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Opinionista

‘Voluntourism’ is often critical to academic careers and conservation, but the practice has drawn flak

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Dr Simon Elwen is a founding director of Sea Search Research and Conservation and an Honorary Research Associate with the Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University. He has been studying the conservation ecology of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the southern African subregion for over 20 years. Dr Tess Gridley is a founding director of Sea Search Research and Conservation and a post-doctoral researcher with the Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University. Trained in the UK, she has been working in Africa since 2009 where she has pioneered the study of acoustic communication in cetaceans, especially the coastal dolphins.

‘Voluntourists’ is the moniker given to young people, often on a gap year, who pay to work in conservation and other areas. In some cases, they have been heavily criticised – especially when it comes to dodgy tourist ‘attractions’ involving domesticated wildlife. However, voluntourism can be vital to the success of genuine conservation projects.

Conservation or biological research projects funded through fees from volunteers or students are common in many countries, especially in developing nations, and on projects working with charismatic megafauna.

“Voluntourism” projects, as they are sometimes known, often have a reputation as little more than gap-year holidays for wealthy kids to pet lion cubs or engage in “white saviour” fantasies, although core concerns mainly pertain to projects working with humans and especially children (Smith & Font 2015, Freidus 2017).

Although there is considerable scope within this sector, we focus our commentary on projects with a scientific biological research element, rather than those which focus on “animal rehabilitation” or “community engagement” or working with children. While no industry is perfect, we argue that this approach to funding wildlife research projects can be valuable, reasonable and, for many groups, is essential for project success. 

We focus on three well known marine research groups in South Africa – (Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Oceans Research and Sea Search Research and Conservation) – although the arguments apply elsewhere. A significant amount of the primary research on marine megafauna in southern Africa, notably cetaceans and sharks, is conducted by these organisations – all of which are funded partially by “voluntourism”. 

A brief review of publications listed on these projects’ websites reveals a total of 69 scientific papers or reports since 2010 (excluding collaborative duplicates and the many student theses produced), in a wide range of international publications including respected journals such as Animal Behaviour, Biology Letters, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and even contributing to a global review of shark/fishery interactions in Nature

Strikingly, none of the investigators who lead these projects hold permanent academic or government research positions (which are incredibly rare in the region) and several have been completing their own PhDs over this time.

Funds from volunteers and visiting students (i.e. those also doing a thesis as part of their visit) contribute to both direct project costs and salaries, without which many of those 69 contributions to science (and associated theses) would likely not exist. Although harder to measure, each of the organisations above (and many others in the region) also contribute significantly to community education initiatives in various forms.

Internships with these field-focused research projects provide budding scientists with exposure to field skills and project realities not easily incorporated into time-limited and theory-focused undergraduate classes of 100+ students. Importantly, it can be considered that internship fees are functionally the same as any university or course fee, but come with the added bonus of multiple wildlife experiences, which, if undertaken on commercial tours, would be substantially more expensive.

The drive for these training internships often comes from academic institutions themselves. Increasingly, many university students are required to conduct internships or extended off-campus placements as part of their degree, especially those in the growing number of course-work based Masters degrees available in Europe/UK. 

The opportunity to undertake such placements within the degree time frame appears to be a key selling point for these degrees, promoting many unsolicited requests for placements with research organisations.

These organisations can provide access to long-term data, project concepts, supervision and field training, and often support students onto their first publications (all those listed above are the result of post-graduate theses). Projects are supervised by the host, with often limited input from overworked supervisors at their home university. It is only reasonable to charge a fee for this service.

Pro-rata, internship fees are typically less than those paid for an MSc in the UK, or a typical short course on, for example, ecological statistical methods, neither of which include accommodation and food and often come with the caveat of “optional field courses may incur additional costs”. 

The regular student exchange and co-supervision of projects with international partners provides an ongoing collaboration between developing and developed nation partners that matches the goals of large developed nation grants such as the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund, but with an important difference in that these projects are typically driven by the researchers on the ground, and not those in “First World” universities conducting “helicopter science”.

We argue that if research projects are conducted in alignment with good academic and ethical standards, funding from “voluntourism” enables research, student training and collaboration opportunities in areas which would otherwise not exist. 

The academic sector in southern Africa has been shrinking for years and faces significant financial challenges, as exemplified in, for instance, the #FeesMustFall movement which started in 2015. Similar trends in downsizing and funding loss are now being faced globally, with associated job losses made worse by the Covid-19 crisis. 

In the face of limited funding options, many small NGO research groups are already ahead of the curve in using an entrepreneurial approach to fund research, although for how much longer, who can say?

Do paid internships bias “gaining experience” towards wealthier students? Yes, but the same argument applies to any form of tertiary education that is not free.

Do paid internships take away opportunities from local or poorer students or limit job creation? In our experience, no. In most cases, the fees generated allow the organisations to exist, contribute to the salaries of project members and associated staff, and allow for the support and training of local students. They also help to conduct education and outreach work within the community to inspire local conservation efforts.

Without these training fees, organisations such as those above would likely not exist in their current form: they’d be smaller, run shorter field seasons, and train far fewer students.

We argue that if research projects are conducted in alignment with good academic and ethical standards, funding from “voluntourism” enables research, student training and collaboration opportunities in areas which would otherwise not exist. 

These projects also contribute to local economies and job creation, often significantly, as they are typically in remote areas. Organisations should maintain high standards and value for money and ensure research meets international standards of supervision. There is also an onus on volunteers and student supervisors to investigate the reputation of host organisations – for research-focused projects, the metric is peer-reviewed research articles and theses.

Since so many of these projects rely on international travel to function, they have been hit particularly hard by the global shutdown in response to Covid-19. 

We fully support the promotion of diversity in science, but caution that blanket calls to ban unpaid internship positions, as they are “a barrier to diversity and inclusivity”, may be counterproductive outside of the developed world where funding sources for NGOs are on a knife-edge. 

Further reducing income in these areas, without greater centralised finances to help smaller organisations, may serve to stifle conservation actions and reduce opportunities for all. DM

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