More thoughts on volunteering & voluntourism…

As my interview on Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning programme goes to air I thought it might be a good opportunity to post some further thoughts on international volunteering, voluntourism and my research. I’ve been working on voluntourism-related research for much of the past year (indeed most of the last 12 years!) but haven’t really blogged about this as my focus has been on academic writing, and perhaps because (from my perspective) there has been a lot already written. However here in New Zealand, although a growing number of people are volunteering, there has been far less media and social media coverage and I often find myself explaining what voluntourism is. So here is a brief explanation and my take on this fascinating phenomena.

Speaking from experience - the author as a nurse voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

Speaking from experience – the author as a nurse voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

International volunteering, at its simplest, is volunteering in any country other than your own. Volunteers undertake a wide range of activities including teaching, delivering medical assistance, building homes and conservation work, usually giving their energy, skills and time without monetary compensation (or a minimal stipend) in order to help make a difference in communities around the world. Voluntourism (which was the main focus of the interview and my current research) is the intersection of international volunteering and tourism/travel, where tourists combine short-term volunteer work with holidays – and often pay a fee to do so.

The focus of much of the Radio NZ interview was on the darker side of voluntourism, and this is something I do think needs discussion. The increasing commercialisation of volunteering, the surge of inexperienced volunteers arriving in communities around the world, and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes (and the white saviour complex) are all real issues which have the potential to cause considerable harm. In my Master’s research on short term medical volunteering I found that the short-term nature of voluntourism significantly limits the good that can be done, can undermine local health care services, and can lead to  some very unethical activities. Without clear regulation and oversight medical volunteers may take more risks than they would at home (for example undertaking procedures they weren’t adequately trained for), and without knowledge of the language and culture, may make potentially dangerous mistakes. My PhD research also highlighted some broader concerns with volunteering including the limited impact on long-term development, and the reinforcing of a western-oriented norms and values.

However there is a brighter side, which unfortunately I don’t think will come out in the interview. In a world which seems increasingly insecure and chaotic the desire of so many to give back and help is positive and hopeful. While good intentions are never enough, they are a start and there is considerable potential in well-designed programmes that foreground mutual learning and understanding rather than well-meant but ineffective ‘helping’. In my recent Fiji research I explored  home stays and cultural immersion experiences and was encouraged by the relationships formed between voluntourists and host families. I also found the attitudes of the youth volunteers refreshing, with most acknowledging thier limits as volunteers and emphasising the relational and learning aspects of thier experiences. I’ll be following up on this when I return to Fiji later this year.

I’m often asked whether I think people should volunteer, and I still haven’t found the right answer. It really does depend on the individual, the organisation and the work they want to do. In general, longer volunteering experiences are better – spending more time in a community means you can learn more and, as a result, contribute more. Aspiring volunteers also need to do their homework on the host country and organisation and aim to make learning and understanding the key aim of the experience rather than trying to ‘make a difference’. And finally, volunteers shouldn’t undertake activities overseas that wouldn’t be acceptable in their home country or that they would not regularly do in day to day life at home.

CCD paper published!

Two years after we first submitted it our paper on conceptualising corporate community development is now available. The hashtag #slowacademia seems particularly appropriate here as our ideas have moved on during the time it took to be reviewed, revised and reviewed again. But it is available now, and if you have an interest in the role of the private sector in community development please have a read (email me for an open access copy if you don’t have access via the link).

The Marsden team in the UK

(cross-posted from the Conch Shell blog)

IMG_6025-001The ‘Old Country’ recently played host to three members of the Marsden team who were on a Conference ‘Bombing’ trip, presenting some of the initial empirical findings and conceptual developments from the project. The team had organised panel sessions on the project at both the Royal Geographical Society/ Institute of British Geographers Conference in Exeter, and the Development Studies Association (DSA) Conference in Bath, and Glenn, Sharon and Emma R. travelled to the UK as presenters. The geographic and temporal proximity of the two events (a hundred miles or so, and two days apart) made the lengthy trip worthwhile, and allowed us to showcase the work of the two PhD students (Emma and Emma[1]) in front of an international audience.

