Who wants to be a Volunteer? Book Review

An estimated 10 million people will head from North to South this year as volunteers, seeking a mix of adventure, altruism and self improvement. Volunteering is big (a $2bn industry), but is it beautiful? Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, a 350 page tome aimed at informing and guiding would-be volunteers, left me with very mixed feelings on the subject.

The book’s instincts are good. Written by 4 authors with extensive experience in both being and organizing volunteers, they are open about some of the development disasters they have seen. Here’s one of the 4 co-authors, Zahara Hecksher:

‘I was 22 when I volunteered in Zambia. I had no experience in farming and no prior travel in Africa, but I had an almost pathological desire to fix other people’s problems. At home, I had directed that energy toward a boyfriend with a drinking problem. Now, without realizing it, I wanted to focus that energy on the people of Africa.’

A full on, can do, American bull in a china shop, Zahara arrived in her Zambian village and decided it needed a medical clinic (she had no medical training). She drew up a budget, and launched a petition urging the local youth centre to build a clinic. They refused (not least because there was no money for staff or medicines) and Zahara got frustrated and angry.

The book charts the evolution of volunteering from the 19th Century missionaries onwards. The modern version grew out of a combination of circumstances around the start of the millennium: traditional volunteer sending agencies like VSO got more picky about only sending people with specific skills, just as the internet made it much easier for would-be volunteers and start-up agencies to find each other.

That new level of disintermediation was a mixed blessing, lowering the barriers to volunteering but opening the door to a variety of flakes and charlatans. Travel agencies now routinely offer ‘voluntourism’ – a few hours in an orphanage to add feelgood to a holiday package. The trouble is that this has led to a spate of stories about sham orphanages, where poor parents are persuaded to park their kids to talk to the tourists, when they should be at school.

Guided by far too many such examples, the authors want to reform volunteering towards what they call a ‘Learning Service’, where the emphasis is on the need for would-be volunteers to first learn about the place, the people, the context and reflect upon their own strengths and weaknesses, rather than jumping in and going full-on white saviour.

Some kind of reform is clearly needed and there are already some good examples eg Development in Action. But I have to say that such was the horrible picture painted overall, that I came away thinking the arguments for banning volunteering are at least as strong as those for promoting some more respectful, thoughtful variant. Or how about a volunteer tax ($1000 per person?) to go to fund proper social services, including real orphanages?

The critique is followed by a really good and detailed guide to would-be volunteers. It treats the volunteers with kindness and respect (aid types would probably show a lot less patience). There are chapters on alternatives to volunteering, on the role of volunteers, on how to research different volunteer options, how to compare opportunities and how to sign up. The authors try to help prospective volunteers through some of the challenges they will face – curbing northern impatience, whether to bargain, how to respond to begging, what to do if you decide the organization you are placed with is corrupt.

But I found these generous instincts contradicted by two big, and to me, pretty unforgiveable gaps: firstly, there is almost no evidence cited from research on the actual impact of volunteering – just a string of anecdotes and reminiscences. There must be more than that out there, surely? What impact does sustained exposure to volunteering have on norms, community cohesion, social mobility and income? Would appreciate some links and references.

Even more alarming is the almost total absence of the volunteered-upon – the families and communities who host those 10 million arrivals every year, with all the attendant disruption and mutual incomprehension. Hundreds of volunteers are quoted in the book, talking about how much they’ve learned, how naïve they were at first etc etc. But there is hardly anything from members of the ‘community’ they are trying to help, and precious few thoughts from local NGOs either. That just feels wrong.

I first came across volunteering as a journalist in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Solidarity campaigns in Europe and North America were organizing ‘coffee brigades’ to bring in the coffee harvest in an economy under siege by the US and its proxy army of ‘Contras’. The trouble was the incoming ‘sandalistas’ knew nothing about coffee and wrought havoc on the coffee bushes. But the government reckoned it was a price worth paying for the organizing that those volunteers undertook when they went back home.

The difference now is that far too many volunteers still don’t know what they are doing, but the benefits of their naïve urge to help are too often accruing to travel agents and con artists, rather than anything more uplifting.

But if you know someone set on becoming a volunteer, and cannot dissuade them, this book would still make an excellent Christmas present.

