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.

The voluntourism rabbit hole

There seems to have been a flood of posts on voluntourism and the ‘white saviour’ complex recently, much of it following a thought provoking piece on the problem with little white girls (and boys) posted by Philippa Biddle. As this is an ongoing interest of mine (two papers I wrote on voluntourism will be published in the next few months… I should probably blog summaries of these at some point) I started following the rabbit trail and collecting some of the posts. What follows is a lightly annotated list of posts which is mostly for my own reference, but I hope others may find useful.

Firstly, the original and excellent post on little white girl voluntourists which was reposted on Huff Post. My favourite part is a sentiment I share:

“I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”


 Amongst the re-blogs, and Twitter and Facebook shares were some equally thought-provoking responses:

Lee Crawford at Roving Bandit agreed with Philippa that village level development projects by voluntourists are likely mostly irrelevant, but argued that it is worthwhile for the connections made.

TMS Ruge wrote On Voluntourism. Yes, again, disaggreing with Roving bandit, and noting the impacts voluntourism has had in his community (including nothing, othering and disempowerment).

While not directly responding to Philippa, Mario Machado wrote about Voluntourism and Its Limitations on Huff Post, noting that:

“unless we [voluntourists] are willing to accept the inter-relatedness of our privilege with someone else’s poverty and allow that understanding to change how we live our lives, we are just exercising our privilege even more.”

There are of course, other posts both agreeing with Philippa (for example here and here) and defending voluntourism (here and here), and a reddit conversation. However as TMS Ruge’s title On Voluntourism. Yes, again indicates, this is not the beginning of this conversation. Indeed Philippa has jumped into a larger conversation that shows no signs of ending any time soon (not, at least, while voluntourists continue to travel). A few recent, and not-so-recent-but-notable posts:

Just a couple of weeks ago Weh Yoh wrote Hey Voluntourist, Take A Back Seat! on NewMatilda, a post which overlaps with my interest in health and medical volunteerism (and inappropriate donations).

Around the same time Jordyn Fisher posted Good Intentions Gone Bad, about her experiences in Ghana.

Daniela Papi has written and spoken extensively on voluntourism, including Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism and  Voluntourism: What Could Go Wrong When Trying To Do Right?.

Last year Selin Kara wrote The problem with today’s voluntourism and the charity culture: the rise of NGO-colonialism, which she finishes with this challenge:

“Charity isn’t a substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth–even if they decide to help the less fortunate–while others are short-changed, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible.”

WhyDev has published many posts on voluntourism, many are posts from researchers, including Hanna Tabea Voelkl who outlined her research on Orphanage Tourism in Ghana, Brendan Rigby who posted a number of links on what voluntourists need to know before they go and a post from Dr. Nichole Georgeou on How volunteeering in development became “Duchessed (particularly relevant to the Australian context).

The Matador Network has a whole section on voluntourism with some critical posts, but most are encouraging voluntourism.

Finally a link to and quote from another older, but very relevant post: Teju Cole on The White-Savior Industrial Complex:

“How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.”

…and some humour – Ugandan/ Canadian Arthur Simeon on ‘Helping Africans‘.

An exploration of the role of short term medical missions in health care provision in Honduras

Master’s Thesis Abstract

Short term medical missions, or medical brigades are teams of expatriate health professionals and lay people, who travel to Latin America and other parts of the world for a week or two to provide health care to the poor. While the number and popularity of these teams appears to be increasing, to date there has been little literature or critical research addressing their role. This thesis addresses the role of Short Term Medical Missions (STMMs), who they are, what they do and how they fit into health service provision in developing nations. In particular it outlines the services provided by STMMs, including clinical services, resource provision and preventative services, it discusses the motivation for using STMMs as service providers and it also begins to explore the impact they have on the populations and on local health care services in the areas they operate. This is done within the context of Honduras, a nation that has seen an influx of these teams in recent years, particularly since Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Honduras faces many challenges in health and health care and STMMs have been seen by some as a means of “filling gaps”. This study questions whether STMMs are indeed actually filling real gaps, and if they are, whether they most appropriate means of doing so, as there are many limitations to the ability of short term, outside volunteers to provide quality services. While not directly measuring the impact of STMMs on the health status of the population, this study discusses the actual and potential impact of STMMs on local health services, and argues that there are potential long-term consequences to their use. These consequences include an increasing dependency on outside assistance that may be detrimental to the long-term development of National health services.

Full Thesis (PDF)

An alternative model for development? : promise and politics in the projecthonduras network

PhD Thesis Abstract

Projecthonduras is an online network of mostly voluntary organisations working in development in Honduras. It aims to be practical, positive and apolitical, and to create an ‘alternative model‘ for development based on mobilising people using information and communication technology (ICT). In the context of on-going debates regarding the problems with conventional development aid and the search for new approaches, the projecthonduras rhetoric appears to hold much promise. Indeed its early inception and more than a decade of operation make it stand out in a world of failed Internet start-ups, and its positive and constructive approach finds resonance with recent, more hopeful post-development literature. However after three years of research this thesis outlines a much more complex picture of projecthonduras. This is one with very quiet online forums but a growing political voice, particularly following the 2009 coup d‘état in Honduras. The thesis addresses this apparent paradox, unpacking the structure and discourse of projecthonduras, and identifying the underlying assumptions and understandings that underpin both the ‘alternative’ development rhetoric and the political activity. Researched and written as an ethnography, this thesis positions projecthonduras within the development studies literature and within the particular context of contemporary Honduras. Using on and offline interviews and participant observation, and making extensive use of Internet-based data, this study shows that the projecthonduras development model is based on a paternalistic and modernising model of development, one that is connected to a liberal, capitalist politics. The emergence of political themes in this research is reflective of the messy realities of development intervention, and of geo-political, economic and cultural power and privilege within Honduras. However as indicated by the title of this thesis, the concept of politics stands alongside that of promise, the potential held by the idea of ICT and social networking. This intersection of promise and politics highlights the contours of the structural and discursive boundaries in which projecthonduras operates, and emphasises the complexity inherent in the search for development alternatives.

Full Thesis (PDF)

note taking

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