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Sun. December 04, 2022
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Examining Attitudes of International Development Volunteering and Voluntourism
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Volunteering takes many forms by notions of what it means to be a good citizen or community member. It is generally conceptualized as an activity undertaken by choice (i.e. ‘voluntary’) that carries no monetary reward. It has also been understood as occurring within and through civil society, in that the activity of volunteering was not directed by the state, and nor was it a commercial activity. International development volunteering (IDV) is a particular form of volunteering that involves organized contributions to communities outside of one’s own country for a specific period of time. An article states, “from the US alone, it has been estimated that colleges and universities send over 6,000 students abroad every year for volunteer trips, while church groups sponsor around 1.6 million service trips annually” (Banki & Schonell, 2018, p. 3). This paper intends to examine how the preconceived notions of those embarking on an internship compare with those who have already gone on the internship and what they had originally hoped for. Through outlining our methodology and then elaborating on themes found within our primary research and existing scholarly research, we intend to show that expectations people hold within international development work are often quite idealistic in terms of the impact one can have; due to the length of their stay, the necessity of local involvement, and identifying their altruistic intent.


In order to compare and contrast existing literature on voluntourism and IDV, we needed to collect data from those who had first hand experience on the topic. Our methodology approach was qualitative, we conducted interviews via a video communications platform called Zoom and asked 12-15 questions to six participants. The sample frame consisted of two groups who had participated in a study-abroad program or were confirmed to embark on a trip shortly thereafter. We used pseudonyms to conceal the identity of the participants to avoid any undue influence that may occur. From group one, participant 1 travelled to Asia and participant 2 and 3 travelled to Africa. From group two, participant 6 was scheduled to travel to Africa while participant 4 and 5 had yet to confirm the region of their internship. All the participants were either Vancouver Island University (VIU) students or had recently graduated.       

For those unfamiliar with the realm of international development work, it may be challenging to differentiate between international development volunteering (IDV) and voluntourism. In fact, some participants had very minimal knowledge of development work and how it differed from aspects of voluntourism. This was mainly observed with participants who were embarking on their trip and had no previous volunteering experience. International development volunteering (IDV) first began in the post-World War II era with the rise of the ‘development project’. Individuals would commit to a period of time abroad in the global South, to promote development aligned with the local community/host organization priorities. IDV program usually rely on government aid budgets and are managed by multilateral institutions, non-profit organizations or for-profit organizations (Schech et al, 2015, p. 361). Development volunteering tends to involve long-term development objectives as time spent by individuals range from shorter stays of three to six months to upward of three years.

International Volunteering Sending Agencies (IVSA) works with local civil society organizations (CSO’s) to negotiate in long-term methods of social change (McGloin & Georgeou, 2016, p. 405). Participant 2 stated that the Global Studies Internship at VIU resembled a volunteer experience, rather than a form of voluntourism because she found that the sending agency avoided creating a dependency among the local partner organizations they worked with (Interview, April 2020).

Evidently, IDV is recognized for its values on mutual learning, reciprocity and equality. Volunteers are global citizens who recognize the importance of relationship building through cross cultural communication skills. International volunteering encompasses a complex set of relationships between governments, coordinating organizations, host organizations and volunteers who are partnered to ensure sustainable outcomes and promote a positive image as ambassadors for development within their nation (Schech et al, 2015, p. 363). Volunteer tourism, also known as ‘voluntourism’ bears a significant influence on today’s travel landscape with an economic impact of approximately US$3 billion globally. The rise of voluntourism can be traced back to the 1990’s, when it was introduced under the Pro-Poor Tourism agenda which incorporates ideas of sustainable development as discussed in the United Nations (UN) 1992 Rio Earth Summit (McGloin & Georgeou, 2016, p. 406). Broadly defined, voluntourism refers to individuals who are seeking to positively affect the social, cultural, natural or economic situations of destination countries, while gaining depth to one’s personal perspective, in addition to enjoying traditional elements of travel during personal leisure time. Activities may focus on providing educational or health support, environmental protection and construction of wells, schools or housing (Foller-Carroll & Charlebois, 2015, p. 139). Voluntourism is primarily facilitated by for-profit organizations based in the global North which benefit financially from sending people to developing communities, typically paired with short-term time commitments of serving eight weeks or less (Tiessen & Lough, 2019, p. 305). Scholars critique this short time frame and specify those who are low-skilled or semi-skilled should spend six months or longer in a host community to achieve more effective capacity development outcomes. In fact, short-term projects prioritize the self-interest and advancement of the ‘voluntourist’ and fail to capture the underlying structural inequalities between communities of the developed and developing world. Participant 3 echoed her conflicting feeling of privilege, stating, “Basically it was voluntourism…I felt selfish because it was a very expensive trip to send me on…for my education” (Participant 3, Interview, April 2020).

