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Save the World in a Week: Volunteer Tourism, Development and Difference


Alternative forms of tourism such as eco-tourism feature prominently in development policy and literature. This article focuses on international volunteer tourism, a specific form of tourism that is closely linked to a range of development projects in low-income countries. This form of ‘tourism with a development agenda’ has become increasingly popular among young people from developed countries. We argue that volunteer tourism both reflects and contributes to a new logic of development. This form of travel can be understood as a particular, neoliberal form of development practice, in which development is not only privatized but can be packaged as a marketable commodity. We focus critically on the process of volunteering and the interactions that take place within this form of tourism, with a focus on the concurrent commercialization of development and cultural difference.


Des formes de tourisme alternatif telles que l’éco-tourisme deviennent de plus en plus importantes, tant dans les débats que les pratiques de développement. Cet article s’intéresse au volontariat international, un type de tourisme particulier qui se déroule dans le cadre de projets de développement variés dans les pays en voie de développement. Cette forme de ‘tourisme pour le développement’ devient de plus en plus populaire parmi les jeunes des pays développés. Nous soutenons que cette forme de tourisme reflète et contribue à une nouvelle logique de développement. Ce type de voyage peut être vu comme une forme particulière, néolibérale de développement, dans laquelle celui-ci est non seulement privatisé, mais est aussi présenté comme un produit commercialisable. Nous examinons de manière critique ce processus de volontariat, ainsi que les interactions qui en découlent, en nous penchant particulièrement sur la question de la commercialisation du développement et des différences culturelles.

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  1. 1.

    It might be argued that definitions of volunteers are inherently problematic in their implication that volunteers represent a given, bounded and homogenous social group. This article is an attempt for more attention to the dynamic process in which volunteers construct their social identities. Definitions of volunteers and volunteer tourism do, however, point to ideal types which can influence volunteers themselves. Although their volunteer identities are constructed in and through the volunteer encounter – as prior to involvement in volunteer work, the volunteer may be a tourist, a backpacker or a Spanish-language student – these ideas have an important influence on the process of their identity formation.

  2. 2.

    We use the distinction between developing and developed countries with some caution, as it is exactly the centrality and construction of this dichotomy within volunteer projects (and beyond) that we wish to scrutinize.

  3. 3.

    All names of organizations, volunteers and beneficiaries used here are pseudonyms. The work of the three organizations is, to varying degrees, informed by Christian beliefs.

  4. 4.

    Participant observation is not so much about speaking from an insider/outsider perspective as about reflecting on the participation in the construction of the field. Through the field a researcher forms part of the social relations he or she describes (Atkinson, 1992, p. 9). It is crucial for any researcher to understand and reflect on the way research was conducted and what her role was. According to Mand (2004, p. 37), awareness of the ‘self’ in fieldwork can be a significant analytical tool in understanding interlocutors’ ideas, notions or perceptions; in addition, ‘the “self” as informant and as a mediator between one and another cultural context moves away from the fantasy of an objective neutral fieldworker’.

  5. 5.

    Política Nacional para el Desarrollo Turístico Sostenible de Guatemala 2004–2014.

  6. 6.

    Interview, 19/02/2008.

  7. 7.

    Interview, 22/01/2008.

  8. 8.

    Interview, 24/01/2008.

  9. 9., visited on 15/06/2008.

  10. 10., visited on 13/02/2009.

  11. 11., visited on 13/02/2009.

  12. 12., visited on 13/02/2009.

  13. 13., visited on 13/02/2009.

  14. 14., visited on 13/02/2009.

  15. 15.

    The learning experience is also taken for granted. Very few organizations provide space for volunteers to reflect on their experience, their work and the place visited. Pre-volunteer preparation, mid-term evaluations and post-volunteer seminars are even rarer. When there is space for preparations, these mainly rely on models of culture shock and development models of cultural sensitivity, preparing volunteers for integration into a culturally and developmentally completely different society. The construction of cultural and development difference between the developed and developing world remains unquestioned, while similarities between people with diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds go unmentioned.

  16. 16.

    Interview, 11/03/2008.

  17. 17., visited on 13/02/2009.

  18. 18.

    Interview, 30/01/2008.

  19. 19.

    Interview, 10/03/2008.

  20. 20., viewed on 18 December 2008.

  21. 21.

    Interview, 19/01/2008.


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Vodopivec, B., Jaffe, R. Save the World in a Week: Volunteer Tourism, Development and Difference. Eur J Dev Res 23, 111–128 (2011).

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  • volunteering
  • tourism
  • anthropology of development
  • Guatemala
  • neoliberalism
  • mobilities