Voluntourism as Neoliberal Humanitarianism

Zero Anthropology

September 3, 2014

by Maximilian Forte


The following is an extract from Tristan Biehn’s chapter, “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 77-87:

Overview: Tristan Biehn examines the new imperial ideologies present in narratives manufactured by the websites of youth-centred volunteer abroad organizations. These narratives serve to instil neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the issues of global inequality and poverty in prospective volunteers, resulting in the depoliticization and decontextualization of such issues. Biehn finds that ideas of “change” and “good” are ubiquitous and yet are left undefined, that claims of “helping” and “immersion” are questionable, and that the utility of international student volunteering lies not in the benevolent donation of unskilled western youth labour to underprivileged communities, but in the production of ideal neoliberal subjects. The nebulous concepts of help and change are commodified and made the responsibility of individuals—the prospective volunteers—who are inundated with the message that actions taken to end global inequality will also benefit them personally. As Biehn explains, such programs contribute to the neoliberal project of redirecting efforts from the pursuit of larger structural changes or solutions to these issues.

International Student Volunteers, Inc. (ISV) is a US-based, non-profit organization which boasts of being the world’s highest-rated student volunteer program (according to the average rating given by over 30,000 student participants). ISV has over ten years of experience, has 32 members of the US Senate and Congress who serve on their Board of Reference (endorsing their global efforts), and has been named, “one of the Top Ten Volunteer Organizations by the US Center for Citizens Diplomacy in conjunction with the US State Department” (International Student Volunteers, Inc. [ISV], 2014d). ISV was founded in 2002 by Randy Sykes, growing from his wish to develop “a volunteer program to help address the tremendous needs around the world while providing an opportunity for young people to travel with a purpose; to give of themselves and contribute to something meaningful, educational and fun” (ISV, 2014a). I selected ISV as my second case study due to its internationally recognized, award-winning status.

How ISV Practises Responsible Tourism

ISV’s website emphasizes its ties with local communities and “grassroots” organizations. It also claims to offer “the highest quality projects that are safe, meaningful, sustainable and achievable” which are formulated to appeal to students with an emphasis on “combining life-changing volunteer work with adrenaline filled adventure travel” (ISV, 2014d). In their description of “Responsible Tourism,” ISV states that they, “aim to bring about positive economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts” (ISV, 2014b). What is meant, specifically, by such statements? While it is easy to dismiss such terms as mere buzzwords, it would be a mistake to do so. An examination of the ISV’s use of these terms, and the messages surrounding them, serves to illustrate the problematic ideologies present in their projects, the ways they seek to create the expectations of an ideal student volunteer experience, as well as issues of expense and the manufactured need for international volunteers.

Safety Concerns, Cost, and the Inexperienced Volunteer

ISV addresses the issue of a students’ safety by listing various precautions taken by the organization on behalf of prospective volunteers. Their website describes the potential volunteer’s position: “You’ll be participating on [sic] tasks you may not be trained in, possibly in a foreign speaking country [sic], you may not have much international travel experience and therefore many questions about vaccinations and other safety concerns” (ISV, 2014c). This anticipates a volunteer’s position as inexperienced and unprepared. One may wonder why inexperienced individuals would be shipped around the world to take part in various activities for which they are not properly trained. If an individual must be trained to take part, why are locals not trained to work in their own communities? Why are Western youths flown across the globe, at great expense, to temporarily fill these positions? ISV goes to great lengths to address imagined safety concerns, listing support structures, supervision, and routine risk assessment and site inspections of supported local projects (ISV, 2014c). These support structures are another expense made necessary by the movement of western youth to these communities.

A standard four week “volunteer and adventure tour program” with ISV will cost nearly $4,000. This amount varies (slightly) depending on program and country, and does not include airfare, half of one’s meals during the “adventure tour” portion, or the required travel insurance package. In the section entitled “What am I Paying For,” ISV provides a break down of where a volunteer’s money goes, in helpful bullet point form. Administration, volunteer recruitment, volunteer support, volunteer management, volunteer supervision, meals and accommodation, transport, in-country support staff, connections between organizations, and finally the project itself are listed (ISV, 2014e). Most of these expenses, obviously, are only required because of the insistence on international volunteer labour. Since this is a significant amount of money, particularly for students, ISV suggests ideas for fund raising. A volunteer blog offers examples of how individuals, following ISV prescriptions, attempt to raise thousands of dollars for their trips abroad. A young Australian woman details her plans of “raising funds through a blog, and…planning on having a trash and treasure sale, movie night, pyjama party and exercising my creative writing skills to obtain exposure about my cause in my local news paper” (Katieannie09, 2014). There are many such descriptions of similar efforts, including an assortment of commercial enterprises such as selling chocolates and doughnuts. Friends and family are enlisted to contribute to these efforts, as well as strangers who can be reached through media outlets and the internet. All of this time, energy, and money (valuable commodities by any capitalist reckoning) go toward financing a student’s vacation. Volunteering is presented as the “good” being done by the student in order to justify such expense. Donors are thanked for their “generosity” and updates on one’s progress are provided via ISV’s blog. How do these donors, and the volunteers themselves, come to see such efforts as necessary or beneficial?

This necessity is presented in the persuasive narratives of international volunteer organizations. ISV assumes the need of communities for foreign volunteers, stating (in reference to local NGOs), “these organizations rarely have the funding required to recruit and support international volunteers themselves. To help recruit international volunteers, many local NGOs partner with volunteer service organizations” (ISV, 2014e). They do not attempt to explain why international volunteering is a good way to address global inequalities. In fact, much effort is made to convince prospective participants that international volunteering is worth doing (as evidenced by the constant bombardment of the reader with messages of “making a difference” and “positive impact”). In a section explaining the difficulties of volunteering independently, ISV unintentionally highlights the problematic nature of this assumption, asserting that, “the difficult part is finding an organization you want to work for that meets your needs as a volunteer, will support you should something go wrong, and is willing to accept you as a volunteer” (ISV, 2014e). They note that local organizations may be seeking volunteers with specific skill sets, thus making many potential volunteers unwanted. However, if a volunteer joins an organization such as ISV, suddenly there is a plethora of need and want for their service. How then do such organizations respond to charges that they themselves create this need? Additionally, even if we uncritically accept the proposal that “underprivileged” communities must be helped to “develop,” surely there are more efficient methods that can be imagined to achieve this.


International Student Volunteers, Inc. (ISV). (2014a). Our Story.

????? . (2014b). Responsible Travel.

????? . (2014c). What to look for in a Volunteer Provider.

????? . (2014d). Why Students All Over the World Prefer ISV’s Volunteer Program.

????? . (2014e). Why Pay to Volunteer?

Katieannie09. (2014). Overwhelmed with Generosity.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0