Voluntourism: The messy volunteer travel industry
The documentary “Kritisch Reisen: Gutes tun im Urlaub – und wer daran verdient” has been produced by a German television channel to raise more awareness on the difficult topic of voluntourism. The 45 min long documentary was screened on the 22.08.2018 at 22.10 on WDR and is available on YouTube and WDR online. We, Responsible Volunteering, supported the production with regular advice, interviews and information throughout the past months.
Kritisch Reisen: Gutes tun im Urlaub – und wer daran verdient
RCDP Nepal is an organization that is connected to a Nepali-American volunteer travel network. We present you in this article some of our research about the network. Here is the documentary:
The excesses of the capitalized voluntourism industry
The volunteer travel sector was traditionally developed by nonprofit and community-oriented organizations (usually with good intentions).   Relief work as well as economic development through professional experts used to be the main purpose. But commercialization and globalization changed the sector. The volunteer travel market does not follow the logic of charities, altruism and communities anymore but of the private profit sector. Demand and supply as well as profit have become the striving force and logic behind most volunteer travel organizations. Today, up to 10 million voluntourists are spending $2.6 billion on volunteer travel trips annually.
An American – Nepali business network: a perfect example on how the industry got out of control
The American market has the highest demand for voluntourism opportunities worldwide. A family named Adhikari saw this as an opportunity and established the following businesses: Institute for Field Research Expeditions (IFRE),New Hope Volunteers,Rural Community Development Program (RCDP Nepal),Rustic Volunteer Travel,Helping Abroad,Global Crossroad and TravellersQuest.
Connections between some of these companies have been denied.  However, our research (and the documentary) proved the opposite. Most conspicuous is that the same staff members acted online as representatives for several of the companies and the appearance of the names Murali (and often also Mohan) Adhikari in connection to all of these companies.
The end of a success story
The competition in the volunteer travel industry used to be low. In the 90s until the end of 2000 there were only a few volunteer travel companies to choose from and due to high demand and a well-situated target group, the companies offered trips with premium prices and dominated the market. Together, the above listed companies have had more customers than Projects Abroad (100 000 since 1993) and International Volunteer HQ (almost 100 000 since 2008). IFRE alone generated almost three million US$ in income between 2010 and 2014.
The pressure to keep up in a growing and highly competitive market has increased and the organizations have lost market shares. The once leading volunteer travel organizations IFRE and Global Crossroad have shrunken to small operators, that hunt for volunteers and profit, with sometimes, unethical strategies.
What are the reasons for the downfall of the company’s network?
Despite most of the companies having excellent reviews on the major review websites (read here more), they have failed to develop a brand that stands for quality. Questionable business practices, poor management and unfair business practices have given the companies a bad reputation:
- Untrue information on how the money is distributed
For years, most of the organization’s stated on their websites that all funds, except the application fee, are being distributed to their in-country programs. Actually, only a very small portion of the once extremely high fees IFRE, Global Crossroad and Rustic Volunteer Travel charged were in fact transferred overseas. Often the local placements in which volunteers worked received no support at all. Many volunteers and local partners complained about the unfair distribution of the fees. Recently, complaints have decreased because all organizations adapted their pricing towards the low cost volunteer sector and implemented new payment methods. Currently, volunteers pay (probably cash) except the registration fee, directly to the local in country partners. What the organizations sell as a transparent and effective distribution of fees is in fact an invitation for corruption and misappropriation of funds as cash payments are difficult to trace and document. In reality the organizations have given further responsibilities away. For host families and projects, it is not always easy to ask volunteers for payments.
- Hidden costs and fees
In spite of having today a slightly more transparent pricing model, hidden costs and additional fees are still a problem. Volunteers have reported that additional program costs were charged in the host country as well as the add on of unwanted extras. 
