’ll be posting a good deal about this theme through the year to come. Through Prescott College, I’m leading a doctoral seminar in the fall on the topic of Fair Trade Learning. We will be exploring and cataloging existing models for doing this work and developing rubrics for evaluation and research. We will also engage in several discrete, related research projects during the term that follows. I’m looking forward to this extended and increasingly deep inquiry and would greatly appreciate additional resources, questions or comments.

Eric Hartman is a co-founder of this site, an independent consultant, and a university educator. During the coming year he will be leading a doctoral seminar on Fair Trade Learning for Prescott College and a graduate course on Urban Education for Temple University.

This entry was posted in Community Effects, Global Service-Learning, International Service-Learning, Power and Privilege, Volunteer Vacations. Bookmark the permalink.

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