Voluntourism: Saving the World One Gap Year at a Time? Or Happy Snaps with a Side of Poverty, YOLO!

Gap-Yah-Pack-Shot-300x300Perhaps you’ve seen it advertised here and there on a few travel sites online. Perhaps you’ve even considered lending your own hand to a disadvantaged community in Ghana over your gap year, or saving up a few sickies to teach orphans in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. “Voluntourism” is the fancy name for this emergent trend. A growing niche of tourism based on experiencing a more off-the-beaten-track side of the world; where simple people live contently in huts, shacks, yurts or under the stars; where one can escape an urbanized, neon-lit wonderland of iPhones, reality TV and a constant hunt for identity through affectation.Voluntourism involves directly working with communities on various development projects; peppered with optimistic intentions and best wishes of giving and learning, building ties with the mysterious, simple and somehow enlightened “Other”.The typical “voluntourist” is a young, usually gap-year teen with best intentions, well lined pockets and travel-guide naivety, hoping to contribute to less fortunate communities with their extensive wisdom and great worldly experience.The voluntourist stands to gain great experience, an escape to new and faraway places, happy-snaps with some locals and a general feeling of “doing good” in their quest-from-the-West. But what do the communities gain from hosting voluntourists? After all, developing nations seem to be well supplied with cheap, unskilled domestic labour, even if it’s not gap-year well-wishers. Horin (2012) details that “one in five people who took one of the gap year packages said they believed their presence made no positive difference to the lives of those around them, with one respondent saying ‘I felt that the local community could have done the work we were doing, there were lots of unemployed people there.” It seems the needy in this case might not be so needy for an extra set of hands to dig yet another well or build yet another primary school, let alone use their unique and extensive local knowledge to teach the rural poor out of poverty and single-handedly save whole communities.

To take it one step further though, to delve into the power plays at the heart of voluntourism; there’s a darker twist in the development tourism story. After all, did communities invite young go-getters in to help with their building projects? Did communities call out for rescue to “Gen Y” and their infinite supply of goodwill? The answer is no, communities politely host the new tourists with best intentions and deep pockets. Projects are arranged and run by tourism companies and local NGOs, often with little research into local outcomes or impacts. Communities and the actors within them politely host optimistic school-leavers; while handing over control of their own development and direction in this world to the encroaching forces of tourism and globalization.

And what does it cost to volunteer? I choose not to name, but certain voluntourist packages teaching English in orphanages in Cambodia and Vietnam start from $1399, not including airfares. During this 13-week program, tourists can teach English to a class of up to 10 Cambodian or Vietnamese orphans, no previous teaching experience required, nor even familiarity with Khmer or Vietnamese. To quote Dallas Curow’s blog regarding voluntourism, “Although volunteering may be about free work, it is certainly not free to volunteer”.

At its best, development tourism is a means for communities to access young, enthusiastic workers, sometimes with valuable practical, research and language skills, and develop long lasting bonds to the wider world. At it’s worst however, and aptly described by British research unit Demos, the development tourism industry is a form of neo-colonialism; a way of once again expressing Northern dominance over the South. After all, one community’s struggles and needs are another tourists holiday; an experience one can come to and from at leisure to lend a hand wherever the best Facebook photo opportunities can be found, wherever seems the most off-the-beaten track, out-of-the-way and “hidden”, and wherever one can get in touch with that mysterious, elusive and ancient “other” we are both cautious of, yet drawn to. Development tourism is a big business. It comes with great capabilities, and perhaps even great intentions. But with this also comes great responsibility, and the capacity to do great harm to fragile communities, many of which already feel threatened by the encroachments of a globalizing and shrinking world. Who directs this business? Who decides what, when and where projects should take place? And most importantly, who is accountable? Agencies? Communities? Tourists? Until these questions can be answered, this writer believes sticking to the well-trodden track may be the least harm one could do.
Matt Wilkinson.

