28 July 2015
My inspiration for a dissertation topic came from an old memory of mine. After graduating from high school (I was about 17 years old), I was motivated to engage in short term volunteer travel in Africa or Asia. After a period of long and unsuccessful online research I finally abandoned the idea of volunteering abroad.

I had a constant and hardly describable feeling that travel organisations were just interested in my money, while lulling me into the stereotype of a Western saviour. I also realised that my original motives were probably more self-interested than I wished them to be. Even though I had no experience whatsoever in humanitarian actions, I was socialized to believe that somewhere in the world, some people were desperately waiting for me to bring them help.

So I started reading about the volunteer tourism sector, reading academic as well as non-academic articles. I was at first surprised to find out that my personal feelings of distrust toward volunteer tourism organisations were not only shared, but could also be explained. A range of commentators and researchers were outlining the potential pitfalls and negative impacts of volunteer tourism. Yet, despite the current growth of volunteer tourism, academic research in this area was still very limited. So I decided to fill that gap by engaging in the debate.

The aim of my study was to identify the benefits and detriments of volunteer tourism on both ‘voluntourists’ and local populations. It investigated the reasons that motivate people (and especially students) to take part in short volunteering programmes abroad.

I decided to use two different methods in order to do so: online discourse analysis and focus groups. With the online discourse analysis I aimed to provide an account of the online – and often non-academic – debate about the positive and negative effects of volunteer tourism. I wanted to focus on online data because I was convinced that the Internet is today the main source of information for people willing to take part in volunteer tourism programs. The focus groups were carried out in parallel on 16 students in the UK aged 19 to 24 years old. I chose to focus on students because they often represent a major target for volunteer travel organizations.

These methods not only confirmed some of my original assumptions but also allowed me to discover unexpected features of volunteer tourism. For example, the focus groups made me realize that how people share their volunteering experience with others has an influence on the way they will be perceived socially. I therefore suggest that the social perception of volunteering in the West is not entirely based on the experience itself but also on the ways one shares his/her experience with others.

Volunteering abroad can be also be motivated by professional benefits. A participants from my focus groups claimed that volunteer tourism programs are “an experience you buy to put on your C.V.”. My study however suggests that sharing publicly that professional benefits were a primary motive for engaging in volunteering tends to be perceived negatively by others. 

My online discourse analysis suggested that (in most cases) volunteer tourists gain more from volunteering programs than host communities. Most volunteers claimed their experience to have been positive and rewarding for them on a personal level. However, volunteer tourism can also potentially lead to negative impact on host communities such as the creation of an ‘economy of misery’ and ethical issues related to cross-cultural understanding.

A perfect example to illustrate this is the proliferation of orphanages in Cambodia. A report published by the UNICEF shows that 3 out of every 4 children in Cambodian orphanages actually have one or more living parents. While the number of orphans in Cambodia has decreased, the number of orphanages has risen with the rise of volunteer tourism. Orphanages and orphans are sometimes kept deliberately squalid and poor-looking because tourists often want to give their money and time to the poorest looking place, as they think this is where there is the most need. Tourists willing to visit or play with orphans take pity on the children and end up enriching a market that capitalises on their concerns. In countries where the unemployment rate is usually already substantial, volunteer tourists may also take on positions (teaching, building and painting of buildings etc.) that could instead be occupied by local people, who moreover know the culture, the language and could earn a salary in order to support their family.

Many volunteer travellers carry a naively romantic idea of ‘doing good’ and remain unaware that their activities may support environments that are abusive to children and contain terrible potential consequences. I however acknowledged that volunteers overall go with good intentions. Instead of placing the blame on volunteers, the aim of my research was to underline the complexity of the volunteer tourism sector.

The study argues that volunteer tourism must be related to the capitalism system’s complex mechanisms. Most of my study tends to highlight the growing commodification of volunteer tourism. I argue that volunteer tourism projects are often organised not in terms of the needs of local populations, but according to the capitalist principal of supply and demand, satisfying the fantasies of voluntourists. Good intentions are slowly submerged and eclipsed to become merely more of what the tourist desires in conjunction with an organization's desire for profit.

Because volunteering has become a rite of passage for many young people, there is an entire sector that works to capitalize on their ideas of giving back. Volunteer tourism programs on websites such as Projects Abroad have price ranges starting from £1195 for a two week program. The price of each program does however not include the flight prices or visas, and local associations or host communities most often receive from £20 to £150 from the commercial organizations that set up the programs. Volunteer tourism seems to have become a full-fledged economic sector.

One of my focuses was to compare the way volunteering abroad was promoted on commercial volunteer tourism websites and major INGOs (international non-governmental organization) websites. Most commercial websites I studied do not require specific qualifications to send volunteers abroad and are often available for individuals from sixteen years old. I also studied major organizations’ websites such as: The British Red Cross, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, Unicef, and Action Against Hunger. My observation revealed that none of these INGOs proposed short term volunteer tourism programs for unskilled individuals. It thus seems that for many commercial organization, the main attraction is not necessarily the help that volunteer tourists can offer but rather how much money they are willing to spend. 

The overall implications of the ‘voluntourism’ experience were therefore far more complex than they first appeared. My focus groups suggested that most people were not aware that volunteer tourism could have negative implications for the communities it claims to help. The study argues that carrying out effective programs and achieving the development and the autonomy of local communities requires a broad public awareness of the potential negative implications of volunteer tourism. I also hope that engaging in broader discussions on the commodification of volunteer activities may help to establish long term and sustainable solutions to geographically specific and often complex issues. A deeper understanding of the issues related to humanitarian projects may help to challenge the current Sisyphus dilemma in which many third world populations seem currently trapped.

Writing my dissertation overall felt like climbing up a mountain in the dark. I had no way of knowing where I was going, if I would ever reach the top or miserably fall. Something that I at first perceived as an exciting challenge quickly became scary. The study was a continuous learning process for me, as I had to rapidly adapt to various unexpected issues. I learned through my research project the importance of neutrality and the importance of allowing myself to include arguments I did not initially plan to discover during the study. Yet despite being conscious of my inexperience, I have acquired through this study new knowledge and skills, which will be extremely useful if I conduct further empirical research.  My fear of failure was finally drowned in the satisfaction of achieving my own research.

By Max Chaouch