The tourism industry, both locally and internationally, received the news of Paul Mediema’s unexpected passing with much sadness – this passionate man who stood for so much gone too soon. Written below are his thoughts and words… as an industry let us continue to ‘do’ tourism, and voluntourism specifically, in a manner that he would have been proud of. And let us continue to support real, authentic, and ethical experiences that Calabash Tours, which he founded, continues to offer.

(EDIT – Calabash Tours has permanently closed since this was published, but Paul’s words are no less important.)

In the words of Paul Mediema…

While many have celebrated the merging of service to others and its development with tourism, some criticisms have emerged, and correctly so. Things can get complicated when ‘for profit’ businesses get involved in eco or community based projects. Environmental and social sustainability are easily sacrificed at the altar of blatant greed in the tourism industry, which already has a global reputation for being brutally profit oriented at the expense of the environment and communities. Why should Volunteer tourism be any different?

The Issues – Negative Impacts

There are two primary areas of concern when looking at this boom in volunteering. The first is the issues relating to legal compliance, and this is an issue within any sector in tourism. We have seen over the years, as South Africa takes up its place in the market, more and more self-regulation. Violations among companies hosting volunteers include issues such as using game vehicles on public roads without permits, operating without sufficient passenger and public liability insurance, not having risk assessments in place, not having emergency procedures in place etc. The result of this is that when something does go wrong, or someone is injured, the operator has no plan, and the end result is a very poor reflection on the destination.

Far more contentious are the potential negative impacts for communities and the environmental or conservation projects… and the blatant exploitation of well-wishing volunteer travellers.

What is of interest is that when booking a holiday, clients will ask for all kinds of details about where they will stay, the kind of transport, hotel etc. However, for some unscrupulous operators, they sell a smoke and mirrors volunteer placement, talking vaguely about money into communities, the cost of research etc, obscuring the details, and making the volunteer feel uncomfortable about asking pointed questions.

So, like in any other travel transaction, there needs to be an education of the consumer. They need to be encouraged to ask questions. There should be clarity about how much money goes where. Too often volunteers are told money goes into the community, only to be horrified when they find out 75% of the money stayed with the UK or US based agent!

To use Calabash Tours as an example, volunteers are told exactly how much money goes to the placement agency, how much money goes to transport, accommodation, project management, and finally exactly how much goes to the project. Furthermore, our volunteers, in consultation with the project, identify how the money is used.

For host communities, there are a number of issues that need to be considered in order to minimise negative impacts. A common occurrence is that communities, who are often eager for assistance, and vulnerable, are bullied or exploited by volunteer service providers. An example would be when a project receiving volunteers has little say in the number of volunteers placed. This is not unusual. Very many of the source market agents will sell you a placement over the phone, or internet, as long as you have that credit card handy. The result is sometimes a school with 10 or 12 GAP year volunteers hanging around with little to do other than get in the way of work being done. I have witnessed this in the townships of Port Elizabeth.

Community projects, be it schools, or community projects need to have the final say in who gets placed. Informed consent is critical. Otherwise who is being served? An oversupply of volunteers leads to a poor volunteer experience, for both volunteer and community.

Another common problem is in how community needs are assessed. And whether individual volunteer skills are matched to community needs. Calabash Tours is not a believer in one size fits all volunteer programmes. I believe skills need to be matched to projects. And I have serious doubts about certain volunteer projects that require no skill, but only labour. Lets face it, we have an unemployment rate of 40%, so cheap labour is not required – especially if it only serves the interest of someone who comes from a well resourced country to have an ‘experience’. Volunteer programmes cannot be allowed to exist at the expense of local communities or local interests.

Locally based volunteer placement agencies need to be assessing needs in the community on an ongoing basis. Needs in development change, community needs are dynamic, so to have a placement that never changes reflects a lack of on-going needs analysis. Are the locals served by the project asked for input around the placements? And what is the capacity of the local project to manage volunteers. These are important questions, which if ignored, result in negative, destructive, and sometimes irreversible impacts.

Another sensitive but critical issue is the screening of volunteers. We work with children in poor communities, and with vulnerable adults. What is the potential negative impact if we allow a sexual predator into that community or project? Not all volunteers come with pure intentions. We take our work placements seriously, so seriously that we want references from you before you come. And we check them, or rather our placement agency does. In the UK and many other countries to work with youth as a church leader, scoutmaster, soccer coach, whatever, you need a criminal screening. Why must we accept less in South Africa or other developing countries?

Positive Impacts… 

Despite these potential negative impacts a well prepared, screened, skilled volunteer can make a tremendous positive impact in host communities. Our own experience has been that skills transfer, capacity building, as well as physical infrastructure can be provided by volunteer placements.

Furthermore, well-run volunteer placements can develop a level of social interaction and understanding that is profound. It can result in the humanising of poverty, it can give a face to poverty and vulnerability that is real, and lead to a sense of a shared humanity.

It is often a life changing experience for the volunteer. An experience that shapes purpose and belief, and can shift consciousness towards the understanding of a shared humanity. It can, and does, lead to an understanding of our inter-connectedness as people. This is a fundamental value of sustainable development.

It also can lead to a good understanding of community needs that in turn leads to effective travellers philanthropy. Again, our own experience attests to this. Volunteers who have been well managed and have developed an understanding and a confidence in a community project where they have worked, are in a good position to go back to their own communities and leverage resources to the advantage of the community or project. The fact that it is based on a real understanding of needs is often a critical success factor.

As a destination we offer tremendous scope for volunteer placements. As Calabash we see this as a potential growth area, and one we will pursue. The market is large, and while competitive, South Africa offers the diversity of community, eco and marine opportunities of volunteer tourism few countries can match. However, if we do not self regulate this sector, the real threat exists the destinations will become stigmatised as an unethical, exploitative one. This would be a great loss, both to the tourism industry, as well as the many good projects currently benefiting from it.

Calabash Tours was started in 1997 by Paul Paul Mediema and was created to cater for tourists who wanted to experience true urban Africa where we could offer them the opportunity to visit townships and meet the locals. The company is unusual in its approach to unlocking parts of the country often made inaccessible by ethical and safety concerns, and pre conceived ideas.

Steeped in responsible tourism and pro-poor tourism thinking, their ground breaking approach allows visitors to access, understand and appreciate the social history of the people, their day to day experiences of being black South Africans during apartheid, as well as during our emergence as a democracy. Their experiences are real, authentic, and ethical, and are proud to confirm that their township visits are accredited by Fair Trade Tourism South Africa. This guarantees the visitor that communities benefit, are involved in decision making, and are more than happy to welcome you to their communities.

Read the article in Responsible Traveller digital mag… click here