Many scholars identify voluntourism as the commodification of poor communities. The relationship between the organization and individual along with the monetary exchange involved, the poor in the Global south turn into commodities to be enjoyed within a global neoliberal economy (Georgeou and Haas, 2019, p. 1414). Considering that this field is often targeted at younger audiences (specifically aged between 20 and 29 years) and the labor is predominantly unskilled, many are concerned with the unequal global power structures and the way in which they unfold in program which reinforce already hierarchical power dynamics. Its discourse often consists of ‘making a difference’, positioning the poor in the global South as ‘the other’ in need to be rescued by the unskilled, young, ‘white experts’ (Georgeou and Haas, 2019, p. 1411). Similarly, Participant 3 reflected how a community member could have performed the same tasks they were assigned if they had received extra support available from human resources, whether that’d be a newer computer model or enrollment in a particular course, stating “they were very capable of doing it” (Interview, April, 2020).

An idea echoed in most interviews, and in a large portion of scholarly literature, is that some degree of local involvement is necessary in international development. Through development that includes the local population, infrastructure can be created in which members of a community can participate. This can lead to the empowerment and increased well-being of an economy, of a political structure, of individuals, and of a community as a whole. Some participants had high expectations going into their internships in terms of the impact they could have on the host community. For those who had already gone on internships, we heard how they felt as though they were unprepared for the work and how they knew for a fact there were many people within the actual community who would be better equipped for the job. A common critique of the voluntourism industry says it operates “on the assumption that travelling to the Global South helps white middle-class subjects assert their autonomy, magnanimity and superiority over the backward locals and the less educated and mobile working classes at home” (Vrasti, 2013, p. 10). Participant 2, who had travelled to Africa, said, “there is constantly an ethical dilemma… it is really hard to be put in this position of ‘oh hey, we are here to help you’ but then they know way more about their organization and their business than I ever will and so even just being there was ethically challenging” (Interview, April, 2020). Another participant who also travelled to Africa said, “I went in with the expectation that I would have really something to offer that they didn’t necessarily have and I think at the end of it, I was like ‘maybe I don’t… I’m not actually needed here at all’” (Participant 3, Interview, April 2020). In short, participants who were previously involved in internships saw first hand that the locals were often the ones with more extensive knowledge despite the education the interns had.

The main reason local involvement is so necessary in development is that the locals are the people who hold the most extensive knowledge, and further that they “are often more vested in developing meaningful, sustainable, long-lasting solutions than are organizations based in other locations” (Crescenzi and Rodriguez, 2011, p. 774). Participant 1 of our research who had interned with an organization in Asia said their internship “really showed [them] that international development should be that supporting role, not the idea that we are going to go in and fix whatever is broken because the locals are already working on that” (Interview, April, 2020). As the locals are sometimes the best and most knowledgeable people for the job, a very important part of their involvement is their knowledge of what not to do. It is said, “people’s inclusion in development decision making was called for as an essential means of limiting the harm development might otherwise cause them” (Drydyk, 2010, p. 334). Their knowledge of what is happening within their region or community is pertinent to the success of development. One participant had a change of opinion regarding the field of development when their expectations of the internship were not met when faced with reality. Participant 3 expressed how the internship “changed [their] perspective in that [they are] fairly against a lot of the top down programs now and… think they’re completely out of touch with what a lot of the communities need” (Interview, April, 2020). The analysis of the combined scholarly research and first hand interviews has made apparent the importance of local involvement that can be seen in the field of international development. The expectations of the participants involved in this research allowed us to further understand how before engaging in development work we often think we are going to create a lot of change, but when faced with reality we see the tools for change can be found within the host community itself.

