Canadian Imperialism and the Responsibility to ‘Voluntour’

As the possibility of travel returns for many of us in parts of the world like Canada where a majority of people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and as the distribution of these life-saving vaccines exposes the stark inequalities between the Global North and South, we have an opportunity to reflect on the ethics of travel and tourism. One sector of tourism that ought to be at the forefront of such a reflection is the voluntourism industry. Following its rise to fame in the early 2000s as a way for Westerners to ‘make a difference’ in a globalizing world, international voluntourism has subsequently become the subject of various investigations and criticisms which ought to have discredited this so-called ‘ethical tourism’ model.

Renewed critiques recently emerged in the Canadian context due to the 2020 WE charity scandal which, though focussed more on the conflicts of interest between federal Liberal government leadership and the charity, provided an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the unaccountability that ran rampant within that charity as well as in the Canadian NGO and non-profit sector at large.

However, the multi-billion-dollar industry continues to thrive, and the colonial ideology which underpins the sector remains ubiquitous. The term ‘voluntourism’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘tourism’ and refers to a practice in which people, often young upper or middle-class white women in the Global North (Bandyopadhyay and Patil 2017, 645), pay an organization to coordinate their trip to a country in the Global South. This trip includes traditional tourist activities and also provides the traveller with a volunteer placement, usually in the fields of healthcare, education, childcare, or environmental conservation, in a local community of their choosing (Wilkinson and McCool 2014, 10). These programs are short-term and often do not require volunteers to have experience or skills in the field in which they will be volunteering.

Canadian participants play a significant role in the voluntourism industry, making up a large proportion of the global volunteer base for these programs. Furthermore, there are large voluntourism organizations that are based in Canada, such as Me to We and GVI Canada. Why has voluntourism become such a popular form of travel among socially-conscious Canadians? In this article, I seek to answer this question by highlighting how the popularity of voluntourism among middle- and upper-class Canadians is one manifestation of Canada’s imperialist relationship with the Global South. Moreover, I argue that the interventionist nature of Canadian voluntourism parallels the interventionist nature of Canada’s foreign policy, and that both realms are filtered through a colonial mindset that views people in the Global South as victims in need of saving.

Canada, Imperialism, and R2P

To understand how the urge to intervene flows from the upper echelons of Canadian foreign policy-making down to an individual’s choice to participate in a voluntourism program, it is important to begin with an understanding of Canada as an imperialist country. I use the term ‘imperialism’ to refer not only to economic patterns of value extraction, where “wealth is drained from the labour and resources of people in the Global South to the systematic advantage of capital in the North” (David McNally, quoted in Gordon 2010, 26), but the strategies of cultural domination and political disciplining required for this extraction to continue.

As a capitalist nation-state of the Global North, Canada has been a key actor in both maintaining and actively creating this imperialist world system. This is because, as demonstrated substantively by political scientist Tyler Shipley, “the legacy and logic of Canadian colonialism runs through the entire history of Canada in the world” (Shipley 2020, 1). As Shipley elaborates, settlers to Canada “arrived to make money and save souls; the former justified by the latter, and the latter made possible by the former. These would ultimately become the twin pillars of Canadian foreign policy: settler capitalism and the colonial imagination” (Shipley 2020, 24). Key to Canadian state formation then are practices of violence, theft, and dispossession, first enacted by settlers and newly formed colonial governments on Indigenous nations within the territory that is now called Canada. These practices have deepened domestically and been exported abroad at later stages of Canadian capitalist development.

One of the ways in which the “colonial imagination” is translated through Canadian foreign policy is through the paradigm of humanitarian intervention, articulated by the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) principle. This principle upholds the idea that “a state’s sovereignty depend[s] on its willingness and ability to protect and provide basic services to its populations. If a state is unable or unwilling to protect its populations, then an escalating series of actions is proposed, up to and including military intervention under the auspices of the UN Security Council” (Milani 2018, 321). Following the Rwandan genocide and Balkan wars of the 1990s, Canada led the charge in pushing the UN to adopt the R2P doctrine as an attempt by the international community to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. However, representatives from poorer, ‘weaker’ states argue that R2P legitimizes non-consensual intervention and express concerns that R2P will be used selectively to further the geopolitical interests of wealthier, stronger states (Milani 2018, 322). The short history of R2P thus far indicates that these states have every right to be concerned. Though R2P was first officially used to approve US-led airstrikes on Libya and the assassination of President Muamar Ghaddafi in 2011, the principle has also been cited to justify Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan and other military actions in the Middle East (Milani 2018, 322).

