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Volunteering is a powerful social concept; in public discourse, it tends to be seen as a predominately positive act and an apolitical force for global good. It is considered to be a way for individuals to act upon suffering and to contribute to a the creation of a better integrated society and a more equal world. However, it can be argued that volunteering is not a neutral act and instead is inherently tied up with political and economic ideals. In order to recognise the latent challenges and address the neo-colonial connotations of volunteering, the position of voluntary action as a mode of engagement with widening global inequalities requires increased critical analysis. Volunteering often takes place across largely unequal economies, uniting people with different motivations and orientations to into a rather murky space that is rife with misinterpretation. This opaqueness, and the heterogeneity surrounding economies and ideologies of volunteering, have political consequences. I will explore the, sometimes controversial, politics of volunteering through three key areas: the paradox of the gift of aid; the increasing integration of volunteerism into neoliberal public policy and the rise of voluntourism. In doing so, I will argue that as volunteering is swathed in an ideology of autonomous action, of free giving and free labour, it can conceal relations of inequality and dependence, authoritarianism and coercion. At the same time, volunteering in the name of a global or common good also allows people to articulate a shared set of goals and interests and to create other kinds of valued relationships and opportunities.

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The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) defines as ‘volunteering’ as ‘any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives’. Therefore, ‘volunteerism’ is entrenched in the free will of the individual; the emphasis is placed on the freedom of choice embedded in the act of giving. In wider public discourse, volunteering is considered to be a moral act precisely because it is based in an individual’s freedom in a situation of choice (Laidlaw 2000). Furthermore, much emphasis has been placed on volunteering as a result of the humanitarian imperative; the implied moral responsibility of more affluent nations and individuals to provide assistance to those in need (Fechter 2016). This speaks to presumptions about freedom and morality such as the notion that true freedom is only possible in the complete absence of restriction or relations of power. From an anthropological perspective, Marcel Mauss (2002 1967) has argued that such a thing as a free gift does not exist as the giving of a gift is forever embedded in the social relations of reciprocity and obligation. Consequently, for Mauss, the action of voluntary gift-giving is ‘only a polite fiction, formalism, and social deceit…when really there is obligation and economic self-interest’ (1990 1950: 4).

Despite the lack of reciprocity, volunteering is idealised as a ‘pure gift’ and as an altruistic action, and as a result of this the term ‘volunteering’ is often ‘used in conjunction with terms like ‘caring’, ‘helping’, ‘charity’…and ‘beneficence’.’ (Kirsch 2016: Kindle Locations  4983-4984). In this idealised notion of volunteering, the offering of something of the self to the greater good, whether it be time, labour or something else entirely, is deeply rooted in individualism. ‘This establishes a relation between the individual and a collective, and as such, it has been used as a political tool’ (Brown and Prince 2016: Kindle Locations 323-324). Whilst volunteering initiatives may seek to overcome social and economic inequalities, the act of giving often reinforces and perpetuates the differences between donor and recipient. This notion of volunteering as an altruistic pure gift denies reciprocity as it is very difficult for aid recipients to return such a gift (Henkel and Stirrat 1997). Volunteerism therefore creates form of indebtedness and this conceptualisation of donation as free gift creates unequal relations, that often mimic, or even reinvent, the social inequalities the volunteers set out to rectify (Henkel and Stirrat 1997). This  ‘adopted the understanding of aid and development assistance in moral frameworks of the gift, or ‘doing good” (Fechter 2016: 228) shows how volunteerism can be seen as a human example of the paradox of the gift of aid.

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