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Voluntourism as Neoliberal Humanitarianism

Zero Anthropology

September 3, 2014

by Maximilian Forte


The following is an extract from Tristan Biehn’s chapter, “Who Needs Me Most? New Imperialist Ideologies in Youth-Centred Volunteer Abroad Programs,” published in Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 77-87:

Overview: Tristan Biehn examines the new imperial ideologies present in narratives manufactured by the websites of youth-centred volunteer abroad organizations. These narratives serve to instil neoliberal, capitalist understandings of the issues of global inequality and poverty in prospective volunteers, resulting in the depoliticization and decontextualization of such issues. Biehn finds that ideas of “change” and “good” are ubiquitous and yet are left undefined, that claims of “helping” and “immersion” are questionable, and that the utility of international student volunteering lies not in the benevolent donation of unskilled western youth labour to underprivileged communities, but in the production of ideal neoliberal subjects. The nebulous concepts of help and change are commodified and made the responsibility of individuals—the prospective volunteers—who are inundated with the message that actions taken to end global inequality will also benefit them personally. As Biehn explains, such programs contribute to the neoliberal project of redirecting efforts from the pursuit of larger structural changes or solutions to these issues.

International Student Volunteers, Inc. (ISV) is a US-based, non-profit organization which boasts of being the world’s highest-rated student volunteer program (according to the average rating given by over 30,000 student participants). ISV has over ten years of experience, has 32 members of the US Senate and Congress who serve on their Board of Reference (endorsing their global efforts), and has been named, “one of the Top Ten Volunteer Organizations by the US Center for Citizens Diplomacy in conjunction with the US State Department” (International Student Volunteers, Inc. [ISV], 2014d). ISV was founded in 2002 by Randy Sykes, growing from his wish to develop “a volunteer program to help address the tremendous needs around the world while providing an opportunity for young people to travel with a purpose; to give of themselves and contribute to something meaningful, educational and fun” (ISV, 2014a). I selected ISV as my second case study due to its internationally recognized, award-winning status.

How ISV Practises Responsible Tourism

ISV’s website emphasizes its ties with local communities and “grassroots” organizations. It also claims to offer “the highest quality projects that are safe, meaningful, sustainable and achievable” which are formulated to appeal to students with an emphasis on “combining life-changing volunteer work with adrenaline filled adventure travel” (ISV, 2014d). In their description of “Responsible Tourism,” ISV states that they, “aim to bring about positive economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts” (ISV, 2014b). What is meant, specifically, by such statements? While it is easy to dismiss such terms as mere buzzwords, it would be a mistake to do so. An examination of the ISV’s use of these terms, and the messages surrounding them, serves to illustrate the problematic ideologies present in their projects, the ways they seek to create the expectations of an ideal student volunteer experience, as well as issues of expense and the manufactured need for international volunteers.

Safety Concerns, Cost, and the Inexperienced Volunteer

ISV addresses the issue of a students’ safety by listing various precautions taken by the organization on behalf of prospective volunteers. Their website describes the potential volunteer’s position: “You’ll be participating on [sic] tasks you may not be trained in, possibly in a foreign speaking country [sic], you may not have much international travel experience and therefore many questions about vaccinations and other safety concerns” (ISV, 2014c). This anticipates a volunteer’s position as inexperienced and unprepared. One may wonder why inexperienced individuals would be shipped around the world to take part in various activities for which they are not properly trained. If an individual must be trained to take part, why are locals not trained to work in their own communities? Why are Western youths flown across the globe, at great expense, to temporarily fill these positions? ISV goes to great lengths to address imagined safety concerns, listing support structures, supervision, and routine risk assessment and site inspections of supported local projects (ISV, 2014c). These support structures are another expense made necessary by the movement of western youth to these communities.

