May 5, 2010

voluntours for jutice?


This is a draft of a book review that I wrote for the Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change

of the book
Journeys of Discovery in Volunteer Tourism
Edited by K.D. Lyons and S. Wearing, 2008

This is a collection of glowing accounts of case studies in volunteer tourism. What is volunteer tourism (voluntourism)? Well, the editors begin by saying that they do not want to settle on a limited definition, though they recognize that one of them, Wearing, had previously (2002) offered a definition that is widely cited by authors throughout the book. That definition is that volunteer tourists are those who “volunteer in an organized way to undertake holidays that may involve the aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society or environment” (given on p. 3 of this volume). As they point out, the problem with this definition is that it limits it to those experiences that happen in the context of holidays or vacation. Presumably this is as opposed to longer-term stays? This is not specified.

I was interested in this book because of my own research on international protective accompaniers. These are people, generally from the “West”, who go to conflict zones, generally in “developing” countries, and serve as volunteer ‘unarmed bodyguards’ for local peace workers under death threat. These accompaniers generally do not consider themselves tourists, but some of them do only stay for 2 month stints, so I thought it might be interesting to think about it in these terms. Accompaniment is not considered in this volume, but it would seem that a robust framework would encompass this sort of volunteering. Certainly Wearing’s 2002 definition does not, for accompaniers are volunteering to build peace and justice, rather than alleviate poverty, restore the environment, or research society. A broadening of the definition to other purposes of the volunteering would be useful. Unfortunately since the editors choose not to specify a definition, authors here tended to rely on the limited definition given by Wearing in 2002 (above).

Though a broader definition is not explicitly formulated, the last section of the book is indeed aimed at expanding the notion of what volunteer tourism is. The book is divided into three sections, each with an introductory chapter by the editors. Part one is “Journeys Beyond Otherness: Communities Culture and Power”. Part two is “Inward Journeys: Motivations, Needs and the Self”. Part three is “Journeys at the Edge: Overlaps and Ambiguities”. This final section includes a chapter on museum volunteers (tourists in their own home town), volunteer national tourists in Indigenous communities in New Zealand (visit the “third world” in your own country), the way that the lonely planet shapes tourism (yes, they now have a guide to volunteer tourism), and, most inspiringly, a chapter by Higgins-Desbiolles and Russell-Mundine on speaking tours in the global North by social justice activists from the global South, and political delegations from North to South (both called here Solidarity Tours). This chapter, entitled “Absences in the Volunteer Tourism Phenomenon: the Right to Travel, Solidarity Tours and Transformation Beyond the One-way” asks, can volunteer tourism contribute to global peace and solidarity? It does not offer much of an answer, but suggests that it is more likely to do so when exchanges are two way, and it is not only, as is generally the case, the privileged who travel.

That essay is as close as this book comes to being critical. I was surprised to find no discussion in this book of the colonial patterns that volunteer tourism can often fall into, or of how it uses, and reinforces, passport/economic/racial privilege (so hard to untangle). No connection is made to the literature critiquing humanitarianism, or even critical reflections on the connection to Mission work. Quite the opposite. The New Zealand pakeha (non-Maori) volunteers on the marae are described as providing positive role models by virtue of having conversations with Maori youth about not having babies outside of marriage.

The chapter by Pearce and Coghlan on dynamics of volunteer tourism does point to the fact that most volunteer tourists are from Europe and North America, and not Asia and the Middle East, where there are, as they put it, “parallel pockets of affluence” (132). Rather than point to how this might be linked to a history of colonialism and mission work, their answer for this is simply cultural difference. They do mention that perhaps volunteers are trying to ameliorate the historical exploitation and environmental mistakes on which their society has been built (Pearce and Coghlan, 132). Sadly this does not lead to any further discussion of the role of guilt or accountability in this work, which I would have found useful for my own work on how these shape solidarity travel and activism (Koopman 2008).

Spencer’s chapter reviewing NGO study tours of Cuba does mention that it “could” be argued that voluntours are attempting to overcome their ‘complicity’. Yet rather than engage in that discussion, he moves right on to say that as compared to mass tourists in the developing world, they are benevolent. So voluntours are not only becoming innocent, they are good! I do not mean to imply that they are bad and guilty, but rather that these dynamics of being seen as, or imagining oneself in this way, are fascinating ones. Barbara Heron (2007), based on discussions with white women who do development work in Africa, argues that being a good helper to those with less privilege has traditionally been the way white women have gained subjectivity and gotten out of the home. These sorts of engagements with the links to the intimate histories of empire would have enriched this book.

The chapter by Soderman and Snead on the motivation of volunteer tourists, does cite Simpson (2005) on the ‘geography of experimentation’ that began in the colonial era, where the colonies were a place to practice what could not be done at home. So too, Brits on their ‘gap year get to ‘practice’, say, construction and teaching, in ways they could not in the UK without qualification. The authors cite this argument, but fail to engage with it.

