The Value of Voluntourism: Interview with Stephen Greenwood

Stephen Greenwood

Stephen Greenwood in Tanzania. Photo by stephengreenwood.

In a time when voluntourism – the act of travelling to volunteer, or volunteering to travel – is becoming big business, there is one question I keep coming back to: Does voluntourism help the people who are supposedly being served, or is it primarily for the benefit of the volunteer?

It’s the question I asked Brian Hermon about his volunteer work in Ghana; and it’s the same question I asked Chris Guillebeau, who also volunteered for a time in Africa.

And now Stephen Greenwood. Last year, Stephen spent five months living in Tanzania, shooting footage for a documentary and film about an orphanage in Arusha, a city in northern Tanzania. His blog, Observations, is a treasure chest of insightful snippets, beautiful photos and probing questions. After spending an afternoon browsing through, I asked Stephen to share more about his experiences in Tanzania.

What were you doing in Tanzania?

Half of the time that systematic international aid is distributed, it doesn’t end up in the right places.

I was living in Tanzania for 5 months, doing various documentary video work with Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in the Arusha area.

After graduating from university in June, I received an invitation from a classmate, to go to Tanzania. Our job was to shoot video for a nonprofit that began construction on an orphanage in July. We lived at that site and covered the day-to-day operations for them to use as promotional material, and ended up shooting what we hope to be a feature length documentary on a related subject.

When you first came to Tanzania, what were you hoping to achieve?

As a volunteer, I didn’t really have many expectations or much knowledge about foreign aid work before my arrival, but I was eager to learn about it through experience. I went into it with an open mind, hoping to meet and interact with as many people as we could along the way.

As a photojournalist (and I think this is true for any journalists that travel) – I wanted to meet as many people as possible, and carry their stories with me to share with the rest of the world. I think we were able to do that and I hope that we do get the chance to share some of those stories through the documentary that we are now editing.

You shared the heartbreaking story of Amina and her 3-year old daughter Shamin, both of whom have been infected with the AIDS virus. How have experiences like that affected your world view?

It’s hard, because that was the first time I’d come face to face with this epidemic that we hear about so much in the media. I had a good friend that tried desperately to help Amina by placing her in a facility that would encourage healthy lifestyle choices, and several times she ran away. I think that was the hardest part, because here you had someone who was genuinely trying to put her on the right path to receive treatment that would allow her to live longer, and she was rejecting it for the lifestyle of the streets. However, I believe that Shamin (her daughter) is now in good care at the facility and will continue to receive treatment. 

Shamin is one of the most lively and witty 3-year olds that I’ve ever met, and that’s the hard part – knowing that she’ll inevitably suffer from choices that were out of her control.

Shamin is one of the most lively and witty 3-year olds that I’ve ever met, and that’s the hard part – knowing that she’ll inevitably suffer from choices that were out of her control. There’s absolutely no reasoning that can explain that.

I would say that this experience, combined with others that I had in Tanzania affected my worldview greatly. It provided a context to suggest that no matter how bad you want to help someone, real change can only come to the willing. Half of the time that systematic international aid is distributed, it doesn’t end up in the right places. If government doesn’t change from within -if the people who are running the country care more about their personal gain than the improvement of their country, then how much progress can one expect from foreign intervention?

How much can foreigners realistically achieve as volunteers in Tanzania? 

I think that it really depends on the organization that they are volunteering with, and the length of their stay. Obviously those that can stay for an extended period will get to know the area and be able to understand the needs of the people more, but no one can expect to come and change a village by themselves. This shouldn’t be the focus. Our focus as volunteers should be if anything, to try and make an impact on one life. If everyone made significant change in just one person, it would be greater progress than attempting to help many people in a small way.

I think this is what’s wrong with many foreign aid projects. Often people with great intentions start organizations and have dreams of changing an entire country or region. These goals are unattainable. Instead, people should be searching for things that already work well in foreign communities, and using international resources to amplify those great local ideas.

A while ago, you posted this quote about international aid by Pete Brierly on your blog: “The thing is, helping people has become fashionable – where as it used to be just good old-fashioned people, helping.”

How much truth do you think there is in that statement? Is this shift necessarily a bad thing?

I think that this truth is evident when pride gets in the way of progress. In Arusha, I saw a lot of ‘competition’ between NGO’s. This isn’t true of all organizations in the area, but there are a few that aren’t interested in partnering with the others, because they believe that they know the best way to tackle the problems that Arusha faces. I don’t understand this. If it’s really about helping, there should be endless interaction between these overlapping groups.

