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Volume 6 Issue 4 Highlights


Study and Research


Carlos Palacios, Ph.D. Candidate, Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, Macquarie University, Sydney

For this issue of the research forum section of The VolunTourist Newsletter, we are very pleased to welcome Carlos Palacios from Macquarie University. Mr. Palacios has been looking at the debate regarding who benefits the most from volunteer tourism, whether it be participants or local residents. In the paper that follows, he offers a different view, one based upon his personal volunteer tourism experience in Vietnam, that moves volunteer tourism from the context of aid and development to the context of connectivity between peoples of different cultures and the accompanying learning and exchange of knowledge. Further, he suggests that by doing so, volunteer tourism will be less likely to be critiqued in neo-colonialist terms.



These are the words of reporter Ian Birrell (2010) in what is probably the most recent article treating short-term volunteer tourism programs with scepticism. But there is a long line behind him. Researchers and journalists have found a number of volunteer tourism cases where experiences do not seem to encourage critical reflections about poverty (Simpson, 2004; Ver Beek, 2006), where foreign interests are prioritized over local ones and where sending organizations and volunteer tourists alike tend to receive more benefits than the voluntoured (Frean, 2006; Klaushofer, 2007; McGehee & Andereck, 2008).

Who benefits more, hosts or guests, is the main question that experts, journalists and volunteers alike tend to pose to the growing volunteer tourism industry. Careful attention to such a question is undoubtedly important − it is what can ensure in the long-term that these programs continue to guarantee ethical standards. However, when this question adopts a more political tone, as when young Westerners are assimilated to being ‘the new colonialists’, the debate turns into something more than just ethics and industry regulations. It is also interesting to note that this comparison with colonialism has only been applied to programs of volunteering. Other programs that instead use languages such as service learning, cultural exchange or educational tourism have not got into this kind of trouble. With these insights in mind, this study decided to investigate, by means of a case study, what the relevance of the neo-colonialism critique could be beyond its sensationalist usage. Specifically, the research question was whether the impacts of even the most ethical program of short-term ‘voluntourism’ could be read as signs of neo-colonialism.

Understanding The Critique About Neo-Colonialism In International Volunteering And Service (IVS)

"There is no mystery behind the question of why journalists and academics have privileged development aid over international understanding in their IVS [international volunteering and service] narratives; the use of a volunteering – and therefore a helping – language in a global context of inequality and postcolonialism directly relates to a history of Western domination and draws public attention to questions of aid effectiveness in developing countries."

This research explored the impacts of an Australian university program choosing to use a volunteering language to frame short-term group placements for its students in countries like Thailand, Mexico and Fiji. Just as with NGO tourism, the university context presents itself as a more legitimate instance in the travel market for those young people who are concerned with the authenticity of the volunteer projects they want to participate in. A university is in many senses a better candidate to run volunteer programs than a simple travel agency: it is more likely to provide accountability, reflection and learning outcomes. And yet, popular headlines like “Are these the new colonialists?” (Barkham 2006) or “Gap years create ‘new colonialists’” (Frean 2006) are not completely irrelevant in this context. Indeed, such public critiques are of concern for any volunteer project undertaken in developing countries by young people from Western countries. Brown and Hall articulate this argument:

In the 1960's, when the boom of international volunteering for young Americans started through the Peace Corps program, it was clear that there were political and colonial-like intentions involved (Cobbs, 1997). However, the current literature about international volunteering and service (IVS) rarely comments on the political interests of the donor nations sponsoring IVS agencies. In reality, what has been at stake in most debates about volunteer tourism is not whether the help of Westerners has any relevance in the development of poor nations, but whether these Westerners possess the necessary capacities and motivations to produce effective help. Evidence of this can be found in the conclusions of many authors when they suggest that the projects have a low impact in the local communities because the young volunteers do not have enough knowledge (Brown & Hall, 2008), reflection capacity (Simpson, 2004), appropriate skills or qualifications (Raymond & Hall, 2008), volunteering and international experience (McLeod, 2008), time to get involved with the locals (Roberts, 2004) or altruistic intentions (Salazar, 2004).

