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Voluntourism and Cultural Exchange

Miriam GutekunstWe thank our participant Miriam Gutekunst for allowing us to publish a part of her study on "The cultural exchange through Voluntourism - The example of the Women's Initiative Union de l'Action Féminine in Morocco" on our website.
We think that the text contains many relevant ideas, not just for our "Voluntourism" participants, but also long-term volunteers and interns in helping them to prepare for their stay abroad.
Miriam Gutekunst studied at the Institute of Ethnology/European Ethnology at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich.

Cultural exchange through Voluntourism

Whether in an orphanage, a children's theater, a refugee camp, a sheltered workshop, an animal protection center, a reforestation project or AIDS relief project - the possibilities to do a voluntary service abroad could not be more numerous and diverse. However, both non-profit organizations, as well as commercial tour operators are mainly young people and older interested parties who look for the opportunity to travel far and learn at the same time through their involvement with a local organization, not just the tourist side of a country, but gain a whole new insight to preserve the culture, and a way to do "good" for the host country and its people. While voluntary services have long been standard practice, particularly in the context of development cooperation, it has now opened a new travel segment for the tourism industry - Voluntourism. This is the offer, for one or a few weeks, to participate in a charitable organization or a social institution in a developing or emerging country, as opposed to several months as is common with the classical development projects.
My Voluntourism project was a women's initiative in Tangier, the "Union de l'Action Féminine" (UAF), in which you can participate for one or more weeks, through the Voluntourism Program of the German organization "World Unite!". For my research, I even spent one week there as a volunteer and got first hand results through participant observation and informal discussions. I was able to get further in depth information in retrospect, through questionnaires sent to former volunteers, the director of "World Unite!" and one of the women in charge of the UAF, via e-mail. In this article, I would like to present my case study and analyse it on the basis of theories of cultural transfer and travel.
1. Description of Field
1.1 World Unite!
It is important to distinguish between the two types of offers in Voluntourism: Packages for profit - tour operators such as "Sta Travel" that have taken up this new travel segment under "Travel and Helping" in their catalog. In this case, the package only includes a few days "Help" and the rest, sightseeing, hiking, swimming trips and other classic tourist activities. "World Unite!", however, offers such travel packages in cooperation with agencies in the so-called Voluntourism Hopper program. Here, you book only your flights; the one-three week operation includes accommodation, transfers from/to airport, introduction at the facility, information booklet and a local contact. This offer is not lucrative, since the prices are kept low so that they only make up for operating costs and the continuation of the program. Virtually all the remaining fees go to the host country.
1.2 "Union de l’Action Féminine“ – An introduction
The "Union de l'Action Féminine" (UAF) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization, founded in 1987 in Rabat. The Women's Initiative comprises 33 branches, including one in Tangier. Its objectives include improving the legal and social status of women and the fight against all forms of discrimination against women. The UAF meets these objectives through training and start-ups, supporting the socio-economic situation of women and educating, in the form of awareness courses, on their legal situation. In addition, the UAF has launched campaigns against violence against women and offers free literacy courses. Moreover, at UAF in Tangier (office is located in the district of Souani), there is a computer room and tailoring room with sewing machines for paid courses. There is also a small library and craft supplies available for the children of these women; they can be used as part of a recreational program, which also includes foreign language teaching. The women in charge of the office in Tangier are Noura, who is responsible for the organizational book-keeping, and Saloua, who oversees the daily operation and also supports an external collaborator in awareness raising courses.
The collaboration with "World Unite" began in 2009. Since then, volunteers come at irregular intervals and also revisit:
"Pour l’UAF, la collaboration avec les volontaires de l’étranger est une nouvelle expérience. On l’a commencé l’année dernière. Le nombre des volontaires varie, ça dépend tout del’organisation "world-unite" qui nous les transmet. De toute façon, on est ouvert pour tout le monde. Ça se peut, qu’on reçoit des volontaires pour une semaine ou pour plusieurs mois. Là, l’UAF est très flexible.“ (Noura)
1.3 The Volunteers
The volunteers who opt for the UAF have, on the one hand, the opportunity to get involved as part of the leisure program, for example, by teaching foreign languages, ​​or play in the afternoons with the kids. They can also take care of the facilities of the house in the form of repairs.
