Gap-year do-gooding won’t save the world

Volunteer-tourism projects are not the political panacea some claim they are.

Various Authors

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Below is an edited extract from Volunteer Tourism: The Lifestyle Politics of International Development, a new book exploring the phenomenon of volunteer tourism, from ethically justified gap years in Malawi to a do-gooding holidays in Kenya. Here Butcher and Smith interrogate one of the principal justifications for ‘voluntourism’: the creation of a global citizenship.

What is global citizenship?

The concept of citizenship originated with the polis in Ancient Greece, and has always subsequently referred to membership of a political community. Modern citizenship is associated with modern nation states, and people’s formal membership of these states. The notion of a social contract is implicit in citizenship – citizens have rights within the state, sometimes inscribed in a constitution, as well as obligations under the law. The civic-republican conception of citizenship emphasises the individual operating in the public sphere, an active part of political determinations.

Global citizenship offers a different model of citizenship. Here, identification with a ‘global community’ is emphasised above that as a citizen of a particular nation. Global citizenship transcends geography or political borders and assumes that responsibilities or rights are, or can be, derived from being a ‘citizen of the world’. This does not deny national citizenship, but the latter is often assumed to be more limited, morally as well as spatially. The advocacy of global citizenship is premised upon the straightforward view that important political issues such as environmental damage, climate change and development are global in nature.

Global citizenship as a concept has emerged principally through discussions about the role of education. Advocates argue that children should learn about the world within a framework of global citizenship, and be encouraged to see themselves as having obligations towards the environment, human rights and development issues, well beyond their own nation. This is especially the case in geography, but also true elsewhere in the curriculum. According to one typical definition, global citizenship means: ‘Enabling young people to develop the core competencies that allow them to actively engage with the world, and help to make it a more just and sustainable place. This is about a way of thinking and behaving. It is an outlook on life, a belief that we can make a difference.’ (Oxfam, undated.)

This definition is one that has been taken up by school boards, educationalists and non-governmental organisations, and it is one that has been taken on by advocates of gap-year projects and volunteer tourism.

Global citizenship and volunteer tourism

Volunteer tourism is very strongly associated with the development of global citizenship. Advocates argue that it can forge global citizenship by building long-term relationships and networks that promote activism in new social movements, and through promoting the understanding of other cultures. Academic Carlos Palacios has argued that volunteer tourism should drop any pretences to development and focus on promoting intercultural understanding, leading to greater global awareness. Effectively, volunteer tourism is held to have the potential to contribute to the forging of a global conscience and the nurturing of an ethical, global form of citizenship. Volunteer companies and non-governmental organisations have pushed this line in their advertising. The non-profit Yanapuma Foundation, for example, offers a global-awareness programme in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with the following statement on global citizenship:

‘The concept of global citizenship encompasses socio-cultural, political, economic and environmental factors as students experience, at first hand, the reality of being from the ‘other side’ of the development process. As such, it implies critical and transformative elements as students develop their understanding on both social/political and personal experiential levels. The experience of immersion in a new context in combination with relevant academic support provides an intense learning environment that will transform both social/political awareness and personal awareness, informing future academic and professional development.’

Politicians and commentators, too, have promoted the global-citizenship benefits of a well-used gap year or a volunteer-tourism project. For example, in the UK, the International Citizen Service was launched in 2011, working through charities such as Raleigh International and Lattitude Global Volunteering. International Citizen Service volunteers are expected to contribute to sustainable development abroad (including addressing the Millennium Development Goals) and also to their own global citizenship through short, unskilled volunteer placements. Such initiatives are part of a wider orientation of politics towards volunteering which has been promoted strongly by many governments. In 2001, Tony Blair, then the UK prime minister, announced he intended ‘to give more young people the chance of voluntary community service at home and abroad between school and university’. This contributed to a growth in political interest in the role of volunteering in citizenship. There have been suggestions that volunteering may become a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Schools, colleges and universities have also identified with the role of gap-year projects and volunteer tourism in producing global citizens. A growing number of universities even give formal academic accreditation to volunteer-tourism trips, seeing them as an important part of creating global citizens.

Citizenship divorced from power

There are arguments against global citizenship. Sociologist Bikhu Parekh argues that ‘if global citizenship means being a citizen of the world, it is neither practicable nor desirable’. Such a citizenship is divorced from the actual institutions of politics that matter – national governments. It is in the nation state that citizens can vote, or can strive for the vote, and through that alter the law, campaign for their rights and negotiate a social contract between state and individual. Parekh characterises the distant notion of a world state as ‘remote, bureaucratic, oppressive and culturally bland’. Global citizenship is a citizenship divorced from power. Parekh’s view is not to decry a knowledge of international issues, but to confront moral obligations towards others through a strengthened and agonistic relationship to national citizenship. He calls this being a ‘globally oriented citizen’, a national citizen who views their citizenship in the context of a political worldview. Geographical-education expert Alex Standish argues on similar lines. He contends that global citizenship tends to bypass national politics in a world in which nations are the principal expressions of power and of democratic potential.

