Reflections on 'voluntourism'

Entitled "Guilt Trips," Emma Moore's essay explores the ethical dilemmas of travel and volunteering

- April 12, 2011

(Nick Pearce Photo)
(Nick Pearce Photo)

Sitting in front of her computer, Emma Moore couldn’t believe her eyes.

The fourth year International Development Studies student had won the $4,000 Irving & Jeanne Glovin Award for her essay, “Guilt Trips: a Personal Perspective on the Ethical Quandaries of Travel in the Developing World.”  

“It’s a pretty great way to finish up my last year at Dal,” says Ms. Moore.

Model for exploration

The award was brought to Dalhousie in 2003 by the Oskar Schindler Humanities Foundation. Irving Glovin, Schindler’s friend and executive producer of Schindler’s List, wanted to open a dialogue into the meaning of “good human conduct,” and how it might be taught to children and future generations.

Schindler is a model for this exploration, says Mr. Glovin’s nephew and Dal Human Communications professor George Mencher, since his personal life contrasted so greatly with his historic deeds. Despite a hard-living personal life of arguable “bad human conduct,” he saved more than 1,000 Jews from Nazi death camps by employing them in his company.  

Ms. Moore was drawn to the topic of travel and volunteerism for her essay, one she says is at the core of International Development Studies.

“One of the major underlying themes of IDS is the desire to help others while acknowledging the importance of mutual respect and personal agency. I think a lot of the classes I took challenged what we perceive as ‘doing the right thing’ when I comes to development and social justice issues.”

Over and above any theoretical dabbling, Ms. Moore sought to conduct herself with “good human conduct” on her 2010 trip to East Africa.  She wanted to experience it respectfully and authentically, but wasn’t sure how to do this or if it was even possible.

When customizing her trip, she writes, she’d researched traditional tourism, volunteer tourism (aka “voluntourism”) and backpacking.  

On a superficial level, an expert in her paper argues voluntourism is an attractive and more altruistic option than regular tourism and one which fits within the concept of “good human conduct.”  Impoverished communities receive an infusion of money and labour—the philanthropy and concept of helping those less fortunate are hard to deny are good things to do. 

Opted to backpack

However, Ms. Moore argues, “good human conduct” in the instance of international travel isn’t that simple. Some of the main criticisms reported in Ms. Moore’s paper include “a neglect of local people’s wishes and opinions, lack of skill and completion of unsatisfactory or unfinished work, decreased labour demand, conceptualizations of the ‘other’ and rationalizations of poverty.”  

In the end, Ms. Moore and her travel companions decided to backpack. They made efforts to support local and deserving local businesses, those which are off the beaten path from traditional travel groups. They did their best to shed any preconceived notions about people and places.  

Despite best intentions, she writes in her essay, she knows the trip could be criticized. They did not set out intending to directly help anyone or change anything.  However, she does not regret the way in which they conducted their travels. 

“Particularly, looking back at the trip, I see the value in tourism for all the communities we passed through. I also see the value in our choice to not volunteer, and in doing so, leaving behind any paternalistic attitudes we may have held, allowing the people we met to educate us and not the other way around.”

The FASS Essay Competition awards up to three $4,000 prizes each year to students who exhibit academic excellence.  Ms. Moore is one of four students being honoured this year: 

  • Fourth year Political Science and Economics student Conor Noseworthy won the Mushkat Memorial Essay Prize for his paper “Tolerance, Hate Speech, and Conflicting Human Rights” which looks at the concept of tolerance among people and nations.
  • King’s student Daniel Sherwin and FASS student Brian Lam receive honourable mentions.

Ms. Moore, who would like to eventually work abroad, has a few ideas for what she will do with the money.  

“I’m pretty sure I have more school in my future, but I would also really like to travel, so I think it will go towards one of those two things.”

But first?

“I’m just really excited that I’ll be able to pay my rent next month.”

LINK: Winning papers for the FASS Essay Competition have been posted online.


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