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Conflict in the DRC: Competing Narratives and Framing Interventions

Recently, the Eastern states of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have experienced renewed instability and violence. After a fragile peace was declared following elections in 2006, the nation has  been shaken by internal conflict at the hands of rebel groups in the Eastern Districts. Following a breakdown of relations with the government in Kishasa, in November 2012 the rebel group M23 marched on several towns throughout North Kivu province, seizing the major city of Goma for 10 days before agreeing to leave the city.


Continuing violence and insecurity in the Dem. Republic of the Congo is the result of a failure to properly frame conflicts and violence in the large African nation. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s peace interventions by the UN and regional powers to bring stability to the region failed dismally. Even though the peace process ended with the democratic election of present prime-minister Joseph Kabila in 2006, violence and instability continues in much of the nation. The UN and regional intervention in the Congo failed, and this violence continues, because the conflict was framed as a top-down national and regional conflict. Consideration is needed regarding the bottom-up, localized causes of violence and insecurity, and a re-framing of violence in the Congo considering this alternative perspective, is urgently required.

congo-violence_1015583cTwo narratives explain in-depth the situation in the Eastern Congo. The first is the dominant narrative, based on regional and national politics. Following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, millions of refugees fled into the East Congo. From here, Hutu militias carried out raids on localvillages and posed a threat to the new Tutsi led Rwandan state. Responding to this threat, as well as gaining access to resources, subduing the threat of an unpredictable and unpopular Mobutu and encouraged by the lucrative prospect of a pro-Rwanda leadership in the Congo; Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi armed and conditioned rebel groups within the East DRC.  These forces would later become the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo/Zaire (ADFL). The ADFL led a rebellion that escalated into the First Congo War and subsequent overthrow of Mobutu, and coming to power of Laurent Desire Kabila in May 1997. Laurent Kabila gave promise of new stability  in the Great Lakes region and steps forward for the politically fragile and economically stagnant Congo. However, Kabila soon isolated himself and alienated his supporters, first by dismissing the Rwandan military advisors he was supplied with, then allegedly supporting Rwandan rebel groups, and inciting violence against Rwandans within the Congo.By August 1998 Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian forces encouraged the formation of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RDC) to overthrow the increasingly unpopular Kabila government. The RDC began a march to Kinshasa, initiating the Second Congo War. During the Second Congo War, factioning within the RDC and other domestic and foreign groups resulted in much insecurity throughout large tracts of the DRC, especially in the East, as groups fought each other and the government for influence and access to resources, and terrorised and exploited civilians, resulting in gross violations of human rights on all sides of the conflict. Some 5.4 million Congolese have been killed by the war and the resulting instabilities, famines and insecurities. During the Second Congo War, the RDC split into several groups including the RDC-G, closely linked to Rwanda, and RDC-W, closely linked with Uganda. Intra and inter group conflict in the East DRC turned the region into a ‘mosaic of enclaves under the control of armed bands’ (Autesserre 2010). The RCD-G, an offshoot from the RDC, took control of major towns including Goma, Uvira and Bokava, with Rwandan support. Outside of the major towns, the countryside was a mess of constantly changing zones of influence of Mai Mai militia groups, Rwandan Hutu militias and Burundian rebels, as well as smaller factions within the RDC-G and RDC-W, all fighting each other for territorial and resource control, and committing ethnic-oriented attacks to maintain political support and terrorise political enemies. With the assassination of Laurent Desire Kabila in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila took power. Joseph Kabila soon initiated an inter-Congolese Dialogue. A transition government was established in 2003, and the Second Congo War was accepted as over, despite continued insecurity and fighting in the East DRC. Electionswere held throughout the DRC in July and October 2006. The new national assembly was installed on September 22 2006, and Kabila was officially inaugurated as Prime Minister on December 6 2006. This was the narrative  employed by peacekeepers and international interventionists  in the DRC. Conflict was seen as a regional and national issue. Violence and insecurity on the ground level and in the East DRC, especially North and South Kivu provinces, was regarded to be the result of greater national and regional tensions, based mostly in Kinshasa and Kigali. By resolving political tensions in Kinshasa and between Kinshasa and Kigali, conflict within the DRC was assumed to have been be resolved. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is described as in a  ‘post-conflict’ phase, although ethnic violence and grassroots violence and insecurity continue throughout the Eastern provinces.