The intent and motivation behind those who want to volunteer or work in the international development sector may vary. True altruism can be hard to distinguish and differentiate from acts with some selfish intent. Those who want to volunteer their time may be seeking something in return, whether it’s an internal feeling or emotion or for superficial reasons such as their appearance. According to Fletcher and Hindman, there is no pure act of altruism as it always contains some egoism in it (2011). The authors state that egoism contaminates many acts that appear to be altruistic, but if you peel back the layers you may see one's self interest at the forefront. These are just some of the challenges students may face as they decide to do an internship and/ or pursue this field of work after graduation. 

During the interviews we conducted, many of the participants expressed selfish reasons for wanting to partake in internships abroad. According to Otoo & Amuquandoh, volunteers' motivations may be driven due to; gaining personal travel experience, adventure, learning, cultural exchange, self growth, networking and for the social aspect (2014). The participants were excited to utilize the skills they had learned in university and apply them in the field. While some participants went into the internship with the intent to help, many soon realized they needed to work together with the local community to get the job done. Participants had to put any egoism they may have had aside, to better help serve the community. 

The participants who had gone on an internship had reflected on their time abroad and even challenged their own motives for going. Some participants even realized their self interest was a motive and one participant responded to the question regarding the main takeaway from their experience, “Intellect wise they have all those resources, and it is really just a matter of we just want to go in there because it makes us feel good about ourselves” (Participant 3 Interview, April, 2020). It can be hard to differentiate the feelings of wanting to help versus your own reason for wanting to help, it is important to critically think about who will truly gain from this experience. Participants who understood the difference between voluntourism and international development, felt that at least they had stayed for a longer period of time (ninety days) allowing them to get work done and what differentiates their internships from voluntourism. This allowed volunteers to feel better about their time abroad but again put into question the purity of the altruistic intent.

By comparing the groups who have completed their internship and those who are embarking, it’s revealed that experienced interns have conceptualized voluntourism aspects and are highly aware and critical of it. Students at VIU primarily concluded that their time abroad closely resembled international development volunteering rather than a form of voluntourism. Participants who have yet to go on an internship did not discuss the importance of local involvement in their interviews. In contrast, previous interns were faced with the reality that their university education does not even closely compare with the knowledge had by locals in the community in which they interned. This comparison illustrates the idea that we, as westerners, believe we are more equipped to deal with problems in developing countries however, the reverse is sometimes true. It was evident that participants' self interest played an important role in wanting to embark on an internship abroad. Previous interns were able to see how their altruistic intent may have been contaminated by their egoism in the pursuit of international development. Through analyzing our primary research with consideration of existing literature our findings echoed the common critiques of development work abroad. 

Lauren Davis, Sadaf Kayum, and Anna Kawahara, are undergraduate students at Vancouver Island University (VIU) in British Columbia, Canada.


Banki, S., & Schonell, R. (2018). Voluntourism and the Contract Corrective. Third World Quarterly, 39(8), 1475-1490. doi:10.1080/01436597.2017.1357113.

Crescenzi, Riccardo and Rodriguez- Pose, Andres. (2011). ‘Reconciling Top-down and 

Bottom- up Development Policies’. Environment and Planning, 43(4), 773-780. 


Drydyk, Jan. (2010). ‘Participation, Democracy, and Development: Three Fickle Friends’. New Directions in Development Ethics. Ed. Wilber et al. University of Notre Dame Press, 2333- 356. Url: https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/32611.

Fetcher, A., & Hindman, H., eds., (2011). Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers: The Challenges and Futures of Aidland. Kumarian Press.

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Participant 1. (April, 2020). Personal Interview.  

Participant 2. (April, 2020). Personal Interview.  

Participant 3. (April, 2020). Personal Interview.  

Participant 4. (April, 2020). Personal Interview.  

Participant 5. (April, 2020). Personal Interview.  

Participant 6. (April, 2020). Personal Interview.  

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partnership: Rethinking international volunteering. Progress in Development Studies, 15(4), 358-370. doi:10.1177/1464993415592750.           

Tiessen, R., Tiessen, R., Lough, B. J., & Lough, B. J. (2019). International volunteering capacity development: Volunteer partner organization experiences of mitigating factors for effective practice. Forum for Development Studies, 46(2), 299-320. doi:10.1080/08039410.2018.1529701.        



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