Despite the positive global branding of the phrase, R2P does not represent an enlightened internationalist shift away from the primacy of national self-interest as the key driver of international relations. Humanitarian intervention is instead often wielded as a means for Canada to pursue its national interest and the collective interests of the West. This is seen in the selective and unequal application of the doctrine based on Canadian geopolitical interests and commitments. R2P has not been invoked to protect Yemeni people who have suffered from war crimes and ethnic cleansing, likely due to the leading role Canadian ally Saudi Arabia has played in these processes (Milani 2018, 322). Although framed in universalist language, humanitarian intervention and R2P “can never truly be universalist, since its fundamental principles are Western, will never be used against Western states, and will always result in an imbalance of power in favor of the West” (Hughes 2013, 353). Despite the violence, land thefts, human rights abuses, and ongoing attempts at ethnic cleansing enacted on Indigenous peoples and nations by the Canadian state, R2P will not be invoked by other countries against Canada. Written in the bones of the R2P framework are the logics of colonialism. The idea of politically and militarily invading a country because of a ‘responsibility to protect’ those being invaded has long been ‘the white man’s burden.’ In the rapidly decolonizing world of the 20th century, words such as colonialism and imperialism left a sour taste in the Western world’s mouth. New words, principles, and norms such as R2P have been created to take their place, ensuring that the fundamentally paternalistic and unequal relationship between Global North and South is updated and maintained (Mallavarapu 2015, 306-307).

The Racist and Colonial Logics of Voluntourism

The “colonial imagination” not only underpins Canadian foreign policy, it infuses Canada’s and Canadians’ relationship with the rest of the world in multiple ways. This is reflected in the exploitative but lucrative nature of voluntourism programs. Though the voluntourism industry is relatively new, the European practice of combining volunteering and travel has existed since at least the 19th century, when missionaries, doctors, and teachers travelled to European colonies to ‘aid’ local populations (Verardi 2013, 5). The voluntourism industry can be viewed as a contemporary ‘update’ to this form of travel, servicing and profiting from the continued colonial urges white Canadian, American, and European societies have inherited.

A key example of the racist and exploitative nature of the voluntourism industry is the no- or low-skill requirement for participants of voluntourism programs. The voluntourism industry has been criticized by organizations such as World Vision and former participants such as activist Pippa Biddle for the overall lack of supervision, training, and rules provided to volunteers. A lack of rules governing the industry places participants and those they seek to help in potentially dangerous situations, especially when volunteering in sectors such as medicine, dentistry, or childcare. For example, Projects Abroad, a popular voluntourism company, advertises on their website that anyone over the age of 16 can participate in a dentistry internship in a country of their choice. Such internships pose great risks to the health of the patients being practiced on. Those who volunteer for these medical, dental, childcare, and educational placements with a lack of skills and necessary training are engaging in an activity which would be illegal for them to do at home but is acceptable, and even virtuous, when done through voluntourism. Voluntourism schemes take advantage of the power that international charities, foreign aid, and NGOs have in certain countries in the Global South to exploit communities with strained resources and different legal and political contexts. This dynamic demonstrates the ‘othering’ at the heart of the voluntourism industry, where participants are encouraged to view the health and wellbeing of people in the Global South as different than their own.

A consequence of the low- or no-skill requirement common in voluntourism programs is that volunteers are often assigned work they do poorly or cannot do at all. This may place additional strain on labourers in affected communities, forcing them to undo or re-do voluntourists’ work, while also displacing local labour and negatively impacting local economies through the introduction of masses of unpaid low-skill labourers (Biddle 2014). Furthermore, childcare and education voluntourism programs are found to have negative long-term effects on children’s development, mental health, and education, and contributes to imposing English as the language of everyday life at the expense of local languages (Jakubiak 2012, 422). At its most harmful, the ubiquity of voluntourism in certain countries has promoted a boom in illegal orphanages that profit from the demand of Westerners who want to volunteer with children. Some of these illegal orphanages double as kidnapping and child trafficking rings for the purpose of child abuse and paedophilia, as documented in Haiti, Uganda, and Nepal. The disturbing rise of these practices has led a number of large NGOs and foundations such as Save the Children to explicitly call for people to stop volunteering in orphanages abroad.

The extractive nature of voluntourism is also made clear when examining the motivations of Canadians who participate in these programs. In interviews with young adults from Canada who had participated in voluntourism programs, Dr. Rebecca Tiessen found that most of the youth interviewed participated in a voluntourism program for self-development purposes, suggesting a “one-directional flow of perceived benefits from the global south to the Canadian volunteers” (Tiessen 2012, 2). In other studies, participant motivations for volunteering abroad included to foster altruism and cultural understanding, to create social connections, and to enhance career skills (Lyons and Wearing 2012, 89). Companies predictably advertise their voluntourism programs accordingly by highlighting what the client will get out of the experience: self-discovery, valuable life experience to add to a CV or resume, an opportunity to ‘give back,’ and a ‘safe’ way to explore foreign cultures (Veradi 2013, 1). These benefits have little to do with the communities who act as sites for these programs, and more to do with what the volunteers extract from the experience. Though the purpose of voluntourism is ostensibly to help the global poor, the benefits of voluntourism are reaped by those who volunteer. By marketing voluntourism programs in these ways, a person in the Global South is equivocated to a resume line in the Western imagination.

‘What’s the Harm in Helping?’