congo8-460_1108319cDeparting from the dominant narrative is the ‘bottom-up’ argument of Autesserre (2010). Although recent national and regional politics did have an effect on conflict in the Congo, present conflicts in the east DRC are rooted in decades old issues of migration, citizenship, land rights and ethnicized politics. Ethnic tensions established during Belgian rule continues to present day, and Mobutu’s politics based on exploiting the needs and insecurities of minority Banyarwanda (*Rwandan migrant*) and majority ‘indigenous’ groups in the East Congo created a situation of massive insecurity and opportunity for ethnic based militia groups in the east. Even during the Belgian era, encroachments on what was understood to be tribal land encouraged the formation of grassroots militias in the east. These militias attempted to defend what they saw as theutmost expression of the “traditional rural order” (Van Acker & Vlassentoot 2000). However, these groups soon proved the beginning of what has become a long tradition of local tribal militias, whose prupose was “a mix of self-defence and profit secured from pillage and cattle rustling; and who ultimately terrorised the communities they had set out to protect” (International Crises Group 2000. “Scramble for the Congo. Anatomy of an Ugly War”. Africa Report. Bruscels: International Crises Group). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the East DRC, especially both North and South Kivu, played role to dozens of isolated, decentralized conflicts between these groups over access to land, political office, resource use and real and perceived favouring by the central government. Both Banyarwanda and indigenous groups, however, employed the support and service of Mobutu’s government and factions within it to secure land, positions of power and influence and resources. Since the late 1980s, factioning and intra-group conflict within the Congo’s Banyarwanda  community along Hutu and Tutsi ethnic lines, within indigenous ‘Mai Mai’ militias, and within the central governments army, and spillover effects from the Rwandan civil war (1990-94)  encouraged the formation of competing militia groups. These groups garner support based on resources and ethnicity from Rwanda, Uganda, local towns and villages and from the central government itself. The M23 is just one of many such groups, itself consisting of other local and regional groups who it’s leaders must appease and manage to maintain loyalties and control. To sum, the east has a long history of militias and ethnic conflict. Ethnic tensions were exploited and grew under Mobutus rule, and by the 1990s had encouraged a volatile scramble for territory, resources and power by several competing militia groups, some, such as M23 under commander  Laurent Nkunda, had even established shadow states within their regions of influence, acting as illegitimate governments in the East.rebe;

Both of these narratives consider different causes of the current insecurity in the DRC. The dominant, argues Rwanda and other regional powers were forced to invade the DRC for their own security and this set off an international crises. With relations between regional powers calmed, and new governance introduced, the conflict is assumed to be over. The alternative, argues conflict stemmed from organic and constructed cleavages between ethnic groups in the East of the DRC, and these groups brought in local, national and regional support to maintain the economies of insecurity, violence and fear that maintained and enriched themselves. Although regional relations have cooled, the structures that create this violence and the individuals who benefit from them remain in place, and as long as they do, insecurity, violence and conflict will continue.

Both of these narratives also warrant different approaches to current insecurity. One, warrants international negotiation and intervention. The second, warrants grassroots level interventions, localised negotiation, working with militias and breaking down economies of insecurity, violence and fear.

What must be remembered is that conflicts are more than simply a breakdown of societal structures such as stable government, law and order and civil society. Conflicts are also more than simply a competition between two or more parties to ‘win’ particular territory, resources or influence. Conflicts such as that which is occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are newly emergent economies, where stakeholders compete for power, resources and territory. These stakeholders each have a value in continuing insecurity, and many are positioned best if insecurities and structures associated with continued conflict are kept in place. When framing a conflict, interventionists need to consider more than the macropolitical motivations, where, as mentioned above, it is often assumed that there are two or more parties competing to win a territory, influence, or resource access. Continued insecurity in the Congo is the result of a policy and interventionist failure frame the bottom-up motivations of conflict, the push and pull factors of local actors and local stakeholders in conflict zones. These factors don’t disappear, as the United Nations had assumed in the Congo, with democratization and stable government, or with the allaying of national and regional tensions. Instead, these factors exist within and outside of the newly democratized system, warlordship and militia politics moving parallel with democratization and stable governance.

