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The contentious phenomenon of international volunteers, predominately affluent young people and students from the global north taking a ‘gap year’ between school and university, is becoming a significant category of volunteering (Simpson 2004; Fechter 2012). One of the most apparent manifestations of this ‘gap-year phenomenon’ has been the development of volunteer-tourism programmes, based in the ‘third world’, which attempt to fuse the altruism of voluntary work with the ‘hedonism of tourism’ (Simpson 2004: 681). There is an increased awareness of the complex and challenging nature of such volunteer-tourism projects. In order to recognise the latent challenges and address the neo-colonial connotations of volunteer-tourism, this positioning of voluntary action as a mode of engagement with widening global inequalities requires increased critical scrutiny. For example, Simpson argues that these without these volunteer-tourism projects, the practice of international development would be less accessible to young people. She warns that these projects create a ‘public face of development which create simplistic, consumable and ultimately do-able notions of development’ (2004: 690) where problems of social inequality and power continue to be associated with an idea of luck, and diversity that perpetuate the ‘us and them’ dichotomy (Hammersley 2014).

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Volunteer tourism projects construct a widely accepted ‘mythology’ of humanitarianism (Simpson 2004). The notion of the ‘third world’ is highly important in the popularity of gap year programmes. In all actuality, the legitimacy of these voluntourism programmes is formed out of an idea of a ‘third world’, where there is ‘need’, and where young people from the global north have the capability to, and the right to, satisfy this need (Palacios 2010; Simpson 2004).

The dominant representations of destination countries offered by much of the volunteer tourism industry are based on stereotypes, simple dualisms and essentialised concepts of ‘other’: ‘homogenous descriptions of groups of people and cultures are relied on to produce evocative and recognisable imagery’ (Simpson 2004: 682). Therefore, international volunteers returning from these programme contexts play a critical role in the construction of knowledge and representation of developing countries. 

It is especially important that volunteers understand their roles as facilitators rather than implementers, and knowledge conveners rather than knowledge providers who work in the privileged position of listener, learner and guest. However, framed in terms of alleviating poverty rather than addressing inequality, volunteer-tourism appears to support political-economic structures, rather than challenge them. Encounters between international volunteers and locals likewise bring into view ‘global’ lifestyles, mobility and comparative affluence, which contrast with ‘local’ experiences of disadvantage and immobility, often reinforcing rather than addressing inequalities. McLennan echoes this assertion in her critique of medical voluntourism in Honduras, arguing that whilst seemingly ‘helpful’, volunteer tourism is often harmful, embedding paternalism and inequitable relationships in development aid. Further to this she suggests that many volunteer tourists are ignorant of the underlying power and privilege issues inherent in voluntourism (McLennan 2014: 163); resulting in perhaps unintended but often serious consequences: ‘including unsafe practices, lack of training and language skills, lack of sustainability, and the impact of voluntourism on local health providers’ (McLennan 2014: 164). Therefore, until the continued perpetuation of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary is addressed within the volunteer tourism industry, volunteers have the unknowing potential to reinforce social and power inequalities that are borne out of neo-colonial constructions of Western superiority, reflecting international volunteering as imperialistic and paternalistic (Brown and Prince 2016).

This is not to say that there are not positive outcomes of volunteer tourism. McLennan argues that positive outcomes are not a natural consequence of voluntourism but must be nurtured. 
The volunteer experience is not just about the tangible aspects and outcomes of projects. It is also about building relationships of understanding. The potential for volunteer tourism to provide a sense of shared understanding and engaged learning between the global North and South is central to effective development practice (Hammersley)

Palacios’ study of voluntourism (2010) aims to encourage organisations that offer and promote volunteer tourism programmes, to recognise the latent challenges and address the neo-colonial connotations of volunteering that are evident in the negative stereotypes of the developing world. He argues that these volunteering initiatives can be improved by reframing their goals as opportunities for intercultural understanding and learning. Not only would this benefit both the volunteers and the host organisation, but it would also help to mediate the unrealistic expectations of volunteers and what they can achieve in a short period of time. In addition, these inaccurate assumptions could be avoided by the compulsory education of potential volunteers about the political and economic context before their arrival. Volunteers should have a basic knowledge of the broader issues affecting development work in an effort to help promote volunteer awareness and understanding of unequal power relations that might permeate their volunteer experience (Hammersley 2014). This could also shift volunteers’ focus from personal goals as well as facilitate self-reflection and critique of ideas of poverty in developing countries.