The critiques offered by Standish and Parekh of the concept of global citizenship also apply to volunteer tourism. Global citizenship through volunteer tourism means citizenship carried out through private companies and non-governmental organisations. No one, bar shareholders, votes for the directors of companies. Non-governmental organisations and not-for-profits are accountable to, at most, a self-selecting group of supporters. That is entirely appropriate for commercial companies and for campaigns and pressure groups, but it is not in any direct sense citizenship. If volunteer-tourism initiatives are where people look to act in relation to development, then that has to be a restricted form of citizenship, as it bypasses the authority of the state, the latter having the potential to act as the political expression, democratically, of its citizens. The appeal of volunteer tourism to individuals as moral agents is worthy, but the parameters of this moral agency are extremely constrained. As Standish points out, global citizenship rhetorically eschews nationally based political channels (sovereign governments, unions, etc). Instead it presents itself as having no axe to grind beyond that of the globe and the people living on it. It does not require political judgement, but instead emphasises awareness, responsibility and caring. This personalisation of the issues and the attendant encouraging of such private virtues is characteristic of volunteer tourism.

Hannah Arendt’s political philosophy sheds some light on the limitations of global citizenship. She argued that the full realisation of human freedom requires the development of a public realm. Historically, the public realm has represented the extension of human freedom beyond the private sphere of the family and intimate life. It brings together the diversity of private experience and interest into an agonistic public space – this public space is the basis for striving for a ‘world in common’.

In modern societies, the public realm is defined by the citizenship of a state. Arendt’s republican citizen plays an active part in the political determinations of states, states being the principal institutions of power and authority. A citizenship outside of the state is therefore a limited citizenship, unable to truly strive for a common world. Without the potential for politics to transcend or mediate differences, private experiences (by their very nature differential and varied) dominate.

For Arendt, ‘freedom as a demonstrable fact and politics coincide and are related to each other like two sides of the same matter’. This is apposite with regard to volunteer tourism. Freedom to act without politics is an attenuated freedom. Despite the widespread rhetoric on the theme of developing one’s ethical identity through travel and experience, individuality is in fact limited by the emphasis on self-development. Global citizenship involves a shift away from a potentially political citizenship, seen as vital by Arendt, to a moral one, set apart from the contestation of ideologies and power. Global citizenship circumvents political power in the name of ‘the globe’, replacing it with pre-political virtues such as respect, care and responsibility, exercised by individuals through the market and the non-governmental organisation sector.

Was citizenship parochial? Is global citizenship cosmopolitan?

Underlying the advocacy of global citizenship is a sense that national citizenship is and has been limited and parochial. This is doubtful. Thomas Paine famously said in the Rights of Man (1791), ‘the world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion’. Yet he spent his adult life agitating for republican citizenship in the USA, France and the UK, precisely so free citizens could shape their destiny and ‘do good’. As Parekh argues, global politics may be better approached through a citizenship defined by a focus on political power and the institutions that wield it.

Political campaigns and engagement have often taken the globe as their remit – this was the case well before global citizenship. For example, domestic issues in the nineteenth century, such as bread prices, were both national and global, influenced by grain imports and the duties levied. Likewise, colonialism and imperialism were justified with reference to the globe, as was the opposition to them. On the political left, there is a tradition of internationalism, born out of the belief that workers have no country and are united, globally, by their position in relation to their employers and capitalism, and their potential to advance society. Capitalism, too, has been justified with reference to its capacity to develop the globe and safeguard freedom around the world.

National citizenship has never precluded global concern. The argument that today society faces intertwined and complex problems that are best addressed by global citizenship is difficult to sustain – were not the wars, famines and epidemics of the past as complex and severe as those today? The principal difference between political movements of the past and those influenced by global citizenship today is that the former addressed these global issues through the contestation of politics, not through ethical imperatives to care or act responsibly alone. As Standish maintains, it is precisely the crisis of citizenship itself that has led to the rise of global citizenship. The citizen is no longer linked to society through the institutions of politics, as in the past. Global citizenship bypasses the public sphere and connects private feelings and qualities such as care, empathy and awareness, with the global issues of the day. Hence these issues are reinterpreted as issues of personal ethics rather than political contestation.

‘Doable’ development

Global citizenship most often presents global action in terms of what an individual can do in the context of their daily life, through consumption and lifestyle. In schools, global citizenship focuses on recycling, responsible shopping and Fairtrade. Volunteer tourism is another item on the global citizens’ shopping list. Relevance to daily life, practicality and pragmatism are attractive features of global citizenship. As a global citizen, you can always ‘do your bit’ for the planet or for others. Volunteer tourism fits this pattern. To buy the right holiday, to help build a school, to hug a distressed child – to do something – replaces the more distant, seemingly untenable, and for some undesirable, collective and political project of shaping transformative development and promoting economic growth.