A knowledge of French is required to work at the organisation.
"Il y en a des volontaires qui enseignent des langues (le français, l’anglais) pour les femmes et les enfants du quartier. Un autre volontaire, qu’on a reçu, était un technicien qui a réparé les ordinateurs de l’association. On avait aussi deux volontaires des Etats-Unis qui on fait un cours de peinture et de photographie pour les enfants, une artiste et une photographe. Et on a reçudeux allemandes qui on organisé et réalisé des activités (des jeux, des chansons, du bricolage) pour les enfants.” (Noura)
During my stay in Tangier, I encountered two volunteers from the UAF: Martina, in her mid-twenties, a student of teaching English and French in Germany. She spent two weeks in the organization and, took English lessons during this time for children aged 5 to 17 years. The Swiss Catherine, also in her mid twenties, was already a professional teacher. She taught French at the UAF; however, this was for a period of 6 months, and thus does not actually fall under the heading Voluntourism. However, since I met and interviewed them during their first four weeks of work, I would also like to use their statements.
Back in Germany, I had made contact with two other former volunteers of the UAF: Simone, a forty year-old teacher of Geography and French, who had also taken two weeks of French lessons, and Otto, in his late twenties, who, during the same period, mainly participated in repairing the computers of the organization.
I myself, participated ​​in the autumn of 2010 - together with Marie, who also studied teaching in French and social studies - for one week at the UAF, in an afternoon program for the children of the district. We collected materials for handicrafts, prepared linguistic games and along with Catherine, supported their teaching units.
2. Analysis of the field
2.1 The Encounters
How can a meeting of the Volunteers of "World Unite!" describe the Moroccan population? What makes their encounters different compared to other forms of travel?
The first distinction is to do with Noura and Saloua of the UAF, and also with Fenna, the local contact person for volunteers. While meetings with the three women included superficial things like going shopping or eating something unique, the relationship with the three Moroccans can be largely described as intense and personal and usually took place over long periods of time. So Martina writes about her relationship with the responsible women of the UAF: "The relationship was very good, almost friendly and we have done something outside of work hours." Even Catherine describes her relationship with Noura as very positive: "I had a very friendly relationship with the Secretary of the UAF. She invited me often, and after a short time I was taken as a family member in their home. We often did something together after working hours like shopping, hamman, going to the cafe or the cinema, etc." For Otto, however, the meeting was difficult, because he had the feeling that the behavior of women towards him was "a bit secretive", which he explained by the cultural fact that it is not customary that men and women who are not married spend time together. The volunteers developed a very private relationship with Fenna, as they usually also lived with her. Noura describes the relationship with visitors to their facility as similarly positive:
“Jusqu’ à maintenant, j’ai toujours eu une bonne relation avec les volontaires. Je les aime beaucoup. On a de la chance d’avoir eu que de bonnes personnes. Oui, on passe du temps ensemble. Parfois, on sort pour aller boire un café et pour discuter un peu ou on va au hammam ensemble. Et de temps en temps, je les invite dans ma maison.“ (Noura)
In addition, information was collected from the encounters with the inhabitants of the neighborhood of Souani, who use the leisure facilities. Here, too, a certain regularity and thus a comparatively closer relationship in contrast to the encounters on the road can be observed. However, there are only a few children and women who really come to class every day and so the students change very often. Nevertheless, discussions arise again and again. For instance, Sabine remembers that she had spoken to women about religion and education, and they had invited her at the end of her stay, to a farewell party.
The volunteers can find exactly what they opted for with "World Unite!" - to get to know the country from a non-touristy side if they have an interest in people and their culture. This setting provides a good basis for the interactions. The three female volunteers saw an opportunity, based on their training, to work in a casual environment in teaching languages.
In contrast to other forms of tourism, this project demands as a prerequisite, the knowledge of French. Catherine had even attended an Arabic course, in which they had prepared her from the outset for a longer stay. The volunteers also bring in international experience. For example, Sabine had already been to Morocco three times on private visits, and Otto was in the midst of a long journey that he "has still not completed."