A standard four week “volunteer and adventure tour program” with ISV will cost nearly $4,000. This amount varies (slightly) depending on program and country, and does not include airfare, half of one’s meals during the “adventure tour” portion, or the required travel insurance package. In the section entitled “What am I Paying For,” ISV provides a break down of where a volunteer’s money goes, in helpful bullet point form. Administration, volunteer recruitment, volunteer support, volunteer management, volunteer supervision, meals and accommodation, transport, in-country support staff, connections between organizations, and finally the project itself are listed (ISV, 2014e). Most of these expenses, obviously, are only required because of the insistence on international volunteer labour. Since this is a significant amount of money, particularly for students, ISV suggests ideas for fund raising. A volunteer blog offers examples of how individuals, following ISV prescriptions, attempt to raise thousands of dollars for their trips abroad. A young Australian woman details her plans of “raising funds through a blog, and…planning on having a trash and treasure sale, movie night, pyjama party and exercising my creative writing skills to obtain exposure about my cause in my local news paper” (Katieannie09, 2014). There are many such descriptions of similar efforts, including an assortment of commercial enterprises such as selling chocolates and doughnuts. Friends and family are enlisted to contribute to these efforts, as well as strangers who can be reached through media outlets and the internet. All of this time, energy, and money (valuable commodities by any capitalist reckoning) go toward financing a student’s vacation. Volunteering is presented as the “good” being done by the student in order to justify such expense. Donors are thanked for their “generosity” and updates on one’s progress are provided via ISV’s blog. How do these donors, and the volunteers themselves, come to see such efforts as necessary or beneficial?

This necessity is presented in the persuasive narratives of international volunteer organizations. ISV assumes the need of communities for foreign volunteers, stating (in reference to local NGOs), “these organizations rarely have the funding required to recruit and support international volunteers themselves. To help recruit international volunteers, many local NGOs partner with volunteer service organizations” (ISV, 2014e). They do not attempt to explain why international volunteering is a good way to address global inequalities. In fact, much effort is made to convince prospective participants that international volunteering is worth doing (as evidenced by the constant bombardment of the reader with messages of “making a difference” and “positive impact”). In a section explaining the difficulties of volunteering independently, ISV unintentionally highlights the problematic nature of this assumption, asserting that, “the difficult part is finding an organization you want to work for that meets your needs as a volunteer, will support you should something go wrong, and is willing to accept you as a volunteer” (ISV, 2014e). They note that local organizations may be seeking volunteers with specific skill sets, thus making many potential volunteers unwanted. However, if a volunteer joins an organization such as ISV, suddenly there is a plethora of need and want for their service. How then do such organizations respond to charges that they themselves create this need? Additionally, even if we uncritically accept the proposal that “underprivileged” communities must be helped to “develop,” surely there are more efficient methods that can be imagined to achieve this.


International Student Volunteers, Inc. (ISV). (2014a). Our Story.

????? . (2014b). Responsible Travel.

????? . (2014c). What to look for in a Volunteer Provider.

????? . (2014d). Why Students All Over the World Prefer ISV’s Volunteer Program.

????? . (2014e). Why Pay to Volunteer?

Katieannie09. (2014). Overwhelmed with Generosity.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0

Shuswap Chief’s Salary Highest in Country

Warrior Publications

October 31, 2014


Chief Paul Sam’s take-home pay higher than prime minister’s at more than $200,000

OTTAWA — An elderly B.C. First Nations chief and his ex-wife, along with one of their sons and a grandson, received more than $4.1 million in remuneration over the past four years.

Shuswap First Nation Chief Paul Sam, 80, gets a tax-free salary that has averaged $264,000 over that period to run a tiny reserve near Invermere, a resort community near the Alberta border. The Shuswap have 267 members, of whom just 87 live on the reserve. His son, Dean Martin, is doing even better, with an average annual salary of $536,000 over the four years, running a band corporation that operates various businesses on and near the reserve.

The figures were provided this week to The Vancouver Sun by disgruntled Shuswap members who are challenging in next month’s election a family that has ruled for more than three decades.

A dissident councillor, who earns $57,700 annually, said she was unaware until recently that Chief Sam and the only other councillor, ex-wife Alice Sam, 82, were earning such lofty salaries.

“We had no idea. We are absolutely disgusted,” Barbara Cote told The Sun Thursday while vowing to reform band finances if she’s successful in a bid to take control of council.

Cote’s concerns got backing Thursday from the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

“Our government expects First Nation band councils to use tax payer dollars responsibly and for the benefit of all community members,” Erica Meekes, a spokeswoman for the department said in a statement.