And of course there’s no way I can finish with anything other than the ‘Who Wants to be a Volunteer’ spoof

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20 Responses to “Who wants to be a Volunteer? Book Review”
  1. Carol Burns

    As an former older VSO volunteer ( did it when I was in my early 50’s for 20 months, 2008-2010) I am surprised you don’t mention them, especially as they have done a fair amount of work on evaluating programmes. Sorry I can’t reference it as the website is very focused on the volunteer experience. I worked with evaluation researchers when I was abroad.

  2. Some academic references on the volunteering/voluntourism discourse:

    Somebody actually wrote a PhD on this:

    ‘“It’s Not Voluntourism”: Unpacking Young People’s Narrative Claims to Authenticity and Differentiation in the International Volunteer Experience’

    There’s also a 181 page (!) MA thesis ‘Voluntourism Discourse: A Case Study of
    ME to WE’ that outlines key discourses

    There is one strand of lit/research, the ‘neoliberal critique’, e.g. Nichole Georgeou (“‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education”
    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1440783314562416?journalCode=josb), see also her book ‘Neoliberalism, Development and Aid Volunteering’

    I also wrote a short post in 2015 along those lines:

    A lot of the research focuses on ‘volunteering’ rather than ‘voluntourism’

    Colleagues at IDS explored some nuances in their ‘Valuing Volunteering project (http://www.ids.ac.uk/project/valuing-volunteering), including open access IDS Bulletin (http://bulletin.ids.ac.uk/idsbo/issue/view/16)

    My colleague Susan Schech with a slightly more positive take: ‘Building relationships and negotiating difference in international development volunteerism’ (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/geoj.12199/abstract)

    Issues around ‘medical voluntourism’ have also received some scholarly attention: ‘Medical voluntourism in Honduras: ‘Helping’ the poor?’ (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sharon_Mclennan/publication/262732217_Medical_voluntourism_in_Honduras%27Helping%27the_poor/links/5541899c0cf2b790436be304/Medical-voluntourism-in-HondurasHelpingthe-poor.pdf)

    Most of the articles are ungated-but happy to supply those who are not open access

  3. Chola OBrien

    Thanks Duncan. I follow your blog never comment, but could not resist this morning!
    I absolutely need to get my hands on this book and would love to review it. It sounds a welcome alternative perspective on volunteering. I have been reading increasingly more articles like this, about two in the same number of days on LinkedIn.
    The first, “What Role Can Privileged White People Play in International Development” by Mary Ann Clements, a piece she wrote for Bright Magazine and the second What Can We Do About the White Saviour Complex by Amy Costello in the Non Profit Quarterly Journal. Why now? What is happening?
    As very proud former VSO Diaspora Volunteer in Zambia, I am actually being challenged into action, to put out yet another unique perspective of a different narrative and side of the story out there.
    It is fantastic these conversations are happening.
    Aidnography – will have a look at the articles you have shared.

    • Hi Chola – I am one of the authors of the book, and just to say that we would love to get your perspective on the book. We would be happy to publish a review on our own blog as well, if you are interested. In answer to your question of “why now?” – one answer is that recently there has been increased political attention on these issues because of the links that have been drawn between voluntourism (especially in orphanages) and modern slavery. Australia has already passed some quite radical legislation and there is pressure on the Commonwealth to follow suit.

      Get in contact with me on claire [at] learningservice.info if you would like to discuss a review!

  4. MH

    With a focus on medical voluntourism:


    Model for local partnerships (though all-western authors): 10.1186/s12992-015-0135-7

    Bilateral Exchange model: 10.1186/s12909-014-0246-5

  5. Hi Duncan, tried to post some stuff earlier but doesn’t seem to be working. Another go!

    This is an area I work in – alongside some of the folk listed above so apologies in advance for referencing some of my own work. I think development outcomes are often obscured by an interest in the behaviours/experiences of the international volunteer. This reflects the fact that the growth in research in this area partly mirrors the growth and commercialisation of the ‘gap year’, reflecting its interests and preoccupations. Piece here with Nina Laurie explores this a bit and should be open access: https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tran.12205

    I think we (academics and others) need to be vigilant about the way the language of development is appropriated for things that are very unlikely to achieve certain forms of development – looking for it there doesn’t seem a terribly productive thing to do and likely to lead to predictable critiques but not much new knowledge. Reference here on professionalisation and global citizenship which explores some of the ways volunteering is set up: https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00436.x. My colleague Mark Griffiths has done important work challenging how much our thinking is contained by traditional framings around volunteering, looking particularly at emotions and citizenship:

    VSO – who I collaborate with – are working hard to explore impacts, including through Valuing Volunteering (above) and also through work on post volunteering activities, which I see as part of the development story in terms of social justice activism etc. I can follow up on a link for the latter if of interest. I wonder if the challenge is that these impacts don’t fit the increasingly de politicised and securitised models of development which don’t provide much space for development action, advocacy and social justice campaigning?