As mentioned in the theoretical part, how much the social and economic status of the parties differ from each other and whether they have similar objectives plays a big part in the cultural encounter. The social and economic status is difficult to compare, as both sides come from a very different context: the volunteers from the "rich" Europe and the people visited from the modest Morocco. The former spend their free time in the UAF traveling; the women of the initiative, however, earn their money with this work and are in a daily routine.
Nevertheless, one can say, for example, about Noura, that her family belonged to the Moroccan middle class and has a regular income. Her husband works as an accountant and judging by her apartment that we have visited, the family of four has a relatively high standard of living. Her son is housed in a private paid kindergarten. Thus, she stands, speaking of the social and economic situation, closer than someone who lives at subsistence level, as many residents of the district of Souani do.
In conversations and through the questionnaires, it was clear that the objectives of both parties, or the ideas about the goals and motivation of the other persons, are very similar. Both are interested in a cultural exchange. The way in which this takes place, or should take place, I would like to explain in more detail later, in the section about knowledge and cultural transfer. "As a unifying figure effective authority", which may favor the encounter, is, in this case Fenna, introducing the volunteers to Noura and thus, creating a certain basis of trust.
What are the other points that affect the encounter in this Voluntourism example? The context of the parties and the resulting stereotypes and prejudices are always important considerations. On the part of volunteers, this will be their notions of Morocco and its people, especially from holiday reports from friends and acquaintances, travel guides and information packages of "World Unite!". What stereotypes they bring with them and exactly how they are evolved and embedded are unfortunately not part of my report. However, I will address this point in "overcoming the neo-colonial pattern of commercial tourism?" in reference to what is foreign and native. It is also important to analyze the impact on the locals of the host country. Unlike other forms of tourism, the encounter with the locals is in this case, not only limited to service benefits. On the contrary, the economic component is almost non-existent when it comes to the person in charge of the UAF. Moreover, since the first experience is volunteering and not touristic views of exotic Morocco, it is easier to get a behind the scenes perspective. In addition, the UAF works with women in some poorer areas of Souani, away from the tourist Center. And even outside working hours, Noura invites volunteers to her home, goes with them to pick her son up from kindergarten or takes them to the hammam on a weekly basis. However, it is also difficult to distinguish what is "real" and what is "staged" for the volunteers. For example, our meetings with Noura in chic cafes called "Glasgow" and "Madame Porte" is not really part of everyday life, as it turned out when she mentioned once that they too have entered this locality for the first time. Although the relationship with the persons in charge of the UAF and also with Fenna is referred to as "friendly" and found to be very close, it must be noted that the traveler still is in a different circumstmce. So the blogger Nora Dunn asks about the role of locals in Voluntourism:
"[Are] they locals or tour guides? After seeing troop after troop of volunteers tramp through each week, ushered from project to project, how would you feel if you were a local? Anybody who works or has worked in the tourism industry knows what it is like to field the same set of questions coming from different people each day/week/month. You make it an amazing experience for them, and they feel very special and connected to you. But to you they’re often just another face … not her tourist hoping to see the ‘real deal’ and trying to help with the best of intentions.”
2.2 Knowledge and cultural transfer
Now that I have described the encounters in my case study in more detail and therefore, qualify to speak about knowledge and cultural transfer, I would like to turn to what is mediated specifically between the parties and in what form cultural exchange takes place.
What do the volunteers want to learn? They come with the intention to learn something about the Moroccan culture, away from the tourist attractions. This can be achieved even through the location of the premises of the UAF. In their accommodation, both individual travelers and tour groups, especially in the musealized Medina with its Kasbah or even in the modern Ville Nouvelle in colonial style, have to go through the Souani district, just outside the city center, on their way to work. Here, there are no tourists to be found. In the markets and in stores, there are only the residents of the district and the so-called "faux guides" (locals who earn their living through conducting guided tours through the maze-like medina, but have no official city guide status). So one gets to watch the "real" Moroccan daily life here. However, again the question arises as to what extent is seen for what it is and how the seen is perceived and filtered. Here too, further qualitative interviews were interesting.
