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Because of the sheer number of organizations involved in international volunteering and the multiplicity of efforts they undertake, few research projects have been conducted to assess their socio-economic impact, outreach, and sustainability. The academic and practitioners’ discourse is replete with the lack of information, the lack of tools to measure the impact of activities, and the wide array of volunteer sending organizations. Since the existing information is notably incomplete, we opted to develop a new tool that would allow volunteers to map their activities and complete a short survey directly from their mobile phone. The application would eventually be made available to other travelers (tourists) to raise awareness as well as increase human and financial participation. Initial phases of development of the tool have demonstrated its flexibility to adapt to the need of the programs being assessed. The phone application was used to map existing water wells and collect information about their status (working, not working). The phone application is also supported by a strong database that can collect information on the community, the type of equipment, and other factors that might be required. The application, loaded on an Android(R) phone, has the capacity to ask the operators to take a picture and to answer a pre-loaded survey questionnaire. The phone sends a signal and collects a GIS location for the water well. Once the information is loaded on the platform, partners and stakeholders can view instantly the information collected and a good, visual perspective on coverage and communities not being served. The collection of details such as location and basic community data only provides a snapshot of the situation at a moment in time. Success factors and social changes are not captured and in order to demonstrate impact and outcome, the information needs to be compared against statistical data. In order to assess missed opportunities, we are currently trying to develop a partnership with UNCHA to have access to the 3W database (Who is doing What Where). The other level of comparison with humanitarian projects in the same region would offer a means to evaluate opportunities for collaboration to increase human and financial participation.
Travel, international development
Several unanswered questions such as the capacity to measure the economic/social/environmental impact, the financial sustainability of the projects, and the lack of linkages (missed opportunities) to other development efforts are still complex to address. Using new technology such as a phone application to map projects and activities against social and economic data from communities provides for new opportunities in this field. Understanding the impact on the communities and the returning volunteers will help in the amelioration of existing programs. Mapping will help identify gaps, and the information it will generate, will help identify links with other development programs.
The lack of standard and access to information was one of the determining factors for the need to develop tools to map and quantify/qualify activities. The majority are self-funded, the impact assessment is limited to returning volunteers, the number of people moved, and the work done (a building, total hours performed).
Given that there are no tools or standards to assess the long-term impact of international volunteering and volunteer travel, we are working on the development of a model (tool). This tool will help us collect information from volunteer sending organizations and compare this data against standardized social, economic, and environmental information from local communities.. Gaps and missed opportunities for linkages will be identified. The report produced would inform policy makers and government leaders on current and planned activities, their impact on local communities, possible linkages with government allocation of human and financial resources, and potential overlaps & gaps in services.
Literature review in this field revealed that not much has been done in terms of organized data collection. We realized that it would be difficult to assess any programs since they generally have a different approach to volunteer activities and touristic experiences – all featuring different ways of measuring programmatic outcomes. Some emphasize short-term participation, whereas others focus on individual, longer-term placements. Some integrate touristic activities within the context of a given experience, while others may outsource these services to tour operators or simply provide periods of designated ‘free-time’ for “voluntourists” to identify touristic engagement options on their own. We have been unable to find programs that holistically measure the socio-economic impact of their operations. Our efforts have focused on the development of a tool that would allow development agencies, volunteer sending organizations, and humanitarian causes to monitor and assess the socio-economic impact of programs at a click of a button. The flexibility of the phone application to reach volunteers and stakeholders is a major asset compared to manual collection of data. The next phase of development is to have the application in more hands and to gauge the potential for collaboration. However, we are aware that some organizations may not want to participate because it can quickly demonstrate the lack of impact that they have in their respective programs. This challenge can be circumvented by also making the application available to travelers through web portals. In addition, educating travelers on utilizing the application will also be “of service” to communities around the world will provide additional impetus and encouragement for broader adoption.
Based on initial research, it’s obvious that study on this topic or sector of the international development movement is often limited to impact on returning volunteers. Others have focused on the finance generated by this movement and the number of volunteer that have participated. Very little has targeted the socio-economic impact at the destination level, especially as it relates to residents. The impact of volunteering including short-term volunteering is hard to assess because of the number of stakeholders involved, particularly the sometimes very complex nature of the supply chain. Collaboration between VSO will help in collecting better data and increase its effectiveness.
Voluntourism, volunteering and civic participation at the international level have been on the increase for the past five years. More countries, private sector operators, air carriers are hoping to cash-in on this fast growing sector. Once a segment of the travel industry reserved for faith-based organizations and backpackers, this movement has now spilled over to high-end hoteliers, travel booking sites, and self-made foreign-aid partakers. From low-skills to high-skills, volunteers/voluntourists play an important role in the development of communities in sectors such as health, medicine, agriculture, infrastructures, tourism, and many others. Volunteers’ activities in host countries provide for a good opportunity for capacity building and knowledge sharing. To date, these activities have little disengagement strategies. Our efforts have focused on developing the right tools and standard to help leverage the human and financial activities of the yearly millions of volunteer travelers. The activities of volunteer sending organizations are widespread and address various social, environmental and economic needs of small rural communities. The current nature of the sector itself doesn’t allow for much collaboration between organizations. Since a great majority of the organizations are self-funded, the push for impact assessment and outcome mapping is not mandatory, yet it is essential to the long-term sustainability of the sector. Our work focuses on developing the tools / standard that will map activities against country statistical data and qualitative data. With traditional method and since a community is never static, the impact might not be captured and measured.