Negligent NGO with happy parents: Voluntourism and the voice of the local beneficiaries

The NGO is located in little town in the peripheries of Arequipa

Pauline van der Valk        I have always had a keen interest in the local beneficiaries’ perspective on development projects. It was only when I started my Masters in Anthropology that I learned more about the phenomenon of voluntourism. Scholars agree voluntourism is part of the tourism sector, but also acknowledge voluntourists combine leisure activities with development practices. For this reason I found this niche market in the tourism sector highly intriguing and I decided to focus my thesis on voluntourism rather than on development. During my preparatory work I had read up on voluntourism, and the first discovery I made was that opinions on voluntourism differ greatly. There is a myriad of works concerning this topic, and I read it all – from moderately positive scholars claiming voluntourism increases mutual cultural understanding, to plain depressing works from scholars arguing voluntourism reinforces underlying global North – global South power relations. My main interest was in gaining the perspectives of those on the receiving end of the voluntourism chain. For this reason I focused my research on the experiences of the local parents and their children involved in voluntourism: the local beneficiaries. I choose this particular topic because during the preparation for my fieldwork I was rather surprised to find that the perspective of the local beneficiaries was often overlooked or under highlighted.

With this in mind I left for Arequipa, Peru to conduct my field research at a non-governmental organisation (NGO). This particular NGO offers homework help to children in one of the little towns in the peripheries of Arequipa, Peru. My first order of business was to interview the parents of the children participating in the homework program and find out how they viewed the help they received. After a number of interviews it became clear parents were very pleased with the service provided by the NGO. Every single parent I spoke with was positive about the voluntourism organisation and would tell me “its works is amazing”, and “life would be so sad without this NGO and its volunteers”. Parents were in particular enthusiastic about foreign volunteers. Many mothers told me ”they are more patient than we are”, and “they are more loving to our kids and they are more developed”. On the one hand I was struck by their sincere happiness and gratefulness. But on the other hand I was also puzzled by their trust in the NGO and its volunteers. During my observations I found that there was a limited level of parents paying visits to the NGO and of parents participating in special events organised by the NGO. Even though I learnt this had to do with the demanding working schedules of parents, I realised there was more to it than solely leading busy lives. It was as if they seemed to trust the volunteers and the NGO completely, and therefore did not feel the urge to come and visit. During my time with the NGO my puzzlement deepened as my own experiences were in sharp contrast with the experiences of the local beneficiaries

These contradictory experiences became evident early on. It was during my first week as an observer at the NGO that I was privy to a conflict between two German female volunteers and the Peruvian board of the NGO. The girls accused a number of male members of the Peruvian board of inappropriate behaviour towards new female volunteers. According to the German girls, a number of male members supposedly tried to seduce new, often younger, female volunteers in the hope of starting romantic relationships with them. The two German girls asked the Peruvian board to carry out serious reforms within the board, and they solicited the European headquarter of the NGO to no longer send volunteers until this matter had been resolved.

Woman fills bucket with water from a water tap in the street

This turned out to be only one of the incidents to follow during my time with this NGO that struck me as unacceptable. To name a few: the dog did not eat for days because there was no money for dog food; the volunteers detected mould in the kindergarten building which according to the Peruvian board “definitely was not mould”; for weeks volunteers had to cope with serious understaffing; and finally, due to a temporary lack of purified water facilities in the region of Arequipa, the NGO started to use contaminated water from the taps in the street, instead of opting for the more expensive but safe option of purchasing bottled water.

As an anthropology student I am aware of the different viewpoints to consider when assessing an NGO’s success, and each has its own merit. The whole intention of my research was to have the local beneficiaries’ perspective central, rather than to assess the voluntourism project according to my own standards. However, I did not expect to observe such a different view from mine: what I saw was a voluntourism organisation subject to internal conflicts and financial problems, offering a very poor service. What the local beneficiaries observed was a trustworthy NGO with respectable foreign volunteers, offering a decent homework program. Even though it was not the objective of my research to make a judgement on the service of the NGO, I could not help to ask myself repeatedly whether this NGO should stop to exist or that an NGO should continue its service, knowing the local beneficiaries are happy. For this reason I challenged myself to reconsider the incidents I mentioned before. The dog did not get its daily food from the NGO, but she probably did eat some sweets and left-overs during these days contrary to many stray dogs in the streets; there was definitely mould in the kindergarten, however, since Arequipa has a dry and moderate climate, many buildings in Arequipa are not constructed for three months of rain. This year countless buildings in Arequipa have mould caused by this year’s extreme heavy rainfall. And the contaminated water from the taps on the street was only used to wash hands.

All in all my fieldwork experience has allowed me to go closer to the volunteers and the local families involved in voluntourism projects. All the experiences in the field have challenged my critical view on voluntourism. On the one hand I have started to see new positive sides of voluntourism, like the thankfulness of the parents and the dedication of volunteers. On the other hand I have also witnessed a new alarming side of voluntourism, which is the unlimited trust of the parents in the volunteers and their work. This made me leave the field with contradictory feelings.

Pauline van der Valk is a student of the Master ‘Anthropology of mobility, development, and diversity’ at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. She studies development and tourism issues from an anthropological perspective 

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