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Study and Research
VOLUNTEER TOURISM AS POPULAR HUMANITARIANISM
University of Otago
Department of Tourism
Dunedin, New Zealand
For this issue of the research forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we are pleased to share highlights from the forthcoming book, “Volunteer Tourism: Popular Humanitarianism in Neoliberalism Times” (Ashgate, in press) written by Mary Mostafanezhad of Dunedin, New Zealand. This research monograph is based on 16 months of ethnographic research in northern Thailand among three NGOs that use volunteer tourism as a social and economic development as well as environmental conservation strategy. This study situates volunteer tourism within broader trends in the Global North around what Mostafanezhad refers to as “popular humanitarianism” or humanitarianism enacted by concerned consumer citizens.
I am at a women’s shelter about 20km outside of Chiang Mai City in northern Thailand and I am talking with Tom, a tuk-tuk driver. Tom explains to me how “[Volunteer tourism] is good because it helps Thailand to improve. It’s better to have international NGOs and foundations than have no one to help solve the problems. So there are people to help. It helps improve the situation.” Most people would probably agree with Tom. This is because Western based development theories suggest that the Global South is inevitably better off with continuous development interventions than it would be without them. While it is beyond the scope of this research note to reflect on the broader discourse(s) of development, I do want to consider the kinds of development that can be perpetuated through popular forms of humanitarian action such as celebrity humanitarianism, alternative consumption, and indeed, volunteer tourism.
Volunteer tourism is at the forefront of NGO led tourism development agendas and is now the fastest growing niche tourism market in the world (Lyons and Wearing, 2008). The expansion of volunteer tourism is more than the latest trend in alternative travel; rather I argue that it is a cultural commentary on the appropriate response to global economic inequality. In “Volunteer Tourism: Popular Humanitarianism in Neoliberal Times”, I examine this commentary through the lives of ordinary individuals who, like their celebrity counterparts or the colonial explorers that came before them, have become key signifiers in the reorganization of international humanitarianism in the Global South.
The growth of volunteer tourism should be understood within the broader context of neoliberalism where volunteerism, privatized development, and commodified concern are core practices. While there is nothing new about suggesting that people are concerned with the suffering of those beyond their own borders, there is something decidedly new about the increasing intensity at which these concerns materialize alongside increasingly commodified consumer landscapes. It is in this way that volunteer tourism — albeit inadvertently — contributes to the expansion of neoliberal policies and practices. In addition to the commodified aspects of the experience, there is also an almost invariable focus on the sentimentality of the encounter. A quick review of almost any volunteer tourism website illustrates how sentimentality is a key aspect of the experience. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with re-presenting the experience as sentimental—which, as I have witnessed, it can be—what is problematic is the invariability of this representation that obscures the broader structural inequalities on which the experience is based.
The growth of volunteer tourism should be understood within the broader context of neoliberalism where volunteerism, privatized development, and commodified concern are core practices. While there is nothing new about suggesting that people are concerned with the suffering of those beyond their own borders, there is something decidedly new about the increasing intensity at which these concerns materialize alongside increasingly commodified consumer landscapes. It is in this way that volunteer tourism—albeit inadvertently—contributes to the expansion of neoliberal policies and practices. In addition to the commodified aspects of the experience, there is also an almost invariable focus on the sentimentality of the encounter. A quick review of almost any volunteer tourism website illustrates how sentimentality is a key aspect of the experience. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with re-presenting the experience as sentimental—which, as I have witnessed, it can be—what is problematic is the invariability of this representation that obscures the broader structural inequalities on which the experience is based.
Additionally, within popular forms of humanitarianism like volunteer tourism, there is a widespread focus on the individual or single community. For example, Sally Brown, founder of Ambassadors for Children, explains how, "If a kid can be held for a couple of days, you're able to make a small difference" (Fitzpatrick, 2007). I argue that it is around these “small differences that volunteer tourism—travel for the purpose of volunteering time, energy and financial support to benefit environmental conservation and development oriented projects —is positioned” (Mostafanezhad, 2014). I am not suggesting that care for an individual or community is malicious and I am not a misanthropist. On the contrary, my point is that our care for the individual or the single community can contradictorily work to eclipse our attention to the kinds of broader structural changes that are needed to help ameliorate the poverty and environmental degradation that volunteer tourism participants are often concerned with. This is in part, because neoliberal reforms including the withdrawal of the state from development and social services have left gaps that are being partially filled in by NGOs and other small scale and private organizations. Where the issue lies is that most of these organizations do not have the capacity to contribute to development and structural change in the same way or at the same scale as a state.
