The following is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, titled Pro-Poor Tourism in Nicaragua, submitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology in December, 2016:
Nicaragua: Land of Lakes and Volcanoes reads the unofficial slogan of the small Central American country that lies sandwiched between Costa Rica to its south, and Honduras to its north. Its six million inhabitants indeed live in a land abounding in natural resources; its epithet comes from being home to 24 volcanoes and a plethora of freshwater ecosystems. It is these qualities that make Nicaragua a backpacker haven for many budget-conscious tourists who want to “trek off the beaten path” and explore a country that promises both leisure and adventure centered around Nicaragua’s many active volcanoes. In fact, tourism in Nicaragua has boomed in recent years. The number of tourist arrivals has increased from 281,000 in 1995 to 1.3 million in 2014. With leading publications ranging from the New York Times and CNN to the Huffington Post and Fox News urging their readership to visit Nicaragua before it is spoilt, the uptick in tourist arrivals comes as little surprise.
The tourism industry is plenty aware of Nicaragua’s allure, and is actively working to capture the imagination of visitors hoping to be wonderstruck by its awesome landscape despite the country’s substandard infrastructure and high rates of poverty. In fact, some might argue that many tourists visit Nicaragua not in spite of its underdevelopment, but because of it. Much to the ire of academics in development studies, a multitude of non-profit organizations and tour operators are making bank by offering high school and college students the opportunity to participate in the profitable economy of voluntourism; as its name suggests, voluntourism presents visitors with the hybrid opportunity to participate in both volunteer and tourist activities. That is, students and their families pay hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to live and work in Nicaragua’s rural communities for periods spanning from several days to several weeks in order to at best “make an impact” and at worst build their resumes. When they are not busy building houses or teaching dance at a local elementary school, they spend their free time hiking Volcán Mombacho or sledding down the graveled slopes of Volcán Cerro Negro. One must ask, however, how much of an impact is made when many of these voluntourists do not speak Spanish, are unskilled, and lack meaningful work experience. Some Nicaraguans fear that well-meaning tourists are not only unhelpful, but that they also threaten to outcompete qualified Nicaraguans working in industries reliant on manual labor, like construction, thus reducing the need for local employment.
In Summer 2016, I worked as a field leader for an American NGO that funds its operational costs almost entirely on foreign volunteers it hosts throughout the year. Its largest income providers are undergraduate students that travel to Nicaragua for ten weeks in the summer months to offer pro-bono small business consultations, perform eye exams in pop-up clinics, and conduct community needs surveys in rural, subsistence farming communities. These students pay over US$3,000 in program fees, and the group size varies yearly from between 20 students to 30 students. Most of the program participants were economics or engineering students in their first and second years of university, and the majority of students I supervised that summer lacked basic Spanish proficiency. Despite these shortfalls, students were expected to assume the work typically done by full-time, permanent staff members throughout the year in periods of just a few days in each community they visited. My coworkers—foreign and local alike—frowned upon this practice due to the low-quality service the students provided, and the inadequate survey responses they garnered due to their poor language skills. However, leadership insisted that the students were paying to gain this precise experience, and was reluctant to amend existing policy to incorporate what many staff members believed to be legitimate concerns.
One particularly egregious memory recalls orientation week. Senior staff members were instructed by their supervisor to train students in conducting community needs surveys in communities in which the organization has not worked in the past, and has no plans to work in the future. Each student was provided a slip of paper that included an introductory blurb about the organization that they were expected to read to each survey respondent. The blurb asked for the respondent’s contact information so organization staff would be able to notify respondents of their imminent return to that community in order to implement the project they described to them. Of course, this was all hypothetical. The respondents were unaware that what seemed like a genuine interaction was actually a training exercise, and became visibly emotional at the possibility that this organization would be able to meet the needs they expressed in the survey. This anecdote highlights the problem of many voluntourism programs that rely on program fees by “do-gooder” tourists to fund their operational costs year round. That is, they are oftentimes obliged to satisfy the interests of program participants before they can satisfy those of their intended project beneficiaries. In other words, these organizations profit by creating structured, resume-building programs for students by exploiting the lived hardships of impoverished Nicaraguans.
If communities do not always benefit from such projects, why do they collaborate with non-profit organizations at all? Part of the answer relates to the presence of an unequal power dynamic between NGOs and rural communities. This imbalance is based on differences in political and economic capital. Approximately 30 percent of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 per day, and nearly 50 percent of households in rural areas live in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as under $1.25 per day. Many of these communities lack health care, paved roads, and water access, and their children sometimes hike upwards of one hour each way to attend school. In communities facing such dire circumstances, NGOs present them with greater access to wealth, often times in the form of microfinance, infrastructure development, and donated goods. To further illustrate, one high-ranking official of a large international NGO in Nicaragua told me that many communities agreed to certain project proposals his organization offered, only later to admit that those projects were actually both unwanted and unhelpful. They confided in him months after those projects had terminated that they accepted the aid because they were afraid that if they had turned it down, the NGO would either decide to forgo future projects, or retract its ongoing projects in the community, however baseless and untrue. In sum, rural communities with little access to basic amenities sometimes accept aid for fear of retribution or neglect.
Many NGOs acknowledge that the power imbalances described above indeed negatively impact their ability to appropriately respond to community needs. In order to better serve communities, some organizations are addressing this impediment directly. They accomplish this by attempting to transfer power from organizations to communities by moving away from voluntourism-based projects towards ones based on economic empowerment. These organizations do not just donate things to communities, but they also actively work to ensure that communities are self-sustaining by providing them business training and increased access to markets. They ultimately aim to reduce reliance on non-profit actors by increasing communities’ economic and political capital. In this model, NGOs play a minimal, supportive role in the implementation and development of community-based projects. One such non-profit organization—and the focus of my ethnographic research—is the British charity Fuertes Juntos.