The first thing that a new organization should do is contact organizations that are already in the area, to draw upon their knowledge & resources and to ideally form a working partnership. I fear that foreigners trying to ‘do something’ for various kind of attention back at home is becoming more common, and that it becomes a distraction from why they are there in the first place.

Just before the US election, you posted about how Tanzanians were filled with hope at the prospect of Barack Obama becoming president. Now that he’s president, what do you think is the number one thing Barack Obama could do to improve the lives of Tanzanians?

Fair trade.

After reading various opinions on the way forward for international aid, I personally believe that the smartest and most immediate thing that Americans can do is to promote fair trade laws.

American taxpayers are over-subsidizing agricultural products like cotton, which allows farming corporations to sell their cotton to African nations for less than those nations can farm it. Africa has been left out of many international trade decisions in the past few decades, because they don’t have much pull in the economic community. If we insist on educating ourselves more about this, and bring change domestically that the rest of the developed world can follow, then African nations will have a chance at developing their own economies – which is more valuable in the long run then most of the systematic aid that the west distributes.

One of the first books that got me thinking about this was Aid and Other Dirty Business by Giles Bolton – I’d recommend it as a starting point for those that are interested.

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Discussion »

  • #1Daniela Papi

    There is a film by Daniela Kon called “Changing the World on Vacation” which explores these issues. The website is where you can view the 16 minute selects reel.

    The film highlights the organization I run, called PEPY, and many of the mistakes and lessons we learned during our first year of running volunteer trips in Cambodia. Watching the film now, I see so many things that we have changed in how we operate trips to make them more learning experiences and more targeted towards supporting the communities and programs they are meant to be aiding rather than just catering to the volunteers themselves.

    There is so much to consider with voluntourism – decades of development best practices, responsible tourism, educational facilitation, etc. Getting it right takes not only some trial and error, but also a commitment to monitoring and evaluating the impact of your trips knowing that you will indeed find that you have done things wrong…. which is a hard thing to accept when it comes to helping people and doing good. You want to get it right. So when you know that you wont and you know that in some cases you are harming the programs you are aiming to help, it is often times frustrating enough for people to either close their eyes to it and not accept it or walk away frustrated that doing it right takes a lot more effort than they thought.

    I think both voluntourism and development work in general can be forces for good when so often they are not, but it takes time, self-criticism, and a discerning donor/client base. I think PEPY still has a long way to go in this regard, but I hope we are working towards doing it right. We are also looking to partner with other voluntourism operators to solidify our Voluntourism Effective Practices (VEP) self-checking tool to keep us aware of the positive and negative impact factors in our programs.

    If there are voluntourism operators out there looking to be involved, we would love to work with you :-)

    PS – Brian, I very much agree with your “Fair Trade” point. Yours is also how I define fair trade – looking more at the issues of dumping etc which cause economic imbalances and inequities which make it impossible for those whose governments are not subsidizing agriculture to compete. We need a new word for this area of discussion around fair trade as all too often, once those words are thrown out, people think of fair trade products and coffee. Those who oppose that arena of “fair trade” believe in the same economic principals which I do – that you shouldn’t be subsidizing something with the hopes of it becoming “sustainable” – as it won’t be. If those same people were made to understand that the same logic applies in reverse to what we are doing with agriculture being shipped abroad, they might still be staunchly opposed to “fair trade” products which are made competitive via subsidizes and be able to get behind fighting for fair TRADING practices among nations.

  • #2Anonymous

    I have often wondered whether the people whom volunteer really know why they are visiting these places. It’s not just a cheap way of getting a gap year break. Whilst i am sure that there are many that go with the best intentions and do make a difference i am sure there are a minority who see it as a discount holiday.

    Thank you for your article I enjoyed reading it.

  • #3Derek

    Love it.

    Keep up the good work. I am inspired.

    “If everyone made significant change in just one person, it would be greater progress than attempting to help many people in a small way.”
    Well said.

  • #4Marni

    Great article to read. Really interesting hearing about other peoples volunteer experiences.

    It’s a shame someone would think that volunteering abroad is a way of going on a ‘”discount holiday”. Volunteering is not cheap! and many blood sweat and tears go into it. I guess we’ll never know if we have made a difference. But we have to keep on trying.

    For future volunteers be careful which organisation you choose – there’s a lot out there – and the longer you stay the more you can achieve and the better your experience will be, although it will be harder to leave!

    Good luck with your documentary Stephan.

    P.S AIDS is not a virus it’s a disease. You can only be infected by the HIV virus

  • #5Daniela Papi

    I tried to post these long-winded comments I have to add to this here, but I think they were too long-winded! You can find them here:

  • #6Shannon OD

    Beautiful take on volunteering and I look forward to reading through your volunteering journey and progress on the documentary on your own site.

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