“Community members have asked for an explanation of the salaries of this chief and councillor. They deserve that explanation.”

Both Cote and Tim Eugene, another candidate in next month’s election, say they want to take over council and bring in reforms to ensure both disclosure and a greater distribution of funds to cover education and culture programs, child care, and home renovation.

They said some community members have gone without water and electricity in the winter, but were unable to get help from the band.

For the most recent fiscal year, Chief Sam and his ex-wife both reported salaries of about $202,000, their lowest in the four years. The chief’s top salary was just slightly less than $300,000 in 2010-11, while the top year for Alice Sam, 82, was 2011-12 when she had about $242,000 in remuneration.

Even the $202,000 figures make them the highest paid politicians on an after-tax basis — not only among First Nations leaders across the country, but also among all Canadian politicians, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper earns $327,400 plus a $2,000-a-year car allowance. Premier Christy Clark has a $193,532 annual salary.

“To take home $202,000 off reserve you would need a salary of $330,000,” according to CTF B.C. spokesman Jordan Bateman.

Their sons, Dean Martin and band media relations spokesman Gord Martin, said their parents’ hard work and longevity justify having salaries higher than a prime minister who presides over an economy that produces just under $2 trillion in goods and services annually.

Chief Paul Sam of the Shuswap First Nation.

Shuswap First Nation Chief Paul Sam gets a tax-free salary that has averaged $264,000 over the last four years to run a tiny reserve near Invermere. Prime Minister Stephen Harper earns $327,400 plus a $2,000-a-year car allowance, but after paying taxes, he would take home about $202,000 of that. File photo. Photograph by: , Handout

“With all due respect to Harper and to everybody else, I don’t think they’ve been in power for 34 straight years,” Dean Martin, chief executive officer of Kinbasket Development Corp., said in an interview Thursday.

“To be … the leader of a nation, and we’re not just a band, we are a nation, and to lead it for 34 years, is something totally unheard of, I don’t care in what political field you’re in.”

He also noted that his father is the band manager, while his mother is the bookkeeper, so both have jobs beyond political duties.

The recently released figures show that Dean Martin makes the most money in the family, with $765,651 in remuneration in 2010-11 that included $54,498 in travel expenses. The total fell to $410,730 in 2011-12, and $431,549 in 2012-13. Figures for the latest fiscal year for Dean Martin weren’t available.

Martin said the high salaries are justified because the family has brought considerable economic development to the community, with assets that include a golf course and resort, a new supermarket, a Tim Hortons, a hardware store, and real estate development for non-Aboriginal residents.

“I’m not embarrassed about what we’re doing,” Martin said.

The band takes in considerable government revenues, including just over $900,000 in the 2013-14 years from the federal Aboriginal affairs and Health departments.

Martin’s late son Randy, an elected councillor, earned $276,012 in 2010-11 and $301,341 in 2011-12. He died early in the 2012-13 year during a trip to Las Vegas, having already earned $35,159 that year.

Bands are only recently making salary details public in response to legal requirements under the First Nations Financial Disclosure Act, passed last year by the Harper government over the objections of the New Democratic Party and the Liberals.

The CTF’s analysis of that data indicated that the highest paid B.C. chief last year was Ron Giesbrecht, of the Kwikwetlem First Nation, who recorded $914,219 in income. That was an apparently isolated incident relating to a controversial $800,000 bonus Giesbrecht received in connection with a single land transaction with the B.C. government.

The 16 other top salaries highlighted by the CTF, among the salaries of hundreds of chiefs and councillors, were mostly in the range of just over $100,000 to a high of $123,033 for Cheslatta Carrier Chief Richard Peters. The exception was Osoyoos Chief Clarence Louie, one of B.C.’s most entrepreneurial chiefs, who pulled in $147,369.

Nationally, no other chiefs or councillors topped the $200,000 mark, according to the CTF.

Chief Sam, according to one band member, moved to Canada from the U.S. not long before being elected chief 34 years ago. When he came to Canada his surname was changed from Martin to Sam, but his son refused to explain why the change was made.


Update (November 8, 2014) – Shuswap reserve chooses new council after spending became key issue in band election:


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