Book Review: "Volunteer Tourism - Popular Humanitarianism in Neoliberal Times"

Volunteer Tourism - Popular Humanitarianism in Neoliberal Times

Author: Mary Mostafaneszhad
Ashgate, ISBN 978-1-4094-6953-7, August 2014

There are still a few academic books, about a dozen, on Volunteer Tourism (VT), despite its rapid growth, so this monograph is a welcome as well as useful, if over-critical, addition. Right from the start, the reader may get the impression that the authors' disposition is rather polemic with VT being portrayed as a form of “neoliberal activism”, an aspirin / weak substitute offered by “Neoliberal Capitalism” and the global north to a global south debilitated by “structural adjustment programs, state pullbacks and privatization schemes” (p.3). Other controversial introductory statements include that “Tourism is first and foremost a commodity, albeit an intangible one” (p.25) and may reinforce an impression of hostility towards tourism as a whole.

However, readers, especially those who do not share the implied political views of the author, should not be discouraged by sweeping pronouncements and read the book in its entirety as it is well-written and a product of extensive field-research containing enough information and references to support pro-VT (and pro-tourism) points of view. If the author aimed to prove the case that VT is inextricably linked to the growth of “Neoliberalism” rather than, say, the growth of Environmentalism, Alter-globalization and of the Climate Justice movement she has not convinced us. Even more crucially, the book does not prove the case that, whatever the motives or grand designs, the overall impact of VT on participants and recipients is negative or neutral, considering the evidence presented or missing in this book.

It is not always possible to convert a good thesis focusing on a specific location into something that is of global significance and an interesting read but this book succeeds, no less because it includes fewer numbers and statistics, or graphs or tables than one would expect in an academic book discussing tourism. But as the author explains, her work “traverses between anthropology of tourism and tourism geographies and extends into the interdisciplinary terrain of cultural, tourism and humanitarian studies” (p.4). The book certainly includes an extensive bibliography and informative footnotes and, above all, the actual and probably representative views of volunteers and local people. An interesting note is that all names of Volunteer tourists and volunteer tourism NGOs in the book are pseudonyms (p.20) as the author felt their identities had to be protected.

The discussion is based on evidence gathered from a “16 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2006-2012 in Chiang Mai, Thailand” (p.19) presented from an anti-neoliberalism perspective influenced – according to the author - by “cultural and feminist political economy” (p.19).

The book is organised into 7 Chapters including an introductory and a concluding chapter.

Chapter 2, entitled “Making a difference One Village at a time” tries to explore the historical roots of volunteer tourism, starting from “religious missionaries” and focusing on the US Peace Corps (established by President J.F. Kennedy in 1961). But it also notes that “Thomas Cook's original package tour in 1850 was motivated by a “broad social agenda” and philanthropic goals” and that Earthwatch was established in 1971 as the first institutionalised volunteer tourism organization, followed by many Study Abroad programs culminating in the 2001 UN International Year of Volunteering. These early origins seem to contradict the authors conclusion, much later in the book, that “volunteer tourism is a twenty-first century materialization of popular humanitarianism where the geopolitics of hope are remapped in a commodity oriented fashion” (p.143).

Chapter 3: “The Seduction of Development: NGOs and Alternative Tourism in Northern Thailand”. argues that “NGOs are contradictorily positioned as both ideological opponents and active agents of neoliberalism”. A rather brief historical account of Thai politics and of the presence of NGOs in Northern Thailand is offered, but with little background information on the region. The author generally avoids taboo topics in the book, such as sex tourism and trafficking, the plight of ethnic minorities, immigration, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, authoritarianism, drugs and geopolitical tensions, that would help put the overall contribution and expectations from VT in this specific region into perspective. The chapter includes a number of valuable if slightly over-analyzed testimonials from volunteers.