A common thematic thread that connected the two conferences was an acknowledgment of the role of human society in shaping, both intentionally and inadvertently, social and environmental realities today.   The team’s project work therefore fit nicely within this space, and the two panel sessions appeared to address an otherwise absent voice, being one that explicitly recognised the part of the multinational (mining and tourism) companies in the formation of livelihood outcomes. In this regard, findings emerging from the PhD research provided insightful case study examples that urged listeners to consider the complexities of corporate – community relationships.

The presentations went well, and the feedback – especially at the DSA – provided good reminders of some issues that we need to keep in mind with the project: the relative absence of the state in regulating and mediating corporate community relations across the two countries (Fiji and Papua New Guinea), the need to maintain a critical eye on corporate motives (which we think we are doing!), the influence of actors within the corporations, the complexities around funding of CCD activities (such as the use of tax credits in the mining sector, and guest donations in tourism), and the question of temporality (Glenn’s still trying to figure out the last of these…).

We were also delighted to be reunited in the RGS panel with Emma Mawdsley and Cheryl McEwan (who Glenn and Regina had worked with earlier in the year on private sector and community development research), and had a really useful contribution to our DSA panel from Tomas Fredrikson from University of Manchester who presented on his work looking at CSR efforts of mining companies in Ghana, Zambia and Peru.

Like all these events, we also got to hear people present on a wide body of research – some highlights (for Glenn) were Anna Tsing’s beautifully poetic account of ‘Feral geographies: life in capitalist ruins’, a provocative ‘think piece’ by James Fergusson on rethinking notions of gift and exchange (promoting instead the idea of ‘demand sharing’), and a lovely piece by an old colleague Roger McLean that questioned, on the basis of 40 years of detailed fieldwork in Kiribati, the received wisdom that coral atolls are necessarily sinking due to sea-level rise.

Sharon spent much of her time at the two conferences running between sessions – in addition to presenting Emma H.’s papers and co-authoring a presentation with Glenn, she also gave papers on her ‘other’ research on volunteering and social media. She managed a total of five presentations in under a week, which must be some sort of conference record! Highlights for Sharon included the DSA final keynote by Branco Milanovic whose insights into inequality may find their way into the Development and Inequality paper she currently teaches; discussions with Doug Speight, whose work on digital media and mining in Latin America connects with both her doctoral and post-doctoral research; and contacts made with a range of people with shared interests in volunteering and in ICT for development.

For Emma (R) conference highlights included hearing the interesting feedback stemming from our CCD panel presentations, and at the DSA conference listening to Allister McGregor talk about the intricacies of relational wellbeing in development (‘The Stuff that Makes it Work’) and Melania Calestani share her experiences learning about wellbeing in Bolivia (‘An Anthropology of Well-being in the city of El Alto, Bolivia’).   Although not technically a ‘conference’ highlight, it should also be noted that post-conferences drinks at ‘The Imperial’ in Exter were also very enjoyable… Although in hindsight, visiting an establishment with a name like that, perhaps we were lucky not banned from attending the DSA conference outright!

In between all of this, there was some connecting with old and new friends, a small amount of sightseeing, some sun, some rain, a squeaky toilet door, mis-functioning ATMs, occasional technological failures, and some pretty ordinary coffee (we couldn’t have everything go well!). Overall it was encouraging to get such an affirming response to our work – with people commenting positively on the novelty, the necessity and the value of the research we’re engaged in.

[1] Emma Hughes was also due to travel with us, but had to withdraw: Sharon gallantly offered to step up and present Emma’s papers at both events.

Glenn presenting on 'Reversing the Lens' at the RGS-IBG conference.

Glenn presenting on ‘Reversing the Lens’ at the RGS-IBG conference.

Emma presenting her research findings at the DSA conference.

Emma presenting her research findings at the DSA conference.

Sharon takes a break from presenting!

Sharon takes a break from presenting!

