North-South No More! The Global Emergence of Volunteers, Volunteer-Travelers, and Voluntourists

ICOHT LogoAt the 2013 International Conference on Hospitality and Tourism Management, Usep Suhud presented the findings from his doctoral dissertation entitled “A moment to give, no moment to take: A mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism.” In this study, a mixed-methods study, there were two aspects to Mr. Suhud’s research – a qualitative study and a quantitative study.

For the qualitative study, Mr. Suhud interviewed 33 individuals via focus groups, in-depth interviews, and online interviews; for the quantitative study, 542 individuals responded to an online survey. The combination of the qualitative and quantitative methods resulted in different responses that are certainly helpful for individuals who are planning to participate in a volunteering-travel experience as well as those who are, or plan to, offer these experiences – be it an NGO, a tour operator, what have you.

Although we could build a strong case regarding the unique socio-cultural background of the researcher, in this case, Mr. Suhud [Indonesian (developing world), Muslim (religious background expressed in his dissertation)] being one of the first such individuals to conduct research on volunteer tourism, there are two items that are specifically worth considering from the results of this study.

First, Mr. Suhud uncovered clear motivations for “taking/receiving” and “giving” from the 542 respondents that were part of the quantitative, online survey (more on this in a bit). Second, and even more important to the world at large, the responses to his qualitative study, combined with results from other studies on volunteer tourism, afforded Mr. Suhud the opportunity to present the following table (Table 9.1, from page 274):

A moment to give no moment to take _ a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism-291

SOURCE: Suhud, Usep (2013) “A moment to give, no moment to take – a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism” (p.274)

“North-South” No More!

We are fully aware that a shift has begun over the last half-decade: volunteering-travel is no longer “owned” by the developed world. The “North-South” paradigm of the earlier iterations of volunteering-travel is giving way to “South-North,” “South-South,” “North-within-North” and “South-within-South” volunteering, volunteer-traveling, and voluntourism. This is something that should be of great interest to journalists, researchers, practitioners, and even participants themselves.

As a volunteer, volunteer-traveler or voluntourist, you are no longer bound to be in the presence of a group of “do-gooders” from the “North” as the default group of participants. What’s more, depending on the entity with which you engage to organize and coordinate your experience, you may very well have a degree of control over the inter-cultural experience available to you through differently-created cohorts of participants. (In other words, a “South” or emerging country volunteering-travel specialist may afford you an opportunity to engage with a cohort of emerging country participants.) The idea that participants could begin to consciously select programs that enhance the inter-cultural experience, not merely in the context of the destination, but also in the context of the cohort of participants, is a brand new prospect for volunteering-travelers.

Motivations: Giving, Taking/Receiving, and Taking/Receiving & Giving (TRG)

Mr. Suhud’s mixed-methods study provides us with clear evidence that we really are dealing with three different audiences, or categories, of individuals who are drawn to the intersection of volunteering and travel. Group 1 represents those folks who want to travel and just “give.” These individuals, according to Mr. Suhud, are motivated by “environmental” and “public” motivations. Group 2 represents those folks who are looking for what they can get from the intersection of volunteering-travel. The three motivational categories presented under this banner are: 1) “social interaction,”  2) “physiological,” and 3) “religious” (“God” will give me a reward for being a volunteering-traveler). And, finally, Group 3 represents those individuals who are truly “taking/receiving & giving,” or, in the author’s approach, (TRGers).

A moment to give no moment to take _ a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism-286

SOURCE: Suhud, Usep (2013) “A moment to give, no moment to take – a mixed-methods study on volunteer tourism” (p. 269)

In the figure above, we can visualize the three different groups – The “Givers,” the “Takers/Receivers,” and the “Takers/Receivers-Givers.” What is interesting is how half of the “religious” and “environmental” motivations can hold, on the one hand, a “giving” aspect, and on the other hand, a “taking/receiving” aspect. And, we can see how this would be possible. As it pertains to “religious” motivation, we could see someone who “gives” just for the sake of giving, as part of their spiritual practice, if you will. Likewise, we could see someone being “religiously” motivated so they could “take/receive” a blessing from her/his “god.” On the “environmental” motivation side, we could envision someone who “gives” to benefit the environment – conserve it, preserve it, what have you. Likewise, we could see someone being “environmentally” motivated so they could interact with lions and tigers or rainforests in the Amazon.

Final Thoughts…

Mr. Suhud adds to the existing literature and research on volunteering, volunteer-traveling and voluntourism by taking what previous researchers have covered – the motivations behind integrating volunteering and travel – and drawing our attention to the distinctions between the “giving,” “taking/receiving, and “taking/receiving-giving” approaches exemplified by different individuals. We could call the first group (“giving”) the “volunteer” group. These individuals would be likely to balk at being called “voluntourists” or having any association to the term “tourist.” The second group (“taking/receiving”), we could call the “volunteer-travel” group. They would likely also balk at any term that connects them with tourist; for, in such a case, we would conceivably be drawing attention to the “taking/receiving” nature of what they hope to get out of the experience. The third group (“taking/receiving-giving”) really probably are the “voluntourists” in the world. These folks are conscious of the entire grid as presented by Mr. Suhud in the above “Figure 9.2.” They have integrated volunteering and travel, see themselves as having done so, and are likely more open to the notion that they really are (“TRGers”) to use Mr. Suhud’s term.

One of the most important conclusions we can draw from Mr. Suhud’s research, therefore, is that the world will begin to produce more and more of each group, from the North and the South, who will be volunteer-traveling the globe. We should also be aware that because we have two groups who will dissociate themselves from any descriptor which includes the word “tourist,” we must be aware of the audiences for whom we are writing, or, at the very least, be clear that we are talking about three different audiences.

Would-be participants and participants should also be aware that they will be interacting with individuals who see themselves through the lens of one of these three groups: a volunteer (“giver”), a volunteer traveler (“taker/receiver”), or a voluntourist (a “taker/receiver-giver”). We must be sure that pride or a sense of “evolved-enlightenment” be not adopted as we uncover the dispositions of our cohort members. We must learn to accept all of these perspectives and embrace them equally. We may realize, even during our own experiences, that we find ourselves inclined to identify with each of these approaches at different times – one moment, we are a “giver”; one moment, we are a “taker/receiver”; one moment, we are a “taker/receiver-giver”; one moment, we are all of the above. Hopefully, this will become the goal for all of us.

If we take the time to honor the approaches, personalities, and motivations of each of these groups (seeing, in essence, that all of them are “right”), we may very well be able to establish a bridge of cooperation across the practitioners who cater to these audiences, as well as between the audiences themselves. As this will be necessary if we are to move the volunteering-travel sector forward, let’s hope that this research will be a foundational component upon which we may begin to do so.


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