My experiences as a Think Pacific Virtual Intern - Reflections and Thoughts on Voluntourism and International Development

This blog was written to reflect on part of my observations and experience participating in the Think Pacific Virtual Fiji Internship program and wider thoughts on voluntourism and international development.

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Picture: The first slide of my final action project output presentation. 

I intend for this blog to reflect on part of my observations and experience participating in the Think Pacific Virtual Fiji Internship program and wider thoughts on voluntourism and international development. Many of these reflections come from conversations that I had with my Think Pacific mentor, fellow interns, and friends, and come from my limited experience. Thus, I do not claim that these thoughts or reflections as novel, nor are they representative of organizations mentioned.

I am cautious that framing my own volunteer experience from a volunteer-centric lens may center volunteer perspectives rather than those of host communities, but I do not know if there is a way for this to be avoided as this blog concerns personal reflections. During the course of the internship, I have also only interacted directly with fellow volunteers and the organization so it would not be possible for me to include a perspective from local communities. In this case, I am presenting myself as part of a larger problem within voluntourism discourse that is preoccupied with perspectives from the “global north”.

Moving into my first summer as a Laidlaw Scholar, I found myself thinking extensively about existing programs that facilitate opportunities for people to travel to a different locale (often a “developing” country) and contribute to causes in said locales. These programs are a crucial part of a phenomenon coined as ‘voluntourism’ which in turn contributes to a larger ecosystem of international aid and development. In recent scholarly and media discourse, voluntourism has often been linked with the promotion of a paternalistic colonial mindset, internalization of a “white savior complex” within young volunteers, and being actively unhelpful to communities that volunteers operate in. As such many actors within the development sector have been rethinking voluntourism practices to make them more ethical and equitable.

One volunteer organization that has strived to be ethical and sustainable is Think Pacific (TP). Based in the UK and in Fiji, the organization facilitates and delivers community-led volunteer projects around Fiji in partnership with the Fijian Government. As a part of my Leadership in Action Project, the Laidlaw Foundation has provided me with the opportunity to participate in a virtual Fiji internship program run by TP. In light of current pandemic-related restrictions on global travel, international volunteer organizations, like many of us, have needed to pivot towards operating in a virtual setting. TP’s virtual Fiji internship program is an innovative manner for volunteers to contribute, from their homes, to an action project put forth by a Fijian business, organization, or national body.

One of the first things I noticed when I entered the Facebook group was the actions projects that people were interested in. Most people in the program highlighted that they were most interested in International Development (ID) related action projects. This highlights the selection process that interns needed to go through to participate in the program – where TP had an interview with prospective interns to ascertain that they had correct motivations. In the same vein, an interest in ID is not particularly surprising as a lot of people who want to participate in international volunteering programs tend to be people who also want to work in the sector in the future. This is one of the reasons why voluntourism has been gaining traction as a topic of conversation in recent years due to people who are working or writing about the industry speaking about it from personal experience. For me this was particularly salient because it displayed the importance of a volunteer organization’s approach, as these experiences are going to be formative for future leaders within the sector.

When asked about their approach, TP puts emphasis on partnership with local community actors. By forming partnerships, TP attempts to disrupt a ‘giver-receiver’ mentality and places actors on a level playing field. TP also emphasized that since they are a registered foundation within Fiji, it means that they are held accountable by local structures. Although the projects are locally led, it is noted that the presence of international volunteers is beneficial because international engagement and cultural exchange adds value. This approach was made apparent through the various webinars that TP hosted during the internship as well as conversations had with my mentor. A focus on international engagement displays an awareness of the position TP is in within the ID sector as a facilitator of international interactive spaces. This approach feeds into TP’s treatment of the output that interns produce regarding their action projects. The output is presented to partner organizations as a collaborative conversation rather than end-all-be-all solution. All in all, I think that this is a positive approach to take.  

Moving forward during the internship, I tried to keep an open mind while asking critical questions and engaging in discussions with my mentor and my peers. It is a credit to TP that we were encouraged to have these discussions. A Facebook group was created for us to engage with other interns within the cohort and my mentor did not shy away from questions being posed. Primarily, I think it is this learning mindset across the board that made it a fruitful experience. This learning mindset is further exemplified by a focus on the ‘Discovery’ Phase of the program. During the ‘Discovery’ phase (which made up a significant part of the program), volunteers engaged with an online portal of materials prepared and collated by the TP team on Fijian Life, Culture and History, Sustainable Development, and Action Project Topic Areas. A skills portal was also included to allow interns to learn skills necessary to complete their chosen action projects.

Moreover, I came away with the notion that voluntourism as it is embedded in an ID context is more complex than I thought it was. What was particularly interesting to me was the structure of Think Pacific as an organization. The organization is split into two sides: social enterprise and foundation side. 50% of the money earned from the social enterprise (that runs the business side of the voluntourism venture – promotion of trips, marketing, collaboration with higher education institutions etc…) is fed into the foundation side. On the foundation side, the Fijian board of trustees distribute the money to projects that they are working on the ground. Being a social enterprise is beneficial as funding is more consistent to income generation without being reliant on grants. This organizational structure was interesting to me because I have never really thought about the financial side of ID on a practical level.

In reflection, in this blog I provided some general observations and reflections regarding those observations. In the context of voluntourism, I think that Think Pacific has tried hard to consider how to position itself as an ethical and sustainable operator – and has encouraged volunteers to do so as well. I would like to thank the Laidlaw Foundation for providing me with the opportunity to participate in this program and Think Pacific for the fruitful and engaging experience.

Interesting papers on voluntourism in the context of international development:

Unsettling geographies of volunteering and development - Nina Laurie and Matt Baillie Smith

Volunteer tourism and “The White Man’s Burden”: globalization of suffering, white savior complex, religion and modernity - Ranjan Bandyopadhyay

Benjamin C.H. Kao

Student, University of St. Andrews

Incoming Fourth Year (Senior) Student at the University of St Andrews studying MA Sustainable Development and Social Anthropology. Laidlaw Research Project on Care, Emptiness, and Japanese Society in Persona 5 Royal. Leadership in Action Project on Volunteering in Local Communities.