Last week CBC Doc Zone released Volunteers Unleashed, a documentary that challenges the efficacy of international volunteer work and voluntourism, on national television in Canada. As a non-Canadian with limited illegal streaming abilities, I still haven’t seen the final cut, but I do know that the film’s release fanned controversy that started with it’s initial pull from air only a few weeks earlier.
I started working with Brad Quenville, the Director of Volunteers Unleashed, when he filmed me speaking at the Tourism Concern International Volunteering Conference in London this past fall. For three days, I spent upwards of 6 hours in front of the camera, across from Brad, talking voluntourism. It was a marathon, but we got some really good stuff.
Some of that footage was, it turns out, a bit too much for the CBC to handle. While I don’t know all of the details, it was released by Canadaland that the pulling of Volunteers Unleashed was due to a misuse-of-footage claim by Me to We, one of the volunteer travel companies that I criticized in the original cut of the film. Me to We, a leader in the volunteer travel space in Canada and a major player in what is a multi-billion dollar global industry, is the ‘cousin’ of non-profit organization Free the Children. Legally, the two are separate entities, Me to We being a company and Free the Children being a non-profit, but they are completely co-branded, founded and led by the same family, and it is difficult to even see a separation between the two without a good deal of research. Research that the average high school kid wouldn’t do before signing up for a trip.
While Free the Children and Me to We denied a desire to squash the documentary, they did succeed in getting the CBC to tone down what was already a soft-pitched critique. Now, it could be claimed that the cutting out of any harsh words was simply a coincidence as they coincided in the film with the contested footage, but I find it hard to believe that that is the case. It seems more likely that a powerful non-profit and it’s for-profit cousin strong armed a national television network into censoring it’s programming to keep their name out of the voluntourism debate – as long as their name isn’t mentioned they must be doing good work, right?
It is astonishing to me that Me to We, a company that claims to encourage conversation and debate among young people, that claims to strive for greater global awareness, has the hubris to think that it can pull a stunt like this and come out unscathed.
Journalistic freedom, it seems, has no place where self-absorbed and over-fluffed companies and non-profits are concerned. Which is, to me, horrifying. If we can’t openly criticize entities in a fair and measured way, not libel, criticism, then we are creating a situation in which for-profit’s and non-profit’s are empowered to do whatever they please without fear.
I am very glad that CBC finally released Volunteers Unleashed because the message, that we need to think critically about why we are encouraging young people to go on voluntourism trips and whether those trips are actually helping communities (hint: most are not), needs to be heard. But it is the full message, the complete message, the message that “names names” so to speak, that needs to get out there. Not a watered down, re-leashed version made palatable to the very organizations and companies that need to be questioned.