This overshadowing of broader structural inequalities is not unique to volunteer tourism. For example, celebrity humanitarianism and alternative consumption are also key players in the expansion of individualized and commodified responses to economic inequality. We can think of how celebrities such as Christina Aguilera, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, among others are now regularly depicted as spokespeople for some of the most critical humanitarian issues of our time. The way these celebrities re-present humanitarian issues is similarly individualized and sentimentalized. For example, a recent People Magazine article, “Christina Aguilera Takes Emotional Trip to Rwanda,” quotes Aguilera, pop singer, global spokesperson for Yum! Brands World Hunger Relief effort and an Ambassador against Hunger for the UN World Food Programme, as stating, “This trip came at a time when I really needed to step away and connect with bigger issues in the world, [and] this trip really touched me in a way I never felt before… The people of Rwanda touched me in a way I cannot express or put into words” (Leonard, 2013). Thus, “sentimental celebrity commentary such as Aguilera’s is echoed throughout the industry that almost invariably obscures the broader structural causes of the issues that celebrities speak to” (Mostafanezhad, 2014). The growing visibility of celebrities in humanitarianism, like volunteer tourism itself, should not be taken for granted. Daley notes how “[S]ince the mid-1980s, celebrity advocacy has become more widespread; through its association with the technological developments in the social media, it is helping to reshape public engagement with politics in Western societies” (Daley, 2013, p. 376).
"Our everyday actions, even buying a chocolate bar are meaningful—… Small scale farmers, indigenous wildlife and you—all benefit from the manufacture and sale of this delicious, organic Fair Trade Theo chocolate." Copyright © Theo Chocolate, All Rights Reserved
Alternative consumption is a related site of popular humanitarian action in the Global North. It is now commonplace to find consumer items that come labeled with humanitarian commentary in supermarkets, coffee shops and clothing stores. Tea, chocolate and coffee are frequent examples. For example, Tulsi Tea writes on its box,
All products promote genuine wellness and are made with love. The product you hold in your hand is one link in a chain of love, respect and connectedness between our farmers and you. By choosing Organic India you are joining this chain which… brings happiness and well being to you.
And Theo Chocolate writes on its packaging:
Our everyday actions, even buying a chocolate bar are meaningful—… Small scale farmers, indigenous wildlife and you—all benefit from the manufacture and sale of this delicious, organic Fair Trade Theo chocolate.
Thus, there is a recurrent theme in volunteer tourism, celebrity humanitarianism and alternative consumption that highlights the individualized and sentimental response to chronic poverty and systemic violence against the poor. Michael Dove, an ecological anthropologist at Yale refers to this kind of representation as the “helping discourse” which asks us to ask ourselves, “how can we help or what can we give” when perhaps what we should be asking is “how are we hurting or what have we taken away?” (Dove, 1994).
The implications of the growth of popular humanitarianism through practices such as volunteer tourism need to be taken seriously. The effects of the practice extend well beyond the individual or the community to reorganize our understanding of the appropriate response to global economic and environmental inequalities. Thus, perhaps it is time to rethink how this emerging culture of popular humanitarianism contributes to the growth of volunteer tourism which is now estimated to attract 3.3 million people annually. Through their advocacy, volunteer tourists, celebrity humanitarians and alternative consumers “serve to enhance consumer capitalism – thus helping ﬁrstly to commodify humanitarianism as a largely privatised concern that sits easily with neoliberal imperialism and secondly to divert attention from the structural inequalities associated with such forms of domination” (Daley, 2013, p. 376-7). With estimated annual growth rates of ten to 20 percent for at least the next decade, volunteer tourism is a noteworthy player within this broader redefinition of consumer driven popular humanitarian politics (Washington University, St.Louis, 2009).
As volunteer tourism continues to grow in size and shape, I argue that it is imperative that we look beyond the individual, sentimental experience to understand its broader implications as well as the historical, cultural, economic and political context in which it emerges.
DALEY, P. 2013. Rescuing African bodies: celebrities, consumerism and neoliberal humanitarianism. Review of African Political Economy, 40, 375-393.
DOVE, M. 1994. Marketing the Rainforest: 'Green" Panacea or Red Herring. Asia Pacific Issues, 13.
FITZPATRICK, L. 2007. Vacationing like Brangelina. Time Magazine [Online]. Available: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1647457,00.html [Accessed July 26, 2007].
LEONARD, E. 2013. Christina Aguilera Takes Emotional Trip to Rwanda. People Magazine [Online]. Available: http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20738743,00.html.
LOUIS, T. C. F. S. D. A. W. U. I. S. 2009. Perceived Effects of International Volunteering: Reports from CCS Alumni. St. Louis: The Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis and Cross-Cultural Solutions.
LYONS, K. D. & WEARING, S. (eds.) 2008. Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism: International Case Study Perspectives, Cambridge, MA: Cabi International.
MOSTAFANEZHAD, M. 2014. Volunteer Tourism: Popular Humanitarianism in Neoliberal Times, London, Ashgate.
We hope that this edition of the Research Forum will generate healthy and constructive discourse of its own! If you have any questions or comments, please either submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, or e-mail Mary Mostafanezhad (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’d love to hear from you!
See you next issue!
Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>
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