Theses Doctoral

Tourists Without Borders: An Anthropological Study of Voluntourism as a Form of Humanitarian Engagement

Mann, Monica Ann

The purpose of this dissertation is to contribute to the relatively new body of critical literature in anthropology about a particular form of humanitarian action, voluntourism, in the Global South. The dissertation looks at discourses of need, community, and “us and them” as these discourses play out via social interactions involved in voluntourism. This dissertation highlights my own experiences working with a particular NGO in Western Ghana, which I call Odenkyem. My research fulfills a need for academic analysis of the role of voluntourism in humanitarianism. In the last several years, the ethics of voluntourism have been questioned by activists and academics, but this debate seems to have hinged greatly on how these endeavors bolster the white savior complex, or the fact that many of these voluntourist programs do more harm than good. While in this work I do not champion the voluntourism industry, based on my research and my own voluntourist experiences, I am convinced that the industry will continue to flourish via Westerners, particularly those from the US and Canada, looking for exotic experiences while simultaneously helping those they consider vulnerable. While some argue that voluntourism amounts to commodifying the needs of others as simplistic psycho-political packages that can be fixed in a brief volunteer vacation experience, others suggest that voluntourism can generate important learning for all involved, and that it is possible to maximize positive outcomes for both the voluntourist and the voluntoured in these endeavors. I place myself somewhere in between these two perspectives, arguing that while both internal and external critiques of voluntourism are crucial, scholars must avoid using arrogance to critique arrogance by wholly dismissing voluntourism as a potentially meaningful form of humanitarian engagement. I further argue that with proper training and critique, there are ways in which voluntourism might also serve as an effective learning experience for all involved, while maximizing positive outcomes over negative ones.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
Applied Anthropology
Thesis Advisors
Sharp, Lesley Alexandra
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 8, 2015