Unequal Power Relations

There is a close connection between Colonial Thinking and power relations. The binary system of active givers (volunteers) and passive receivers (local population) implicates a priori an unequal relationship.

Power relations define how two or more different parties interact with each other. It guarantees and secures the superiority of one group over another through the perpetuation of inequality. That means that all subjects define themselves by distinguishing themselves from others. In the case of voluntourism, most of the volunteers define themselves through the poverty of the local population. Therefore, in most cases an equal relationship is per se not possible. And even worse, many volunteers are not looking for an equal relationship. They want to feel superior, showing that their help is definitely needed. They want to be heroes. Heroes that they cannot be at home.

“Tourism is not simply a neutral exercise involving someone taking a break but must
instead be understood in terms of a power relationship, particularly when this tourism
involves a privileged, ‘first world’ tourist visiting and volunteering in a developing country.
As a major report on volunteer tourism notes volunteers are mostly travelling from the
global North to work on projects in the global South; a fact that highlights the unequal nature
of host-volunteer interactions.”

Lyons et al. 2008: “GAP YEAR VOLUNTEER TOURISM – Myths of Global Citizenship?”
Annals of Tourism Research 39 (1): 371.

The superiority of western volunteers undermines the local community. The majority of volunteers has just finished highschool and therefore they are not qualified, experienced and trained for specific work. Nevertheless, commercial volunteering organisations do not care about that. No matter the lack of experience and training, those organisations will send any volunteer to the respective project. In conclusion, any volunteer sees himself or herself as more valuable than the local staff. Hence, even with no qualifications nor experience volunteers can easily replace local staff members.

Therefore, voluntourism creates new power relations in which western volunteers do not meet the local community at the same level. This becomes even a larger problem when those volunteers do not know anything about the local customs and cultures. Instead of overcoming inequality, those volunteers usually reinforce negative and racial stereotypes.

“The apparent paradox though, is the possibility that despite the desire to perform ‘‘selves’’
that are sensitive and matured world-travelers, volunteer tourists could instead end up
reinforcing negative stereotypes or misunderstand what their own positions of privilege entails.”

Annals of Tourism Research 36 (3): 495.

Especially when young and inexperienced volunteers are not aware of the downsides of voluntourism, the danger is large. Unfortunately, many volunteers do not care about it. They only care about improving their CV and gaining adventurous experiences through their volunteering program.

Go back to the main page: The Danger Of Voluntourism,
or check our List Of Literature And Articles for more illuminating facts.