The most critical this book gets is of how the hegemonic forces of capitalism are trying to usurp, divert, and commodify volunteer tourism, as they have ecotourism. The editors warn in their introduction to the final section of the danger of volunteer tourism becoming a tranquilizer rather than awareness-raising, and of communities becoming ‘consumables’ (153).

I am all in favor of focusing on what works. I do ‘appreciate’ the chapter by Raymond, who used a method of ‘appreciative inquiry’ to discuss volunteer tourism with ‘sending organizations’. But I also think it is useful to look at what does not work, so that it does not sneak in to what does. It would also be more useful to look more carefully and what works and how. Some chapters paint in very broad strokes. Mathews’ chapter on the impact of volunteer tourism on the volunteers claims that these programs, “reinstate a sense of (at least symbolic) equality between self and other. By ‘giving something back’ a one-way process of knowledge consumption becomes a two-way process of knowledge-sharing and production, a mutual dialogue rather than a singular monologue” (108). This is a very idealistic vision. Often these programs are not premised on equality, but quite the opposite.

Some of the writing in this collection is quite stilted, for my taste, and constantly bows to the deity of objectivity (even to the point of seeming to apologize for doing ethnography). Most authors are based in Australia, as are the editors. There is a striking absence of authors based in the global South, particularly given the subject matter. Many of the chapters are quite dry. Lepp, for example, concludes that volunteers working with the community, and those working with wildlife, were similarly benefitted. Lepp goes on to argue that reflection is the key to benefitting from novel experiences (98). Yet neither Lepp nor the volunteers seem to be reflecting much on issues of power. Indeed, in the entire section of chapters on volunteers negotiating the self, this self is never discovered as privileged, raced, or gendered.

The chapter by McGehee and Andereck not only has the best title (pettin’ the critters), but does some of the most intriguing work. They are the only ones in the collection to turn to the “voluntoured”, yet do so based on very brief research. Clearly this is an area that needs far more attention. McGehee and Andereck look at two host communities in particular, in Appalachia and Tijuana. McDowell county, in West Virginia, started receiving VISTA volunteers in the 60s. Today most of the volunteers are, yes indeed, students on week long Christian mission trips. The missionary aspect and history is not engaged with. They do have a very brief section on the role of religion in voluntourism, but it does not go much further than to say that “if we were” to trace the roots of it, we would likely find mission and relief work of churches (20). There is no examination of how it follows those patterns today, and their impact. Instead there is a brief discussion of how the two host communities they studied do or don’t mind voluntours being associated with a church.

Tijuana, they go on to say, is a highly “voluntoured” city because of it’s proximity the US (17). A worker with a host organization there told them that voluntours frequently want to come and hand out used clothing, personally. Her term for it was that they wanted to “pet the critters”. The authors recognize that this points to how voluntours want to be thanked and feel good about what they have done, but do not engage critically with the unequal subject-making work happening here. Indeed, they go on to tell stories of volunteers surreptitiously giving away clothing, even though programs do not allow it, and romantically see this as something like a family exchange, a “joyous and equitable experience” (19). The authors do not speak Spanish and perhaps missed the power dynamics here in a country where used clothing is usually given to maids by the middle class. Yet at least these authors are engaging in the question of how othering happens in voluntourism, and how host organizations try to avoid it. For example, they report that one organization in Appalachia does not allow voluntours to meet the people who will receive the houses they are building (20).

The chapter by Higgins-Desbiolles and Russel-Mundine, which looks at two way solidarity tourism, examines volunteer tourism in terms of ‘justice tourism’. This book could have used much more evaluation like this of voluntourism’s impact on peace, justice and human rights. It could also use more creative thinking about how to overcome and rework colonial legacies of privilege that shape voluntourism. I very much appreciated the discussion by these two authors on the right to travel for all, and the long struggle for social tourism. These efforts are rarely put into conversation with voluntourism.

As I was write this, Gustavo Ulcue, a Colombian indigenous alternative media activist working with the ACIN, is driving with friends across Canada on a speaking tour. He is seeing the Rockies on his way to speak in Vancouver, but in helping to organize his visit I certainly never thought of him as a ‘voluntour’! Nor did I, in my own research, think of human rights accompaniers as ‘voluntours’. This book did left me wondering if it would be useful to do so. This collection does not make significant contribution to debates on colonialism in travel, the political geography of travel, nor to critical tourism studies.

Heron, B (2007) Desire for Development: Whiteness, Gender, and the Helping Imperative. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Koopman, S (2008) Imperialism Within: Can the Master’s Tools Bring Down Empire? Acme: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies. 7(2):283–307

Simpson, K (2005) Broad Horizons? Geographies and Pedagogies of the Gap Year. PhD thesis. University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Wearing, S (2002) In: Dann, G.S. (ed.) Re-centring the self in volunteer tourism. The tourist as a metaphor of the social world. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. 237-262.
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