Unpacking the CV Sales Pitch for Voluntourism

Journal of SociologyColleen McGloin, of the University of Wollongong, and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, have generated an online article for the Journal of Sociology entitled “Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education.” One of the co-authors is inspired to delve into the subject after hearing a young man offer his voluntourism recruitment spiel to students prior to a lecture. She paraphrases:

Hey guys, there’s a meeting today at lunchtime for those interested, and I’d love to see you all
there. We have some awesome packages available for you to travel and get some experience in
developing countries helping out with projects designed to make these communities stronger.
Not only will you be helping others less fortunate than you, but you can use the experience on
your CV as an example of working to help communities abroad.”

Later in the paper, the authors offer the following in response to some of the language shared above:

The power relations informing the discourse of voluntourism mimic and reinforce those responsible for global inequality and poverty in the first place. Colonial paternalism is predicated on the notion that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and that this will always be the case, therefore one’s obligation as a privileged subject is to ‘help’ those less privileged. The certainty underpinning this view prevents volontourists ‘seeing’ or ‘engaging’ with the fact that poor people can, and do, resist their own oppression, and exercise agency when and where possible…

Dependency theory argues that development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin: wealth requires poverty. Voluntourism is part of a system of neoliberal development that requires inequality so that some may reap the beneficial effects of the market. Voluntourism is lauded as ‘a good thing’, and the point we make here is that it is difficult to speak outside of the discursive ‘logic’ of goodness that constitutes the ‘catechism of ethics’. Having better educated voluntourists will do nothing to effect structural change as voluntourism, as an activity, reinforces the paradigm of need without enabling agency by local communities.”

Broadening Perspective: Both-And Interpretation

Bayfield 1300

The Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race

If voluntourism is anything, it is constantly interpreted. The words of McGloin and Georgeou remind us that any time we narrow our perspective on voluntourism, our interpretation is sure to follow. Concentrate on vulnerable, “voice-less” populations, market-driven outfitters, and young students engaging in these experiences to pad their CV’s and you have the ingredients for dark interpretation. On the other hand, go to Bayfield, Wisconsin, in late January/early February and you could be staying in a B&B, supporting the local economy, having dinner with sled dog mushers, and volunteering during the day to help manage the dogs and sleds, or possibly be a timekeeper. If we only see voluntourism as represented in the first scenario, we forget entirely about the remarkable sled dog race in Bayfield, and the reality that voluntourists have been supporting this race for nearly a decade!

So which is it? Is voluntourism the hedonistic, self-serving, vulnerable-population-neglecting, “‘catechism of ethics'” described by McGloin and Georgeou? Or, is it the animal-fan-favorite, snow & ice-filled extraordinary adventure portrayed in a small town in Wisconsin?

Of course, it is both.

And… we need to cultivate an ever-deepening understanding of how to hold in our collective awareness the vast array of offerings, none of which fit neatly into a one-approach-equals-all!

Final Thoughts…

McGloin and Georgeou remind us that over-simplifying the voluntourism experience in the context of any destination is woefully uninformed, particularly when vulnerable populations and indigenous peoples are involved. What else can we take away from their article?

Certainly, the voluntourism sales pitch is not an accurate portrayal of the entire gamut of motivations which are expressed by individuals considering such a trip. Yes, they want to “make a difference.” Yes, they seek life experience and adventure which will translate into possibly a more vibrant CV. There are also a cluster of other reasons to say, “Yes,” to voluntourism. These involve camaraderie, living one’s values, and becoming more informed through cross-cultural interactions, just to name a few.

The authors also consider time frame and the relatively short duration of voluntourism experiences. This argument reverberates throughout the academic literature on voluntourism – suggesting that longer-term commitments are of greater value to all stakeholders. I think what we could be inspired to consider, following on the work of McGloin and Georgeou, is rather than the actual footprint of the journey – a mere week or two, in many cases – an elongation of the contextual footprint of the voluntourism experience. Could, for example, a participant, host community, and other stakeholders  benefit from expanding the lead-in and post-trip cycles? Could these periods include some of the experiential learning and development that naturally accrues from the trip itself? Could voluntourism experiences be crafted within a more robust learning and developmental cycle for the participants and the host community? What would this new iteration of elongated itinerary look like? How could each host community be on a similar journey of its own?