Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Arts


This study is the first detailed, long-term ethnographic study of an International Volunteer Sending Agency (IVSA) and its development volunteers. Through a comprehensive study of Palms Australia and its volunteers between 2006 and 2009 the thesis examines how neoliberal views of aid and development have affected the practice of development volunteering. A multi-sited ethnographic approach (Marcus 1995) was utilised to follow the idea of development volunteering through multiple locals.

This thesis unpacks and critically analyses assumptions about the role of development volunteers as understood from a range of perspectives including: the experiences and changing conceptions of a group of 13 Palms as they engaged in the complete cycle of volunteerism ( initial contact with Palms, orientation and preparation into placement which was for some in Papua New Guinea and others in Timor Leste, and their return to Australia); literature on aid and development, development volunteering and volunteering in the Australian context, government policy, organisational policy of IVSAs, development volunteers, and host communities. Policy shifts in the area of development volunteering and their impact on IVSAs, volunteers and host communities is analysed and attention is drawn to the complexities and tensions surrounding altruistic models of volunteering, egoistic motivations and economic rationalist policy frameworks. Critical analysis highlights that despite the rhetoric of partnership and participation in both government and organisational policy, neoliberal ideology and the managerial framework it promotes has led to the increasing vocationalisation and professionalisation of volunteer sending programs.

The impact of volunteer sending models on volunteers is investigated and particular attention paid to the dilemmas surrounding the emerging trend of the incorporation of corporatist managerialist approaches in volunteering models. Tensions and paradoxes experienced by volunteers as they undertake their role and conceptualise their purpose in a complex development context are identified, which challenge altruistic and harmonious conceptions of development volunteering. Important contradictions are identified between the multiple roles that volunteers play in communities which dispute assumptions about the contribution that volunteers make upon their return to Australia. The study puts forward recommendations for future approaches to development volunteering.