Any intervention requires an in depth contextual understanding of all the interests at all the levels of conflict, from the regional and national motivators to the economies of insecurity, exploitation and fear utilized by stakeholders at the town, village and household level. The failure to consider and approach this second factor is where intervention has failed in the Congo, and until considered, this second factor; economies of insecurity, exploitation and fear, will continue to feed violence and conflict throughout the Eastern districts of the Congo.

Matt Wilkinson

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Majuli Floods – September 2012

The flood situation in the state of Assam has worsened with 1,972 villages cross sixteen districts submerged, and some 150,000 people affected. Majuli Island, situated on the swelling Brahmaputra, a mere two hour ferry ride from the city of Jorhat, is quickly becoming inundated, street by street and paddy by paddy, much to the frustration of residents.

Majuli Island, once the largest river island on Earth, measuring at 1250 square kilometres, now measures 421.65 square kilometres, due to erosion by Brahmaputra and river swell. The island is not only a key tourist attraction for it’s many Hindu temples, dense forests and swamplands, popular for birdwatching. Majuli is also home for some 153,362 people, spanning Bengali ethnic groups as well as the Missing, Deori and Sonowal tribal groups. Rice paddy is the chief economic activity on the island, with most farms being run within families for export through Jorhat and Dibrugarh.

The third wave of flooding in Majuli this year, following the June 15 and July 25 floods, vital services including electricity and phone service are disrupted, and as at September 25 the key road between the islands main town, Gurumur, and Ferry Point, the major landing for ferries, is fast becoming submerged. Already roads between the second major ferry landing at Dokkingbad, and Gurumur, are submerged. Major disruptions along the Dokkingbad to Kumlebarri road, as well as Kumlebarri to Gurumur, caused by uprooted persons as well as cattle and goats, are also affecting movement throughout the island, leaving most roads either inundated, damaged or clogged with human and animal traffic.

The Assam Tribune online reports: “The Majuli unit of the AASU today burnt the effigies of Majuli MLA and State Water Resources Minister Rajiv Lochan Pegu and MP Rani Narah in protest against their alleged inaction towards saving the river island from flood and erosion at Kamalabari Chariali.” (22/09/2012).

With the Brahmaputra reaching danger levels at Dibrugarh, Nematighat, Teezpur, Dubhri, Guwahati and Goalpora, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has directed helicopter and boat operations aimed at rescue and relief throughout the state. The National Disaster Response Force, The State Disaster Response Force and the Indian Army and Indian Airforce are all currently engaged in rescue and relief operations.
Flood waters on Majuli have also inundated the sub-divisional office and the Majuli gaol, with prisoners being moved to Jorhat Central Jail on September 24.

Matt Wilkinson

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Religion and Development: The Contested Zone

Loosely spread across the base of Shillong Peak, the small town of Laitkor in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills typically plays host to the passing of coal mining and cement tricks. The surrounding greenery is dotted with small scale farms, passing goat herds and residential bulding projects. Within this one road town however, a testament to change and hope for the less fortunate children of the hills stands quietly next door to the local tea house. The Gilead Bethel School, a project of the Children and Youth Evangelical Association, offers free education to some 200 Khasi students from poorer backgrounds, years K to 11, aimed primarily to those who could not afford or access education in the surrounding towns and villages.

I first heard of the school when sipping some red tea down the street. I’d happened into the school’s chaplain and business manager, Rev. Ratan Sherpa, an Evangelical of Nepali descent. The Rev. Ratan was happy to give me a tour of the school. Walking through the wrought iron gates, I was greeted by laughter, smiles and the welcoming and warm attitudes that seem to define the Khasi Hills. Children dressed neatly in blue and white peered out from their classrooms while the Reverent walked me through the courtyard and into the school hall.