3 questions about social media in development

There is good reason to be optimistic about social media in development. The use of Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring, and in responses to humanitarian crises (such as the Nepal earthquakes) is well documented. Social media offers a platform for those not usually heard in mainstream media, and has become a vital networking tool for NGOs and activist organisations internationally.
But like all tools for development, we need to be cautious. Here are three questions which add a dose of reality to discussions of social media in development, based on my research with a network of volunteers founded in 1998 which used information and communications technology to identify, mobilize and coordinate small NGOs and volunteers in Central America (henceforth “the network”). To do this they have utilised a variety of internet-based networking tools over the past 17 years, including a website, Yahoo groups, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs. The network was one of the earliest and longest-lived examples of online networking and peer-to-peer collaboration in development, and as such I think it has plenty to tell us about social media and development.

Who are the intermediaries?
One of the goals of the network was to use internet-based networking tools to link volunteers and organisations in Central America directly with each other in order to coordinate and share information. This is what network theorists call disintermediation, the idea that online networks are open and flattened structures which cut out the middle-man and allow individuals to communicate directly. There is certainly significant potential in this, which is evident, for example, in the emergence and success of services such as airbnb and uber. However in many cases, rather than cutting out the middle man, the online context has seen the emergence of new intermediaries such as celebrities and philanthropists (for example in the Kony 2012 campaign), and content curators. In the case of the network, the founder and other key individuals with connections and influence have become new intermediaries, facilitating connections and filtering information. The network remains heavily reliant on a single founder and a small leadership group and rather than direct communication between participants, most information and coordination occurs through this small group.

Who is participating?
With the rapid spread and decreasing prices of mobile technology it stands to reason that larger numbers of people are able to participate in online networking, creating diverse networks where people are able to interact with those they might not normally meet. Indeed, techno-optomists often point to and the the potential for social media and online networking to contribute to a more plural and collaborative development. However claims regarding participation and diversity have also come under scrutiny. We humans have a well-documented tendency to associate with people like ourselves, and this is reflected in the social networks we create and participate in which tend to be homophilous, looking a lot like the their creators and mediators, and reflecting similar values and beliefs.
For example, within the network there is certainly some lively participation and diversity (in terms of age, profession and institutional affiliation), but from early on the network attracted a core of North American, middle class participants and the growth of the network has continued to be amongst organizations and volunteer groups with similar backgrounds and values. Despite efforts to involve more Central Americans , the discussions continue to be dominated by North Americans with a conservative approach to development – and by the viewpoints of that small group of new intermediaries.

Who is missing?
While techno-optomists might celebrate the way in which the online environment can give a voice to the marginalized and enable their participation in debates and projects which affect their lives, as the preceding discussion indicates, this is not assured. Indeed, any participation is dependent on a range of factors including practical constraints such as literacy levels and ability to access the internet, and broader concerns including the structure and culture of the online network, and the social and political environment in which the activity occurs.
The example of the network highlighted some particular concerns in this regard, as Central American voices were effectively (but not intentionally) excluded within the network due to both technological constraints and structural concerns. These included the dominance of the English language, and the focus on the activities of North American volunteers rather than on local organisations. Exacerbating this was the involvement of U.S. government and military representatives in the network from 2008, and the positioning of the network leadership following political tensions in 2009 which lead to the network becoming known more for its political position – one that allied with US interests – than for its work with the poor.

Online networks and social media are clearly limited by the ideologies, values and political understandings of their founders and users, and the new intermediaries that facilitate their growth. They are also products of the political, economic and social environment in which they emerge and operate. They can be the conduit for a more plural and collaborative form of development. They can empower and give voice to the marginalized. However they can also reinforce and extend the hegemony of neo-liberalism and the power of the privileged. The case study of the network illustrates this paradox. Although the network has been the catalyst for many connections and encounters over the years, the dominance of outsiders within the network illustrates the risks of digital exclusion and homophily. It became an example of a conventional and conservative development approach operating within an online space, promoting a political agenda that was at odds with local development and advocacy organisations. As such the history of the network provides a cautionary note to those who look to social media to provide answers to contemporary development dilemmas.

