Brokering Global Citizenship: Critique of the Language Surrounding Voluntourism

Global studies of childhood logoIn Volume 5, Issue 1, of Global Studies of Childhood, authors Margaret Zeddies and Zsuzsa Millei take us on a tour of United Planet’s website to exemplify the language of the voluntourism industry around the concept of “global citizenship.” The article entitled “‘It takes a global village’: Troubling discourses of global citizenship in United Planet’s voluntourism critiques the use of certain descriptive words & phrases and how these are likely to reinforce stereotypical power structures and relationships between the Global North and Global South. Here is the opening paragraph of the “Discussion” portion of the article to give you a flavor of the critique:

“Without generalizing our analysis of the website to other similar sites and organizations, we argue
that United Planet, by adopting dominant discourses of Global North childhoods and modernist
development discourses in relation to children and world economies, and by homogenizing and
depoliticizing communities, constructs particular “desired” relations and agendas for voluntourists.
Playing upon notions of the possibility of a transnational world and community, United Planet
attempts to present a particular worldview and trajectory to voluntourists looking to become global
citizens and partaking in social justice projects. By focusing on voluntourists’ individual relationships
with vulnerable children in need of development and a childhood like the one possible on the Global
North, United Planet attempts to position the voluntourist not as a new colonizer whose relations with
the children of the Global South are vested with particular power relations and global agendas, but
as a helpful “neighbor.” Depictions of voluntourists and children, however, are bound up with “the
cultural politics of images of Northern and Southern children and of the models of North-South
relations that underlie them” (Burman, 1994: 30). In fact, the website entrenches power relations
between Global North and South, rather than dismantling them. The concealment of power relations
happens particularly through visual and written representations that utilize paternalistic devices and
professing to be about equality (Manzo, 2008) while portraying and maintaining the Global South as
dependent.” [p.108]
united planetWhat To Do?
What would you do if you were United Planet?
Change the language of your website? Seek out other opinions? Shutter your operations? Ask a very simple question: Why Us?
Researchers and journalists have singled out voluntourism operators in reports, articles, and documentaries over the past decade-plus in ever-increasing numbers. Via “Cambodia’s Orphan Business,” for example, Projects Abroad was lambasted by Al Jazeera back in 2012. Most recently, there are questions swirling around a documentary which was meant to air on CBC because it may have portrayed Me to We in a less-than-stellar light.
Selling voluntourism is big business, a multi-multi-billion dollar business worldwide. Selling it requires language, language that motivates and compels individuals to participate. And, as the authors of this study point out, much of the language conveys a singular message: someone who is in a less powerful, more needful position, NEEDS “your” help AND by giving that help you will become a better person – “a global citizen,” no less.
Final Thoughts…
The authors suggest that global citizenship is a Global North construction and therefore runs parallel with colonizing. They write:
“…However, in this “geographical stretching-out of social relations” as Massey (1994: 147) describes it, to what extent does this transnational world “represent very much a western, colonizer’s view” (p. 147) and liberal notion of the agent as a separated individual from its nation and its histories or other social relations? In answer to this, the positioning of the voluntourist throughout the examples discussed below establishes a form of global governance in which the Global North is dominant but in a renewed form. United Planet’s “community” means a group composed of individual agents bound by similar interests or quest to make the world better. By emphasizing the hegemony of youths from the Global North as the main actors or citizens in the “community beyond borders,” the images foreground North America and Europe. Voluntourists’ responsibility to “better the world” this way is extended to the globe, while Global South children are denied the possibility and responsibility for action.” [p. 103]
Voluntourism becomes incredibly complex and undeniably provocative when critiqued in such ways. It raises many questions for those operating in the space. Is global citizenship only afforded to those who can, in essence, “afford” it? And is this global citizenship being extended to certain individuals at the “expense” of those who cannot meet that expense? Are we selling global citizenship, and, thus, perpetuating planetary inequality?
This study offers merely a hint of how academics and researchers are analyzing voluntourism. Yet, even amidst all of the research, we hear very little as to how voluntourism might be altered in order to address some of the issues being uncovered worldwide. Deconstructing the language of websites and social media to point out the flaws of voluntourism is as far as we seem to go at the present moment. Hopefully, researchers will start providing real advice to practitioners in order to assist them in delivering messages and programming that begin to eliminate inequality rather than exacerbate it!