    A couple of other thoughts: the focus on international volunteering has been very partial to date, looking almost exclusively at it in terms of volunteers from Europe/N.America and Australia. Yet there are long histories of international voluntary work outside the traditional North/South model. I wrote something with colleagues on South-South volunteering as a first foray into this last year – https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/geoj.12243%4010.1111/%28ISSN%291475-4959.international-volunteerism – but we need to now look at development outcomes in this context, which I am just starting to do.

    Relatedly, a final thought is the degree to which the emphasis on international volunteering of particular kinds obscures the wider relationship between volunteering and development? This has really come home to me as I have worked with IFRC on their Global Review on Volunteering (http://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/volunteers/global-review-on-volunteering/) and the Swedish Red Cross on the Volunteers in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative (http://www.rcrcvice.org/). I have become increasingly concerned that the more oxygen we give to international volunteering, the less attention we pay to other kinds of volunteering which are more likely to help meet critical development challenges.

    Sorry for the long post – just something I care about!

  6. I wonder if the lack of work on development outcomes reflects the fact that researchers have got interested in this area in line with the growth of the commercialised gap year? So lots on volunteer experiences and behaviours etc but less on development?
    Paper here on this and trying to develop a different research agenda: https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tran.12205
    Not quite on development impacts, but we need to pay attention to international volunteering outside the North/South model, historically and now. Initial paper here on South-South volunteering and development: https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/geoj.12243%4010.1111/%28ISSN%291475-4959.international-volunteerism
    Final thought is that we need to make sure frustrations etc at international volunteering don’t obscure other inds of volunteering that impact development (e.g. IFRC Global Review on Volunteering http://www.ifrc.org/en/what-we-do/volunteers/global-review-on-volunteering; Volunteers in Conflicts and Emergencies Initiative – http://www.rcrc.vice.org).

  7. Andrew Wells-Dang

    If I could add a little personal context, Zahara Heckscher (a friend and former housemate of mine in Washington) went on from that first volunteer experience to be a hugely respected social justice advocate and breast cancer campaigner, before she passed away earlier this year at age 53. I know she would love to be able to respond to Duncan’s critique, but since she can’t, I’d point out in her honor that our sometimes mis-conceived attempts at volunteering (I’ve had some too!) contribute somehow to gaining experience over a lifetime and bringing fruit in totally different places and ways, and there’s no way to quantify that.

  8. Tracey Martin

    Orphanage volunteering is not just bad because of fake orphanages, it is bad for the development of the child – imagine having been abandoned once, then a white person comes along and is nice to you for a few months and then disappears – and this happens again and again and again.

    And rather than use the money on new orphanages I would suggest it is invested in keeping children with their families, quality foster care and support to kinship carers.
    The words ‘I’m going to volunteer in an orphanage’ really raise my hackles!

  9. Hello Duncan, Thanks for an interesting blog, and sharing another excellently thought provoking ad from the Rusty Radiator crowd. International Citizen Service, as a youth volunteering for development programme, often butts up against the criticism you highlight, both the usefulness of young people and of volunteering. We have been working hard in our second phase of ICS to generate the sort of evidence you have highlighted. ICS brings groups of young people (from all backgrounds) from the UK together with young people from developing countries, to volunteer side by side, moving to break down those white saviour stereotypes. It also follows an intentional learning and reflection journey for the young volunteers, from selection through to ongoing active citizenship, and included in the youth-led M&E. Our theories of change and programme design are based on VSO’s understanding of the value of volunteering (our relational model). The ICS mid term evaluation
    (See https://www.volunteerics.org/sites/default/files/inline-files/MTE%20summary%20ICS%20final%20-%20Nov%2017.pdf)
    and final evaluation of this phase (soon to be released) seeks to understand what change happens in community, how it happens and how sustainable it is. And in our final evaluation we will be looking at exactly how host families and communities and local ngos perceive and understand the changes that volunteers bring.

    We publish all our reports here: https://www.volunteerics.org/annual-reports

    I will send for that book.

