Media @ McGill

Nathaniel Laywine | Solidarity and Global Citizenship: International Volunteerism and Service Learning in Peru

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International volunteerism has become a commonplace activity among Canadian youth. Programs are funded and/or coordinated by the federal government, non-governmental organization (NGO) volunteer cooperation agencies, private sector “voluntourism” travel agencies, corporate philanthropic granting programs, religious institutions and universities that offer students the opportunity to earn credit for working, studying or interning abroad. These allow an international economy to exist, spanning the public, private and non-profit sector, in order to facilitate the recruitment, training, deployment and hosting of international volunteers. Participants deploy around the world, but predominantly to the Global South to help out in a variety of different capacities; some work as teachers, childcare workers, health care workers, builders, community organizers, cultural programmers, human rights or environmental watchdogs or in organizational management. In spite of all these opportunities,  there presently exists a dearth of impact assessments or evaluation reports on volunteer project outcomes, so the deliverables of these programs remain largely speculative for both host communities in the Global South and volunteer participants themselves. Critics within a postcolonial framework raise important concerns that this kind of volunteerism rationalizes global poverty, reinforces hyperglobalism and hegemonic norms from the colonial center and frames development work into a commodity that can be purchased and consumed as recreation by the global elite.  

Drawing on interviews, participant observation and key recruitment and training documents gathered in early 2015 during a 3 month research trip to Lima, Peru and various highland Andean communities that serve as sites for such volunteer projects, I will explore the oppressive and emancipatory dimensions of this practice. While engaging with crucial postcolonial criticisms of Canadian international volunteers, this paper also seeks to determine potential models for Canadian-Peruvian solidarity that emerge through these exchanges.  

The first chapter of my dissertation establishes the prevalence of international volunteerism. In 2008, approximately 1.6 million tourists participated in international volunteer programs and the industry was estimated to be worth between $1.66-2.6 billion USD annually; these figures were at the time projected to grow annually (TRAM, 2008).  This chapter explains the historical and social context of the recruitment, training and volunteer program practices of international volunteers deployed through volunteer cooperation agencies (VCAs) operating out of Canada.  It also explains my choice of research cites – based on my own experience as a youth volunteer in Peru – and explains my research methodology.

The second chapter identifies the scholarly communities to which this study responds and explains the theoretical framework that I employ in this project. The history of the project of humanitarianism is unpacked and explained as a historical orientation towards the management of alterity during the rise of global exchanges. It notes that during and following the Enlightenment period, the cosmopolitan ideal of worldwide democracy emerged in tandem with European imperialism and subsequently violent land seizures, environmental degradation, and the displacement and forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples (Barnett, 2011).  A shift has occurred in the last twenty or so years that Lilie Chouliaraki describes as from humanitarianism to post-humanitarianism. This new orientation is less focused on notions of universal rights and global solidarity, but now focuses rather on individuals’ orientations towards those who they perceive to suffer. While the orientation of the appeals that Chouliarki discusses are designed to create individualized bonds between viewers and those who are perceived to suffer, the project of international volunteerism assumes a similar connection between individuals and communities abroad. It is the very experiences of closeness, connection and kinship that are promised to potential participants.   

Chapter 3 focuses on the Pre-Departure of international volunteers. In this chapter I examine the variables that have lead participants to deploy to Peru to undertake this work, asking how and why are volunteer compelled to participate in these projects, and what in particular leads them to Peru as a destination? How are these experiences structured, and how do they market themselves as being structured (to encourage politicization)? How and in what ways can these motivations be considered interpellations, or hailing as political subjects? Who is hailing, and to what extent?  

Chapter 4 examines life in the field and how volunteers experience their tenures abroad, living in Peru and working in these communities.  This chapter examines the assumptions around learning that volunteers and volunteer organizations hold. What kinds of formal training curricula are in place for volunteers leading up to, or upon their arrival at their organization? What are the normative claims here about the participants’ labour and the ethics associated with their conduct in these communities? Are there benchmarks in place that establish an ideal trajectory of learning or making a difference?  Through key document analysis, interviews and participant observation, I will examine how and in what ways volunteers reach learning outcomes and develop political consciousness (if they in fact do), and to what ends.  

I have not been able to follow up with the volunteers that I met in Peru upon their return. Even without restrictions imposed by my timeline and resources, this task would prove to be most challenging given the flexibility and diversity of programs that recruit and coordinate these volunteers’ travel. Some come for one week and others come for a year or longer. Some return directly home while others continue traveling as backpackers or seek out other volunteer opportunities. I met several who intended to travel indefinitely, with no particular plans of coming home at all. The diversity of volunteers leads to a diversity of volunteer experiences. And yet, the promises to these volunteers remain the same. Subsequently, Chapter 5 concludes by speculating on the return home for volunteers, if one in fact takes place, and the ambiguous transformations that take place during their time in the fields. Does political subjectivity change through these experiences and if so, to what extent and for how long? Does a sense of transnational solidarity augment and what changes occur from that for volunteers, for those with whom they form relationships in Peru, or even in a broader social sphere? And are these changes always desirable, positive and necessary?  With what framework or guidelines could we ever use to predict how these volunteers might transform in an unknown arena?