Despite historically being left in a development field of their own, even being described as taboo by Kurt Alan Ver Beek (2000), religion and development seem to be inseparable in many contexts. Religious NGOs and civil society organizations continue to hold a strong and meaningful place in communities, both in terms of maintaining or altering socio-cultural structures, and directing resources and development. Islamic NGOs wield great influence throughout Bangladesh, especially amongst the most insecure and conservative groups, and in terms of finance, Islamic Financial Institutions dominate access in Bangladesh and are growing. In neighbouring Meghalaya, Northeast India, Christian NGOs dominate civil society, with most non-government schools and hospitals being operated independently or under the umbrella of Christian organisations.

The place of religious organizations in contemporary development is contested between those who believe RNGOs are powerful actors and capable of producing great change where necessary or desired, and those who believe RNGOs are ‘too hot’ to handle, difficult to partner with due to differing goals and risk altering structures to serve it’s members and followers exclusively, or prioritizing benefits, toward followers. Both perspectives are valid, RNGOs often have a far greater influence within communities than secular NGOs, or distant organizations such as the World Bank and UN, but some RNGOs have proved hard to work with, and approaches sometimes do differ from secular NGOs. Examples include contraceptive programs related to HIV/AIDS and conflict resolution between religious groups.

Despite fears and doubts of critics, RNGOs continue to hold a central place in communities and in the lives of individuals. Few actors have the ability to connect so strongly with stakeholders and beneficiaries, to the point of becoming a piece of individual and community identity. RNGOs aren’t going anywhere, and despite the risks and complications involved in working with many, perhaps INGOs should work hard to greater employ these grassroots powerbrokers. In the case of the Gilead Bethel School, Laitkor, resources, skills and faith have combined to produce a long term asset for the community and will continue to provide hope and expand capacities of it’s members for generations to come.

Matt Wilkinson

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Puran Dhaka

Just a few more pics from Old Dhaka, or Puran Dhaka as they say. There’s some great coverage of Anzan Manzil, the Pink Palace, from the river. Just be sure to negotiate the boat trip price before leaving the jetty… those guys are total crooks!

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Few places in Chittagong can claim the fame, and infamy, of Rangamati. The district is home to some half-a-million people, mostly Bengalis, but also Chakma tribals, Marma tribals, Tangchanga tribals, Tripuran tribals, Pankho tribals, Bohm tribals and several other smaller tribal groups living deeper in the Hill Tracts.

Following the inundation of most of the old Rangamati town, including it’s royal palace, with the construction of the Kaptai Dam in 1963, Rangamati district has been a centre of conflict and dispute in the Hill Tracts. The PCJSS political organization, and it’s offshoot, Shanti Bahini were active and vocal in the district over the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. In more recent times, SB’s splinter group, the UPDF, has been involved in politically motivated murders, assaults and kidnappings in more isolated pockets of the Rangamati district. Aside from insurgent groups, several organized criminal groups, small and large, have also tapped into the lucrative kidnapping industry in the Hill Tracts, targeting foreign workers, local politicians and occasionally unarmed and uninvolved civilians. More isolated pockets of Rangamati district continue to host Bengali-tribal and inter-tribal conflicts, with violent sexual assaults against tribal women a common occurrence.

The kidnapping of thirteen banana traders in Chilekdak area in Suvalong on June 17, and the kidnapping of nine Chakma villagers, from Lorichharamukh area in Sadar upazila, on July 25, are just two examples of the continued insecurity situation in Rangamati district.

Traveling through Rangamati, up the Kaptai Lake and into Suvalong town this July, I was lucky not to witness such fearful acts. The local police constable, Rafique, happily lent me a three-police guard for the trip, and even a boat-breakdown on the lake attracted only local help and assistance. Despite the continuing insecurity situation in Rangamati district, one also finds a very approachable, and very welcoming cross – section of Bengali and tribal societies at Rangamati.

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Post pending: Only have time to toss up some pics from my old hood, Gulistan! Represent!

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