Canadians who participate in voluntourism programs can often look beyond the negative impacts of the industry due to the entrenched colonial myth of the white man’s (or woman’s) burden: that it is the responsibility of Westerners (coded White) to save Brown and Black people from their conditions. Despite the negative impacts and shady nature of the voluntourism industry, participating in these programs is still assumed to be a net positive to the alternative of doing nothing while people ‘over there’ continue to live in states of poverty and suffering (Jakubiak 2012, 438). This humanitarian imperative to intervene is present throughout Canadian political culture, informing Canada’s actions in the world from the highest level of foreign policy down to the well-meaning intentions of individual Canadians. People in the Global South must be made context-less for this idea to work, devoid of any history, agency, and political struggle. Past and ongoing colonial plunder and domination must be made irrelevant. Because Canadians need to see themselves as the fix or the ‘saviours,’ the problems facing people in the Global South cannot be seen as structural, historical processes which Canadians themselves are implicated in producing and reproducing.

The voluntourism industry advances this imperialist saviour mentality by relying on poverty-porn portrayals of the Global South to sell trips abroad. In so doing, Canadians who participate in these programs are encouraged to view and understand Brown and Black people only in the context of extreme poverty. With no education provided to explain the vastly unequal nature of the global political economy, these programs work to further racist stereotypes of people in the Global South as inherently poor and helpless, reinforcing the myth of white and/or Western superiority. Founder and director of Projects Abroad Peter Slowe exemplifies this exceptionalism in his response to those who have criticized his company for its unethical practices, arguing that “[t]he idea that people shouldn’t come at all in case they traumatize a child who had the most terrible [experience] in their life already is really verging on the ridiculous. All our volunteers want to do is help.” Here, people – in this case, children – in the Global South are framed as fundamentally different from the volunteers: already broken and damaged from poverty (and because of this, immune to further trauma) and expected to be grateful for whatever help they get. Far from merely a rhetorical issue, this white saviour complex is a threat to human life in the Global South. Its consequences can be seen most sharply in the revelation that American Renée Bach had run a medical centre for malnourished children in Uganda for five years despite having no medical experience. This white woman’s burden resulted in the deaths of 105 children. In perfect step with colonial missionaries of centuries past, Bach claimed it was her calling from God to help these children. We can assume she expected them to be grateful for whatever help they got.

Worryingly, the interventionist urge to ‘do something’ and ‘do good’ spans the Canadian political spectrum, where “a claim to righteousness in international affairs is fundamental to Canadian exceptionalism, the idea that this country is morally superior to other nations” (Engler 2019, 151). With the imperative to intervene at the heart of Canadian exceptionalism, the idea of not intervening in the affairs of countries in the Global South, that we should ‘mind our own business,’ is cast as a reactionary, heartless, and unacceptable position to take on international issues (Bricmont 2006, 18). However, as foreign policy critic Yves Engler argues, a truly universalist, humanitarian relationship with the Global South would be based not on the principles of intervention and a ‘responsibility to protect,’ but rather, in the simplicity of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Engler 2019, 9). Save the Children echoes this sentiment, asking of those who want to volunteer abroad to first put themselves in the shoes of the people they want to help and ask themselves, Would I like this? Would I be happy to receive medical care or an education from untrained, unlicensed youth who might not know how to communicate with me? Would I like it if my education and social services were largely provided by unaccountable private foreign charities? Asking these questions reveals that at its core, voluntourism requires us to perceive people in the Global South as fundamentally different from us, somehow deserving of lesser levels of care and dignity than citizens of the Global North. This is at the heart of R2P in Canadian foreign policy as well, where the sovereignty of Canada is sacrosanct – despite the state’s weak claim to these lands – while the sovereignty of countries in the Global South is rendered conditional.


Interrogating Canadian imperialism wherever and however it manifests is of critical importance for those living both within and outside of Canada’s borders. In this article, I examine an aspect of the Canadian imperialist mindset by focussing on the ways in which an interventionist worldview has been internalized, from the individual actions of well-meaning Canadians to the international calculus of Canada’s policy-makers and capitalist classes. Intervention is an idea with discursive and material power, wielded by the state to justify its imperialist foreign policy and by industries that profit from Canadian perceptions of ourselves as ‘helpers.’ In light of the criticisms plaguing the voluntourism sector, NGOs and other development actors have indicated concerns with this form of volunteering but tend to focus on how Canadians can ‘do good’ better by considering their intentions and being reflexive. The aim appears to be to ‘clean up’ the sector rather than to encourage Canadians not to participate in these programs at all.

However, given the precarious financial straits currently facing the voluntourism industry as it recovers from the impacts of global travel restrictions, there is an opportunity to leave this model of tourism behind. To do so, we must reject interventionist impulses and replace them with an understanding that it is okay to simply not intervene in the lives of people in the Global South. True solidarity will come from engaging in struggles which compel our governments to do the same. •


Shreya Ghimire is a graduate student in Political Science at York University. Her research interests are in Marxist and feminist critiques of development, gender and development, and the political economy of Canada’s international politics.