[Based on paper published June 2015 in Information Technology and Development. Full text available here]

Voluntourism: A crowded conversation?

The author as a voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

The author as a voluntourist, Honduras circa 2004

If you follow my Twitter feed you have probably seen links to posts on voluntourists, DIY humanitarians, white saviours,  the ‘do-gooder industrial complex‘, the ‘development entertainment industrial complex‘ and (most recently) ‘humanitarian douchery‘. Volunteer tourism is obviously as ongoing interest of mine, one that dates back to my Master’s and PhD research, and my own experiences as a nurse and volunteer in Vanuatu, the Philippines and Central America. This interest has been on the back burner while I have been doing a post-doc looking at Corporate Community Development in the Pacific but it is a space I’m itching to get back into.

However as the list of labels at the beginning of this post indicates, while I have been reading and writing about CSR, CCD, tourism and mining, there has been a flurry of activity in the voluntourism sphere. When I did my postgraduate research I could see the increasing numbers of volunteers in places like Honduras, and wondered at the development impacts of all these Western travelers wanting to help out and give back. With voluntourism is now considered one of the fastest growing niche tourism markets in the world, this has translated into significant academic interest. Indeed, although there was little in the way of academic literature on volunteer tourism ten years ago, a search on Google scholar today turns up hundreds of articles debating the potential and pitfalls of voluntourism.

So where does that leave me? Despite the flurry of academic writing and blog posts I think there is still a space for more research. Indeed, I think there is a need for more research. I believe that voluntourists are not only having an impact (positive or negative) in the region in which they travel and work, they are also shaping representations of development the way in which we understand the ‘other’. I wonder what it means for development when a teenager views a friends shared image of volunteering in Honduras, or when the first ‘gringo’ a Honduran child meets is a voluntourist (who is here now, but gone next week). Since the phenomenon of volunteer tourism is not going away, I’m also interested in how it might be utilised in a more appropriate manner (the idea of Fair trade learning is an intriguing one). So I’m working on plans and funding applications so I can do more fieldwork on this, and there will likely be more posts on the topic here — please check in again soon!

PNG trip… more questions

I have just returned from my second trip to Papua New Guinea visiting a PhD student working on the PNG mining case study that is part of our Marsden-funded research on Corporate Community Development. The aim of this visit, and my recent trip to Fiji was to  get an overview of the research findings to date, and to allow me to gain an overview of two case study sites, exploring aspects of the research question and themes which intersect. This is an interesting challenge — tourism and mining are such different industries and the commonalities are easily obscured by the obvious and highly visible differences.

Our research house in the village - home for two weeks.

Our research house in the village – home for two weeks.

One of the most immediate differences for me personally was in the living arrangements. While in Fiji we lived simply but in Western comfort, the trip to PNG was a challenging one. The student I was visiting is based in a village outside the mine affected zone, and ‘home’ is a two roomed village house with no running water or electricity and a pit toilet. It is also a bit of a fishbowl – with our activities visible to people in the surrounding hamlet and passers-by on the road. Although not easy, it was an important (if short and somewhat superficial) insight into village life and an interesting community-level perspective on mine activities and impacts. During my two-week stay we were able to complete some important interviews, to observe a some development-related meetings and to visit several surrounding villages. These experiences and the discussions we had over the data already collected added to the questions about inclusion/exclusion, inequality and the meaning of development, that I had left Fiji with, and reinforced my conviction that there significant intersections in the case studies of mining and tourism. As I prepare for my next trips (conferences and meetings in the UK and NZ) I will continue to puzzle over these.



This blog post comes to you from Nadi, in sunny Fiji. For me, the warmth and sunshine is particularly welcome after a kiwi winter, although it is not an easy time for Fijians who are facing a drought.

