Thinking again about international volunteerism

July 18, 2009

While I should really be planning interviews, transcribing or otherwise engaged with my research work, I’ve been distracted this morning by a foray into the world of aid worker blogs, and specifically an ongoing conversation about the role, or non-role, of expatriate volunteers in aid projects.  This is a topic I have a great interest in – being central to both my Masters and PhD research, and to my own experience as a wanna-be volunteer.

It started with a single tweet from @SarahMDC:   “Good dig at some of the muky issues surrounding international dev #volunteers + volunteer projects“.  The link is to Tales From the Hood, and the post is the final in a series on international volunteers.  I found myself nodding in agreement with the post as it reflected my own academic scepticism of international volunteers, particilarly short term ones.  It set me thinking once again about my reasons for pursuing post-graduate study in development, and for choosing my research topic.

Here’s an abridged excerpt from some work I did last year on international volunteering:

Despite mounting evidence of the altruistic nature, and global popularity of international volunteering, I remained in a critical frame of mind.  Much of the literature surrounding volunteering for development is explicitly positive, identifying it is something that can potentially shape such new thinking and help to ‘humanise’ globalisation (Lewis, 2005, p. 15).  However I was reading with the eyes of a cynic, and found that not only was it easy to find literature that highlighted the problems with international volunteering, it seemed the critiques overshadowed the positivity.

The first criticism is the related to altruism.  While volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity, in most cases there is considerable benefit to the volunteer, perhaps even more than to the community or hosts.  Benefits to the volunteer include personal development, enhanced career prospects, friendship and adventure . This criticism is strengthened by the lack of research on the impacts on communities, who arguably may in fact be adversely affected as they spend time, energy and resources to accommodate the volunteer. This argument is particularly directed at volunteer tourism, where programmes may be explicitly developed for, or marketed to tourists rather than being developed from and for the community to be served.

In addition to this, while one of the purported benefits of international volunteering is the development of cross-cultural appreciation and understanding, research suggests that it may actually have the reverse effect, reinforcing stereotypes and actively promoting an image of a ‘third world other’ that is dominated an ‘us and them’ mindset…  The ‘us and them’ mentality is reinforced by the inherent inequality of the volunteer experience, where “the processes that allow young westerners to access the financial resources, and moral imperatives, necessary to travel and volunteer in a ‘third world country’, are the same as the ones that make the reverse process almost impossible” (Simpson, 2004).

International volunteering is also criticised as the volunteers come from outside the host community, with limited skills, experience, and understanding of the local context.  My research on short term, volunteer medical missions was very critical on this point, arguing that language and cultural differences, inadequate resources and time, and a lack of local knowledge significantly limits what the volunteers could do and often results in poor medical care.  (Other studies have found that short term volunteers programmes may) encourage the (false) view that development is a simple matter, and something which can be ‘done’ by non-skilled, but enthusiastic volunteer-tourists.

Another criticism is that international volunteering cultivates dependency.  A host community may become dependent on volunteers and voluntary programmes when these are promoted at the expense of longer term or community driven initiatives.  Dependency is also fostered when volunteers undermine the dignity of communities with handouts.  In addition Western volunteers can be seen as ‘modelling’ a lifestyle of cultural and material values that may be inappropriate, and which promotes modernisation, or development as westernisation.

All of these are reflected in the significant criticism of neo-colonialism.  This criticism… is reinforced by claims that volunteer programmes are built on the structures of colonialism (Smith & Elkin, 1980), use developing countries as training grounds for future professionals (Raymond & Hall, 2008) and are modelling a Western way of living (Roberts; Simpson, 2004).  At it’s extreme, is the argument that international volunteers are a form of Northern imperialism, as their activities boost Northern Government interests rather than tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice (Devereux, 2008).

This excerpt is part of a larger piece that explores both the positive and critical literature on international volunteering, and expands on the ideas as they apply to my research (probably not so interesting to blog readers!). It ends on a more hopeful note, one that is looking forward, looking for ways in which the passion and skills of wanna-be volunteers  (like myself 10 years ago) can be harnessed in ways that are mutually beneficial and constructive; and in which Westeners can learn about the reality of life in other parts of the world in way that break down rather than reinforce stereotypes.  I find it interesting that this is actually the starting place for the series from Tales From the Hood:

Appropriate, structured cultural exchange can be a very positive thing.This, I think, is an important starting place…  We blame lack of having traveled and lack of awareness and understanding of international issues for everything from Third World Poverty to the fact the George W. Bush initiated the Iraq war. But then, when someone has the idea of taking some ordinary citizens from “here” and letting them see what it’s like “over there”, we’re very quick to pick them apart for that. And perhaps in some cases, rightly so. But we ourselves offer no alternatives.

We need an accepted mechanism for exposing aid-work-outsiders. Our work is critical. It is (or should be) making a difference…
But we need a way to meaningfully and appropriately expose our work to our third audience: ordinary people in our home countries. I’m not saying development tourism is the answer. But it’s one possibility.

I guess I have taken this as my challenge.  I’m not sure whether my PhD study will find any definitive answers (actually I’m quite sure it won’t) but I know the questions will continue to haunt me in my future career, be it academic or in practice.

For now I really need to get back to work.  There will be no answers without actually doing some research.

Some other good posts on the issue:
Good intentions are not enough (series on guidelines for international volunteers)
Aid Watch

Next post – back to the non-drama of living and doing research during a (non-?) coup!


8 Responses to “Thinking again about international volunteerism”

  1. Kate O Says:

    Your thoughts are so right on line with the way I feel each day as a volunteer teacher here in Honduras…I know that the work I do is of great value and is more than simple volunteer tourism but I live in fear of accidentally somehow doing more damage than good!

    And so true that questions lead to more detailed questions rather than definitive answers…like the Rilke quote about “living through the questions” until you find you are living the answer without knowing it…

    • Sharon Says:

      Thanks Kate. It certainly is a complex topic, and I have been very happy to meet others (like yourself) who are thinking about the issues. I’m struggling a bit at the moment with the whole idea that I only seem to be finding more questions in my research, but console myself that it is all part of the process!

  2. Laurie Says:

    Very interesting work you are doing. I hope to come back with a cup of coffee and read a bit more. Thanks for the add on your blogroll.

    • Sharon Says:

      Thanks for visiting Laurie, I have been a bit slack with posting lately but am hoping to get back into it, so hopefully there will be something new to read when you come back with that cup of coffee!

  3. J. Says:

    Curious to see what answers – definitive or not – your research yields.


  4. sgsnow Says:

    Very interesting stuff. I too am writing on the general topic of volunteering abroad–more specifically, service learning. Could you please direct me to a more extensive version of the work you excerpt above? I’d be especially interested in seeing the citations you give. Thanks very much. –Steve

    • Sharon Says:

      Thanks Steve. I had a quick look at your site and it seems you are doing some interesting things too. Email me on sharon.mclennan (at) and I’ll send the full version back to you.

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