Standish looks critically at the tendency in global-citizenship education to personalise and make development issues immediately relevant to the life of the individual. Clearly this approach is attractive. To be able to act and witness or at least visualise the outcome of one’s actions can be inspiring. The problem is that what appears ‘doable’ in today’s anti-political climate is limited. It places agency squarely in the context of one’s own biography, one’s own lifestyle, rather than in the context of the individual’s capacity to challenge entrenched political ideas and institutions. While taking personal responsibility is a progressive impulse, in the advocacy of global citizenship it is also a private responsibility – a responsibility posed in the context of one’s lifestyle, consumption decisions and emotions, cut adrift from a political framing.

The outsourcing of citizenship

Citizenship has historically referred to the relationship between the state and the individual citizen of that state. The shape of that relationship has changed over time. However, citizenship as a national phenomenon has never precluded global or international political concerns. National citizenship has been the focus for global political issues. Citizenship as a normative category assumes that the individual citizen is involved in the politics of their nation state. However, in recent decades, the institutions through which this political citizenship functioned have become empty shells. Politics does not inspire. As sociologist Frank Furedi has argued, there is a pervasive crisis of meaning and a lack of vision as to what the future could or should look like. There is a no clear moral framework on offer through citizenship. Moral and ethical strategies are unlikely to be linked to national politics, and are far more likely to be associated with disparate campaigns and lifestyles. The crisis of meaning at the heart of politics has led elites to look elsewhere for some sort of moral purpose or justification. As a result, they have been keen to endorse global citizenship as a focus in education and in general. There is a sense in which the process of producing citizens is being outsourced from the nation to the globe, from the institutions of the state to companies and non-governmental organisations. The growth of volunteer tourism is a good example of this outsourcing of citizenship. The global South has become a stage for the working out of what it is to be an ethical person.

Several writers and commentators on volunteer tourism have noted this outsourcing of citizenship functions in terms of a new political elite. Geographer Kristina Diprose points out that through international volunteering the global South acts as a ‘training ground’ for a new liberal elite for business and politics. For others, volunteer tourism enriches the sending society by developing a ‘pool of personnel with experiences and an embodied awareness of global issues’. For some, the gap-year project is a part of building a portfolio of ethical experiences that shape the individual for a career in business or politics.

Volunteer tourism involves very little, if any, material development benefit to the global South. It is very much a process driven by the crisis of politics in the West and the subsequent search for meaning away from the institutions of politics. In the past if there was no development, then a development project would be said to have failed. Now it is legitimate to see the value in terms of the transformation of the volunteer and their personal journey towards global citizenship.

For example, Chris Brown of Teaching Projects Abroad makes the case that a lack of experience of Third World societies on the part of the bankers and businessmen of tomorrow contributes to exploitative relationships: ‘How much better it might have been if all the people who are middle and high management of Shell had spent some time in West Africa… how differently they would have treated the Ibo people in Nigeria? (sic)’. Jonathan Cassidy, of Quest Overseas, concurs, arguing that if influential business people could only ‘look back for a split second to that month they spent working with people on the ground playing football with them or whatever, then they would act more ethically in their business lives’.

Yet there is a narcissism to this outsourced search for moral meaning. It leads away from addressing the pressing material needs of others in the context of their lives and towards addressing the crisis of political identity in the West. The claim that volunteers’ post-trip ethical careers can lead to change is false. It only promotes further lifestyle political initiatives and global citizenship, and fails to contribute to a debate on development.


The new experiential cosmopolitanism of global citizenship is illusory. Travel can certainly broaden the mind and the impulse to help is, of course, progressive. However, global citizenship through volunteer tourism is questionable as a goal. It focuses the desire to act away from political citizenship, which in a world of nation states inevitably has a strong national dimension. In its place, the engaged citizen is encouraged to act through the rhythms of their life – lifestyle and consumption – through non-governmental organisations and private companies. Hence even leisure – holidays in this case – is associated with social agency through its contribution to global civil society and global citizenship.

A restatement of the importance of republican citizenship has greater potential than global citizenship. It redirects agency from unaccountable companies and non-governmental organisations to the principal institutions of sovereign democracy and political power – state governments. Republican citizenship assumes a respect for the citizens of other societies as sovereign political actors within a polity, and not recipients of lifestyle largesse through the market or non-governmental organisations.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, specialising in tourism and conservation, and Peter Smith is director of tourism at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Volunteer Tourism: The Lifestyle Politics of International Development, by Jim Butcher and Peter Smith, is published by Routledge. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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