Most of all, through the talks with the leaders of the UAF and the residents of the neighborhood, the volunteers will have the opportunity to learn a lot about the culture and society of Morocco. And in contrast to the conversation with Moroccans who work in the tourism sector and want to represent their country really positively, one can also get the "not-so-positive" side of the country. We thus obtained, for example, from Noura again, a very different view of Islam and the role of women. While there was religiosity and everything that goes with it, for us Tangier had something spiritual and peaceful; Noura told us what the call of the muezzin actually involves and how the strict Islamic way of life was for everyday living. While we saw an independent, self-confident woman who earned her own income, they told us that women are still disadvantaged in Moroccan society and their youth is spent only to prepare them for marriage someday. For Catherine, volunteering has changed her knowledge of Islam, their view of religion in general, and even in relation to their native country:
"I can begin to understand what the Muslim faith means here in people's daily lives. Although one cannot generalise - because even here there are differences in the exercise of faith of each individual - I think that religion in a Muslim country plays a very different role than Christianity in Europe. It is perhaps (...) I can better understand now why it is difficult for Muslims to adjust in a Christian country like Germany or Switzerland. I've learned that religion has a much greater significance in people's lives, as I have previously never thought possible. I have realized that spirituality and faith have played a very minor role in my personal life and my everyday life in Switzerland. The direct confrontation with the Islamic culture here in Morocco has prompted me to reflect on my own attitude to my faith and Christianity." (Katharina)
The traveler, through volunteering, also gains an insight into the school system and their operations in Morocco. The social program of the UAF fills the gaps in the timetable of the children, during which they would actually spend time on the road. Sabine was surprised at how poor the teaching of French was in public Moroccan schools. And Martina did not expect "that everything happens so chaotic."
But what can the people from the Organizations take away from Voluntourism in this example? Noura sees as its benefit, among other things, that it offers people contact with foreigners, which she finds very interesting and they can also improve their French. As far as the knowledge about Western culture of the volunteers is concerned, Moroccan women have the opportunity to learn more by talking about it. However, I saw from experience that exchange in this direction is very minimal. Also, Catherine wrote that the issues had always been very superficial to their country of origin, and thus cultural exchange is somewhat one-sided. I do not have the research to analyze in detail the background of this lack of interest.
But what accounts for the bulk of knowledge and cultural transfer for the people visited in this case is to learn about the way of working and teaching methods of the volunteers. While Catherine's lessons during our afternoon program were always either with Saloua or Noura present, so that they could support us with communication problems, they observed as we worked with the children in language games, French songs with dance moves, board games, used books, craft ideas, our organizational approach ... So confirmed Noura: "On profite de leurs expériences professionnelles et de leurs méthodes de travail.“ This raises the question to what extent the didactic and pedagogical approach of the Europeans is accepted and even implemented. For although Noura and Saloua are fluent in French and sometimes better than the volunteers, they do not trust themselves to give the children lessons. Noura also always thought that the children prefer the lessons of the volunteers because they were not so strict: "Les enfants prefèrent les volontaires. Ils sont sympa et patients. Nous sommes differentes: Strictes et autoritaires." This, she described as a state that can not be changed./div>
Finally, the students get taught foreign languages ​​and new methods of learning by volunteers. Sabine described the learning achievements of children as follows: "They have increased their active vocabulary and [they're] ready to speak. Learning in a relaxed atmosphere that allowed error. Foreign language learned as a real means of communication. The people I have taught have all learned and perceived new teaching and learning methods." This would re-consider how and whether progress is really possible at all in the children and women within two weeks.