The neo-colonial argument is intricate and to a certain extent contradictory. Critics tend to complain about the faults of young volunteers, but by doing that they seem to suggest that the solution would be to select better participants. But if the voluntourism industry mostly caters for a young clientele, and if young people almost by definition have reduced skills, experience, knowledge, reflection capacity etc., then how is this conundrum supposed to be resolved? If it were just a matter of ethics, stronger regulatory systems would surely help, but what if what the critics are putting into question is the entire justification for the role of the volunteer tourist?

There Are Two Possible Goals For Volunteer Tourism, Not Just One!

The ideal impact of IVS in the eyes of journalists and academics alike tends to spin around the notion of effective help or development aid, a notion that emphasizes “service delivery, and knowledge, skill, and technology transfer” (Sherraden et al., 2008, p. 400). Certainly, to provide development aid and humanitarian relief is the main goal of countless IVS programs, but rarely is it the only one. Usually there is more of a mix and overlap between this and another main goal: the building of international understanding, whose “emphasis is on international experience and fostering crosscultural skills and tolerance, global awareness and international solidarity, civic engagement, personal development, and international peace” (Sherraden et al., 2008, p. 400).

There is no mystery behind the question of why journalists and academics have privileged development aid over international understanding in their IVS narratives; the use of a volunteering – and therefore a helping – language in a global context of inequality and postcolonialism directly relates to a history of Western domination and draws public attention to questions of aid effectiveness in developing countries. But through this research, the opposite started to seem more reasonable: why would we request from young volunteers a highly effective delivery of aid when even the most skilled development practitioners have often failed in this task? Does not it make more sense to emphasize the other goal, the one of international understanding and intercultural solidarity? But, would this be possible and desirable for a program of “volunteering”?

The Benefits And Challenges Of Using A Language Of Volunteering

Using an ethnographic methodology through which the researcher himself took on the role of volunteer tourist, this study was able to identify some important consequences that any sending organization should consider when it decides to employ a volunteering language.  Over four weeks (in June–July of 2008), the author was a volunteer in Vietnam, along with 16 other university students and two team leaders. The host organization, KOTO, was a high-profile restaurant located in Hanoi providing former street and disadvantaged youth with a wide range of hospitality skills through a both theoretical and practical training program.

Benefits: Interactions Between Hosts And "Volunteers" Are Highly Emotional

Increased In a transnational project of volunteering like this one, where differences of culture and language create constant communication difficulties, “volunteering” cannot be seen simply as an institutional framework, but more as a powerful frame of action at a personal level. To be labelled “volunteer” has important repercussions in terms of social relations; it is a notion of identity, and as such, it strongly determines how the “Other” perceives and relates with a foreigner.


"Help" and “gratitude” are notions firmly attached to the meaning of volunteering, notions that shape the roles people adopt during the program; you are either a “volunteer” or a “voluntoured”, a “giver” or a “receiver”. Thus, it is understandable that a volunteering discourse can be influential in the development of emotional connections, given the warm identity that foreigners are invested with once they put on their volunteer “hat”.

The close cultural contact characterizing the volunteer action is probably the most determinant factor of project success – particularly in this case, as the trainees intend to work in the hospitality industry with international tourists. If we consider the various benefits produced by such emotional relations, it is clear that these volunteer encounters did not have a neo-colonialist resemblance:

  • Psychological support through relationship building to a training program working with disadvantaged and former street youth;
  • Expansion of the host organization’s network base through post-volunteer involvement in promotion, fundraising and other types of supportive activities;
  • Development of the students’ civic engagement by reinforcing their commitment to volunteer more in the future or to make a difference through their careers;
  • Experience in intercultural communication, highly relevant for both guests and hosts, considering the transnational character of many of their careers and the contemporary labour market;
  • Professional and personal development for the volunteers, who are looking [for] what one interviewee called a “safe experience” in a controlled situation and a short timeframe.