- False information throughout the world wide web
Some staff members did not only deny connections between the companies and lied about the distribution of funds, but have also been untruthful about their operations in general. Some of the companies outline, that they have their own programs and offices within the countries they work in. Nevertheless, the truth is that the companies outsource their responsibilities. Almost all of the companies work with the same local in-country partners that take over the responsibilities but are far from being an own independent office that could e.g. moderate conflicts. In addition, many of the organizations claim to visit and monitor their projects. In fact, the organizations hardly ever visit their international partners.
- Unethical projects and orphanage tourism – A 15 years old teenager works as a doctor
Last month, we reported about unethical orphanage projects in Nepal (on TV) and explained how to spot an unethical organization. As an example, we screened the orphanage project of the Himalaya Foundation Nepal. After investigating the children projects offered by RCDP Nepal, we could just copy our article and replace the name Himalaya Foundation Nepal with RCDP Nepal. RCDP Nepal also owns orphanages, focuses on volunteering in residential care institutions and offers orphanage projects, in which the volunteers are accommodated overnight and have 24 hours uncontrolled access to children.
The television team found RCDP Nepal’s orphanage placements to be poorly run. The volunteer accompanied was able to help out in any way she wanted, the staff was unqualified, the children lived in horrible conditions and many children had living parents. Over the years, the orphanage has not developed positively, despite RCDP Nepal claiming to support them regularly. Volunteers were responsible, to keep the orphanage running with regular donations.
Unfortunately, RCDP Nepal rejected any responsibility for the wrongdoing or misuse of funds of their placements. The German non profit organization haveing organeized the trip for the German volunteer, was not aware of the issues and local conditions. This is very disturbing, as the main reason volunteers travel through volunteer travel organization is the hope to be placed, after a thorough matching process, in well screened and monitored placements.
The other companies in the network are not doing any better. 80% of the IFRE volunteers participated in one of their “many orphanage projects”. Global Crossroad sold a medical trip to a 15 years old teenager, who “saved lives”, by pulling metal out of skin, sewing wounds together, writing prescriptions and doing intravenous therapy.
- Fake reviews
We found some reviews and comments through which staff seems to try to influence volunteers. We identified comments and reviews in which staff members claim to be a former volunteers. In addition, the review website TravellersQuest is full of fake reviews. The review website is being used to direct volunteers to their own programs. Also, past volunteers claimed to have found fake reviews. Other reviews were deleted and marked as fake reviews.
Ironically, RCDP Nepal, IFRE and Global Crossroad explained their volunteers on their websites, how damaging fake reviews can be.
- Unprofessional customer relations and operations
Organizations of the network rarely visited their international partner organizations. This lead to misinformed and unprepared volunteers. A volunteer trip was for many volunteers like a grab in a luckyback. They did not know what they got into.
What keeps volunteers also away from the organizations, is that most website show no owner or team information. Volunteers probably do not like to travel overseas with face and nameless providers. Providers, that are being managed and controlled by the same group of people, that seem to care mainly about the money, but not their target groups.
In the past, several other volunteer travel companies that might be connected to the network were set up, but failed.
Big business and outsourcing
All the described institutions operate similar, claim to be non profit organizations and offer almost the same products through different websites and business models.
Some of the work has been outsourced to or has been done from Nepal, where cheap labour is available. An RCDP and TravellersQuest (US based) content writer earns about 178 US Dollar per month– a small salary, even for Nepalese standards.
Whether volunteers travels with RCDP Nepal, Global Crossroad, Rustic Volunteer Travel, New Hope Volunteers, Helping Abroad or IFRE, they are most likely receiving the same product. The organizations offer the same services but under different names.
Commercialisation is not only a worldwide problem in the health and social work industry but also in the volunteer travel sector.
These network of non-profit organization shows, that both, private run companies (such as International Volunteer HQ, Projects Abroad) and non-profit organizations from the global south and north offer commercialised voluntourism programs. In addition, each country has a different set of standards on how to set up and run a non-profit organization. The only way to find out if the program is well managed is intensive research!
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