The theme of the next Chapter, 4: “Cosmopolitan Empathy, New Social Movements and the Moral Economy of Volunteer Tourism” is that the “global justice movement and its the West have been co-opted by the market and have materialized in alternative tourism” but there is inadequate discussion of alternative tourism. It also mentions that the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami caused “new heights” in the “voluntary impulse” in Thailand and discusses, rather harshly, the impact of celebrity volunteers around the world as role models for young people (“if you cannot look like Angelina Jolie, act like Angelina Jolie”).

Chapter 5: “The Cultural Politics of Sentimentality in Volunteer Tourism” argues that VT overwhelmingly “focuses on the sentimental” and “deflects attention from the structural inequality” so as to “depoliticize the expansion of Western political, economic and cultural hegemony”. By focusing too much on a supposed “sentimentality” and self-improvement motive of volunteer tourists and the implied cynicism of those pro-capitalist, pro-western conspirators who spearheaded the whole thing, the author seems to miss the progressive redistributive capacities of community tourism and the positive socio-economic impact of VT on host communities.

Chapter 6: “Converging Interests? Cross-cultural Authenticity in Volunteer Tourism” focuses on the motives of voluntourists and seems to suggest that they are seeking above all seeking “intimacy”, an interesting if controversial finding.

In the Concluding chapter 7 “Re-mapping the Movement: Popular Humanitarianism and the Geopolitics of Hope in Volunteer Tourism” the author appears more optimistic about VT finally stating, but not exploring further, that “volunteer tourism may be one strand in a broader movement for more radical structural change”, as long as it can resist the “seductive force of neoliberalism” and that “as its supporters illustrate, volunteer tourism can be life changing” (p. 139). And in the page before last, the author clarifies that although in Chapter 3 she “argued that volunteer tourism perpetuates and maintains market fundamentalism or the cultural logic of neoliberalism” this does not mean that we should “overlook the potential emancipatory forms of activism that co-exist with neoliberalism” [p.146].

Despite these lenient assessments at the very end, it is clear that the author largely equates and dismisses VT throughout the book as “ethical consumerism”. Related, qualitative, but not backed by evidence presented in the book, statements include that VT is reserved only for “those with sufficient cultural and economic capital” (p.7) that “Alternative tourists generally and volunteer tourists in particular are often well versed in environmental debates and seek to participate in experiences in line with their own middle-class ecological values” (p.138) and that “Volunteer tourism may be one strategy that tourists use to overcome this postcolonial guilt” (p.139).

We would have desired a more structured, detailed and codified presentation of the views and types of engagement of host communities about VT, the relative importance of the VT phenomenon in global terms compared to the rest of the Tourism and Development sectors, and how the international Volunteer Tourism sector is organised, since this title implies that there is global coverage – there is not – or a detailed explanation of Volunteer Tourism in Thailand. The book title would have more accurately reflected the content if it was “Volunteer Tourism, the case of Northern Thailand”. Equally, a methodic statistical analysis of the motives of volunteer tourists in the region would have been invaluable. Given the authors interest in feminist political economy it would have been appropriate and beneficial to dedicate a few pages analysing the significant fact that “women make up approximate 80% of all volunteer tourists” (p.25). And given the authors emphasis on (against) Neoliberalism there is peculiarly little effort to define it in the book, or to define the underlying causes of global injustice. We also do not read anything about other, capital-intensive forms of tourism development, more obviously and more directly associated with [neoliberal] investors rather than a low-impact one as VT.

The author at least does not seem convinced that VT is a deliberate, effective and cynical top-down neoliberal design, it could well be just an idealistic but insufficient/self-contradictory grassroots initiative. One can imagine some cases and places where it could be either or a bit of both depending of course on the ideological viewpoint and/or personal interests/involvement of the observer/participant/recipient, but it would be unfair to dismiss all VT and all voluntourists in this manner. Anyone who has read the Motorcycle Diaries (or watched the movie) can point out that at least one early famous voluntourist certainly can not be identified with neoliberalism, capitalism or neocolonialism, quite the opposite, he was inspired by his VT experience, and our guess is that many other voluntourists would more readily identify with progressive and green rather than conservative and neoliberal principles.