These were not the only outcomes of the project however. As suggested before, IVS programs tend to mix aid and learning goals, and this program was not an exception. Although “volunteering” is a language capable of producing close intercultural relations which, in turn, can lead to benefits like the ones listed above, it is also a language that can produce less desirable outcomes.

Challenges: The Idea of "Volunteering" Sets Unrealistic Expectations

"If the main aim of a volunteer tourism program were not to deliver effective aid but to promote mutual learning and intercultural understanding then the question about “who gets more?” becomes somewhat irrelevant...

Likewise, if the idea of voluntourism as colonialism only makes sense when there is a helping intention involved, embracing a learning approach means removing any real basis that the neo-colonialism critique could have had – although it will probably remain appealing to sensationalist writers."

The paradox of volunteer tourism is that while a volunteering framework possibly facilitates cross-cultural connections at deep emotional levels, the authority and responsibility vested in the volunteer roles might be unjustified, as foreign students do not necessarily have the capacity to deliver aid or transfer skills and knowledge. A number of factors prevent young foreigners from helping effectively at a grassroots organization like KOTO. The skills we brought were not always the most appropriate ones for our volunteer roles and, moreover, most of us had little cross-cultural, professional or volunteering experience in a project with gigantic cultural and language barriers. When university students finally put on their volunteer “hat” to face the locals and start working together, high expectations can become problematic and generate the following issues:

  • Role ambiguity appears when the volunteers visualize themselves as “helpers” but, in practice, this ideal role proves unrealistic;
  • When in such demanding work conditions with short timeframes and complex cultural variables, every volunteer is over-motivated and working “for the glory of being involved” (as an interviewee said), intra-group work conflicts are likely to appear;
  • Local staff may feel disappointed after realizing that the volunteers’ feedback is hardly relevant compared to their own experience;
  • Locals can have somewhat Eurocentric attitudes when they persistently ask for the volunteers’ input and recommendations, implying that “Australian university students” are commensurate with “knowledgeable volunteers”.
  • A feeling of frustration is common after the trip, because volunteers feel that the time allowed is not sufficient to create a significant change.

What Type Of IVS Program Is Appropriate For Young Volunteer Tourists Then?

A short-term university program of international volunteering can produce various positive outcomes for the host and sending organizations in terms of intercultural understanding. Yet, such outcomes are not limited to a cultural exchange. Close cultural contact represents real value and long-term support for the host organization, not in the form of “one-way” aid, but in the form of reciprocal relations of mutual learning; reciprocity and mutuality are the real sources of value production, resembling the conclusions of most service-learning literature (Rosenberger, 2000, p. 27). In contrast, the goal of development aid seems to not only be unrealistic in this context, but also undesirable, as it can potentially produce negative outcomes.

The unrealistic expectations seen in this university context suggest that volunteers share with volunteer tourism commentators the same bias regarding IVS goals. Both, by prioritizing the goal of development aid, reinforce the disconnect between what is expected from a “volunteering” program and what actually happens during the volunteering practice; mutual intercultural learning is undermined while “help” continues to be the drive of volunteer tourism practice and theory. I invite the readers to resist such a disconnect and, to this end, I provide a conceptual model of impact analysis to illustrate my argument that a language of volunteering can avoid negative outcomes by distancing itself from a development aid goal:

IVS Programs that have development aid as their primary goal emphasize the transfer of knowledge, skills or technology (Sherraden et al., 2008). This is the type of impact that, for example, individual placements sponsored by government or multilateral agencies can look forward to as it requires advanced volunteer capacities and long-term service. In contrast, a short-term group placement of young students, who tend to have intermediate knowledge and skills, little volunteering experience and limited international experience, should not expect to embrace the goal of development aid. When they do, negative outcomes like Eurocentricism, teamwork conflicts and public critiques are likely to appear, and in worse case scenario, perhaps, be detrimental to the hosts. Conversely, a group of university students passionate about travelling and gaining cross-cultural experience, combined with the emotional effects of a volunteering language in an educational context, make a perfectly suitable match for an IVS program centered on the goal of building international understanding.