2.3 Overcoming the neo-colonial pattern of commercial tourism?
To complete the analysis of the field, I will now dwell on Voluntourism as postcolonial Travel. Can the neo-colonial patterns also be found in conventional remote tourism? The information package sent to volunteers by "World Unite" begins with the words: "In Morocco, you encounter a strange world." So it is clear at the outset that you look for what is different, rather than similar or perfect. However, this trip takes place under other conditions. Although the volunteers are still in the privileged circumstances of Europeans, both financially and legally, traveling to the African continent is very easy, in contrast to the Moroccan population, for whom to emigrate to Europe is usually difficult or even denied. However, the format of Voluntourism does not automatically lead to an economic dependence. In addition, the volunteer tourist has the opportunity to see a Morocco that is just not distinguished as a touristic Old Town, just by its handicrafts, traditional clothing, oriental buildings, religious festivals and local cuisine. Instead, one is confronted with Moroccan daily life, even if, from the perspective of the Europeans, is characterised by "retrograde" elements such as illiteracy, discrimination against women and abject poverty, and also modern women who are in employment, single parents, cooking spaghetti bolognese, wearing jeans, blouses and headscarves and their children watch Spanish and French animated series. While Western elements are often ignored or overlooked in conventional remote tourism, one is confronted during Voluntourism, with different lifestyles which may not be far from one's own. By looking at the "true lives" of the locals, you experience from close, the culture and the heterogeneity of the society here .
3. Summary and critique "Travel and Helping"
Finally, it must be noted, that for a more detailed analysis of cultural exchange in Voluntourism, further surveys and especially qualitative interviews must be conducted. Nevertheless, what we have brings us closer to the results of the advantages and disadvantages for intercultural encounters in this new form of travel.
Compared to other forms of tourism, Voluntourism strongly favours cultural exchange. During conventional travel, one comes across only locals who work in the service sector, and sees areas of the city that have been made ​​into museums and staged for tourism; the volunteer tourist gains an insight into the daily lives of people who make a living in a non-profit organization or social institution and moves in neighborhoods that you would probably never set foot in as a normal tourist. In addition, the brevity and uniqueness of the encounter is eliminated. Even if the volunteer is committed to only one week in a project, the encounter has a certain regularity and intensity. However, this greatly depends on the interest, openness and tolerance from both sides. Certain conditions must be fulfilled in the Voluntourism to facilitate Intercultural exchange. All the volunteers I interviewed had an education in their project area and thus, knowledge by which they and the people visited benefited through their work in the organization. In addition, knowledge of foreign languages ​​should always be the prerequisite to commence a volunteering assignment in this context, since otherwise, the dialogue already fails due to communication problems. The question remains as to what extent both sides can benefit from each other in one to three weeks. Catherine, who worked for six months in the UAF was very well prepared for her stay, both in prior knowledge about the Moroccan culture and society, as well as with the teaching materials and language skills. You know from the beginning that you will spend a few days in the organization; preparation should be taken more seriously. It is also obvious that the students benefit from the language teaching even more when the volunteers stay longer. One should always have the thought in mind: what will remain when the volunteers are gone? How sustainable is the project? Here too, further studies would be interesting.
Finally, I would just like to explore the concept of "giving", referencing the Voluntourism providers such as "World Unite!". What does actually help and is it true in this case? Who helps whom here?
First, we need to define "help" and what exactly the need is. But who diagnoses the situation, the need and the right help? This creates an imbalance of power between the "superior experts from the West" and the "retrograde needy from the developing country". Another point of criticism of the term "help" is the bias that this implies. However, in Voluntourism, as opposed to longer deployments abroad where a very selfish component affects the decision to volunteer, will not be an issue. Even if the people visited can learn something from the volunteers (this requires a certain training or experience in a particular area), whether they are implemented and especially if they are at all useful for the organization in a completely different context, remains doubtful. But the main argument against this implied unconditional altruism and the "helper" is the knowledge and experiences that the volunteers gain from their project and this often significantly outweighs what remains after their return.
So Voluntourism, in terms of "giving", automatically causes negative images of young, adventurous tourists from Europe, traveling in a developing country to contribute something for the poorest of the poor , and also enjoy holiday activities for a few days and thus easing their conscience. By taking these forms of travel, however, under the rubric of "cultural exchange" and meeting the people of the host country at eye level, knowing what you can learn from all of them, has attained this novel, often criticized terminus of Voluntourism, a whole new connotation.
* All names of participants have been changed.

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