  10. Kieran

    VSO and Cuso have done a fair amount of work in trying to ensure volunteering is ethical, rooted in partnership and trying to bring about sustainable change. Midwives spending two years in rural communities sharing skills or skilled educators supporting MOE staff to develop and roll out child centred teaching methodologies seem to be fairly good examples?

    Of course there are less well thought through ones and/or volunteers who should never have been left on a plane. However , many development projects often fall short and as we have recently been all too painfully made aware many cases where national and international staff working for INGOs have abused their position .

    Suspect like many other forms of development good volunteering grows out of a transparent and jointly owned theory of change, getting right volunteers in place who report to local staff and having a strong commitment to reflection and learning backed up by a willingness to adapt.

    If these factors are in place then international volunteering can be a useful and cost effective way of sharing skills not readily available in country and if this exchange takes place in a well thought through project it can lead to positive change.

  11. George

    Hi, I wonder whether another way of looking at this issue would be rather than to start with the volunteering and try and find the ‘impact’, could we look at major development success stories and look for the role of volunteers in those stories? At a very macro level, in terms of economic development one of the big success stories is of course S Korea in the latter half of the twentieth century – what role did volunteering play in that economic transformation, or in China’s economic transformation since 1978….!? My guess is that in these big macro-economic-stories, volunteers play no role, but I could well be wrong. What about post-conflict peace building processes: Rwanda after the genocide, northern Uganda after the war… Again my guess is that north-south volunteers could not make any substantial difference in these contexts because they would lack the depth of local knowledge that is needed in such sensitive contexts (plus organisations may be unwilling/unable to place them in these contexts), but as Matt points-out above there may be lots of local volunteer initiatives that have a huge cumulative impact (perhaps unquantifiable!) which are just part of the fabric of local civil society – indeed, it seems to me that a lot of important ‘development’ work is done by people who are not paid: would this make them volunteers even though they hadn’t signed-up to an organisation or sat through any training or conducted a risk assessment? Perhaps some discussion around what makes someone a ‘volunteer’ or not may help?

    • Thanks for the interesting post George. Many of my VSO colleagues have already made some comments on the above. At the moment, we are crafting a research exercise which looks at the contribution of volunteers in achieving sustainable development impact. This research is specifically focussed on understanding which kinds of volunteering are most effective in generating development impact, and in what circumstances. It is also specifically looking at the notion of blended volunteering; where volunteers with different backgrounds and skills sets are working together; and how this may realise different development outcomes. This includes people working in their own communities who may be engaged in community development work but are not ‘signed up’ with any specific organisation.

      This research is also an intentional effort to move beyond a narrative of anecdotal stories of change and to generate robust evidence about the contribution of volunteering, and our own relational approach, to achieving sustainable development outcomes in our own programmes.

  12. Rebecca Tiessen

    Others have already offered good comments on the need to be more precise in our use of terminology (voluntourism versus volunteering) and more nuanced in our analysis. I’d like to add that conflating these models is as problematic as equating charity with development.

  13. Ian Cunningham

    The Australian Volunteer Program conducted an evaluation in 2014 which makes interesting reading.
    The Australian Government has had some form of volunteering program since the 1960’s, it’s current iteration started in 2011, it generally focuses on capacity development. Although the term volunteer is used, volunteers have their expenses covered and receive a monthly allowance. My experience is volunteer allowances often exceeded salary of senior staff in the host organisations.

    2 findings from the evaluation that grabbed me:

    – Volunteers were highly skilled
    – Host organisation satisfaction was high, though more focused on immediate capacity concerns than on longer-term organisational development. This was true even for organisations that had hosted multiple volunteers over time.

    The latter in particular was interesting – despite the volunteer program being based on longer term capacity development, the hosts drew more use out of assistance with their immediate needs.

    I participated in the volunteer program around 2007, personally for me it was a great experience, I still have links with the organisation and they’ve continued to build on the work (water supply/management) they started then indepdendently.

  14. Susan Watkins

    You might include a new book “A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa” by Ann Swidler and Susan Watkins 2017. It’s in Kindle, paperback and hard copy. The authors research in rural Malawi find that yes, there is “voluntouring”, but there are also church groups who fixed the roof of a grandmother’s house, and individuals altruists who bring school books, and, best of all, individual donors who finance the digging of wells to provide clean water, a priority in rural Malawi. In contrast, the large aid organizations spent their money in the city, writing reports to the donors whose aim is to transform Malawians into people just like themselves.