I am in Fiji for 10 days visiting Emma, a PhD student working on the Fiji tourism case study that is part of our Marsden-funded research on Corporate Community Development. I’m here to see what she is doing, to get an overview of her findings to date, and to work with her on some data collection. In the past week we have visited two villages to bring a sevusevu (gifts of kava to the chiefs, seeking permission from them to talk to people in the villages about the research); got well-sunburned during an unexpected interview on the beach at Denerau; sat, talked and had kava with a local family; been to a school fundraiser here in Nadi, and visited another rural school to talk to the headmaster … and that was just the ‘community’ side. We’ve also had a look inside two hotels and talked to staff involved in CSR, and had a meeting with the General Manager of a hotel to present preliminary findings. Today the research task is following a group of tourists on a village and school tour. Another way of ‘reversing the lens’!DSC02111

The whole experience has been incredibly interesting. I’ve learned a lot about Fiji and Fijian culture, gained some insights into the impact of the tourism industry here, and developed a whole new set of questions about uneven development, inequality and the meaning of development. There are huge differences, and not only the obvious ones between tourists and locals. There are significant differences within Fiji related to lease arrangements, employment and education opportunities, and access and so on. These are issues we will be considering further in this research, but they also link in to the material I’ve been teaching in the Development and Inequality course. It has certainly given me a lot of food for thought, and plenty to consider as I prepare for my next trip, back to PNG.

Afterlives of Development

My second journal article has now been published in a special edition of PoLAR (Political and legal Anthropology Review). The special edition focuses on the afterlives of development. The title and abstract for my paper are below – please contact me if you would like to read a full version of the paper.

Networks for Development: Volunteer Tourism, Information and Communications Technology, and the Paradoxes of Alternative Development

The projecthonduras network identifies itself as “an alternative concept for the development of Honduras using information and communications technology (ICT) to identify, mobilize and coordinate all the available human capital in Honduras and around the world.” These ambitious goals reflect a wider commitment to non-traditional, non-state-directed alternative development that calls on a network of volunteers, encouraging them to exercise their knowledge and compassion to aid in the development of Honduras. This article analyzes the promotion of volunteerism within the projecthonduras network, and the use of internet-enabled networking to multiply the impact of volunteers in development. This is a contested assemblage in which the promises of technological opportunities and people-led development are confronted by critiques of neo-colonialism and modernization in the contemporary neoliberal context. The article ethnographically documents how, despite the promises of networking and volunteerism and the humanitarian foundations of the network, strong traces of modernist principles remain within projecthonduras. It casts light on the concept of networks for development, and illuminates a central paradox of the projecthonduras model for development: despite its goal to be an alternative model, its rhetoric and practices build on developmentalist legacies and contributes to the neo-liberalization of Honduras.

Medical voluntourism in Honduras: ‘Helping’ the poor?

My paper on medical voluntourism in Honduras has finally been published:

Abstract: Medical voluntourism, where health professionals travel to another country to provide medical services is a growing, but under-researched phenomenon. This article, based on qualitative research with medical voluntourists in Honduras, uses Scheyven’s (2001) continuum of voluntourism to explore the complexities of medical voluntourism. The research found that while ostensibly ‘helpful’, volunteer tourism in Honduras is often harmful, entrenching paternalism and inequitable relationships; and that many voluntourists are ignorant of the underlying power and privilege issues inherent in voluntourism. While there are examples of volunteer tourism as both educational and as a form of social action, the article argues that these are not natural consequences of voluntourism but must be nurtured. As such this article highlights some implications for practice, noting that addressing the paternalism inherent in much medical voluntourism requires an honest appraisal of the benefits and harm of voluntourism by sending and host organizations, education and consciousness-raising amongst volunteers, and long-term relationship building.

The article can be accessed here.

A mutant variety of colonialism?

“Is globalization about ‘the eradication of world poverty,’ or is it a mutant variety of colonialism, remote controlled and digitally operated?”

Arundhati Roy, author and activist, interview with David Barsamian in The Progressive, 1999

I have just started marking student essays on globalisation and development, and one of the essays included this quote. It is a thought provoking question and one I hope will be well explored in the essays in and our upcoming block course.

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note taking

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