If the main aim of a volunteer tourism program were not to deliver effective aid but to promote mutual learning and intercultural understanding then the question about “who gets more?” becomes somewhat irrelevant. A more appropriate question perhaps would be “who learns more?” Thus, the idea that volunteers can get more benefits out of voluntourism would not sound so outraging, considering that what they obtain is precisely learning and understanding about global poverty and cultural difference, which far from being harmful can only lead to more sustainable and collaborative choices in the future. Likewise, if the idea of voluntourism as colonialism only makes sense when there is a helping intention involved, embracing a learning approach means removing any real basis that the neo-colonialism critique could have had – although it will probably remain appealing to sensationalist writers.

Still, what is not really clear is how sending organizations can use a language of volunteering for the purpose of intercultural understanding without there being high and perhaps unrealistic expectations about what the young volunteers can actually deliver. Should they encourage volunteering instead of, for example, service learning or cultural exchange languages, in spite of the excess of authority that volunteer labels invest on young people? Yet, if projects of IVS were designed through other languages, would host organizations and young people embrace the experience with the same type of openness, commitment and genuine interest? More research is needed to answer these questions, but I hope they invite organizations to embrace the latent challenges and potentials of volunteer tourism.


Barkham, P. (2006, August 18). Are these the new colonialists? The Guardian, pp. 12–14.

Birrell, I. (2010, November 14). Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do. Guardian.co.uk, Retrieved November 25, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna

Brown, F., & Hall, D. (2008). Tourism and development in the Global South: The issues. Third World Quarterly, 29(5), 839–849.

Cobbs, E. (1997). Diplomatic history and the meaning of life: Toward a global American history. Diplomatic History, 21(4), 499–518.

Frean, A. (2006, August 15). Gap years create “new colonialists”: According to a leading charity, Gap year volunteers may do more harm than good. Retrieved September 14, 2008, from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/holiday type/gap travel/article609259.ece

Klaushofer, A. (2007). “Voluntourists” told not to bother. Retrieved May 4, 2010, from

McGehee, N.G., & Andereck, K. (2008). “Pettin” the Critters: Exploring the complex relationship between volunteers and the voluntoured in McDowell County, West Virginia, USA, and Tijuana, Mexico. In K. Lyons & S. Wearing (Eds.), Journeys of discovery in volunteer tourism (pp. 12–24). Cambridge, MA: CABI.

McLeod, H. (2008, February). Humanitarian emergencies – Do volunteers help or hinder? Just change: Critical thinking on global issues, 11, 8–10.

Raymond, E.M., & Hall, C.M. (2008). The development of crosscultural (mis)understanding through volunteer tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16(5), 530–543.

Roberts, T. (2004). Are Western volunteers reproducing and reconstructing the legacy of colonialism in Ghana? An analysis of the experiences of returned volunteers. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Manchester, UK.

Rosenberger, C. (2000). Beyond empathy: Developing critical consciousness through service learning. In C. O’Grady (Ed.), Integrating service learning and multicultural education in colleges and universities (pp. 23–43). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Salazar, N. (2004). Developmental tourists vs. development tourism: A case study. In A. Raj (Ed.), Tourist behavior: Psychological perspective (pp. 85–107). New Delhi: Kanishka.

Sherraden, M., Lough, B., & Moore, A. (2008). Effects of international volunteering and service: Individual and institutional predictors. Voluntas, 19, 395–421.

Simpson, K. (2004). “Doing development”: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development. Journal of International Development, 16, 681–692.

Ver Beek, K. (2006). The impact of short-term missions: A case study of house construction in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch. Missiology: An International Review, 34(4), 477–496.

 I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum!  If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to The Voluntourist Newsletter.

See you next issue!

Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg VA

For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum>>>

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