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!

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!

note taking

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