Abstract: Rethinking Mobility Privilege: Humanitarian Aid, International Volunteerism, and the Return to Normal (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Rethinking Mobility Privilege: Humanitarian Aid, International Volunteerism, and the Return to Normal

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Hospitality 3 - Room 432, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Background and Purpose

This paper presents findings from a qualitative study of how nonprofit social service made sense of the absence and anticipated return of international volunteers amid the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations and the lifting of international travel restrictions. Like many nongovernmental aid organizations (cite), migrant shelters throughout Mexico that provide humanitarian aid to people migrating through the country—generally from Central America—depend on domestic and international volunteers for both financial support and day-to-day operations. Prior research demonstrates that international volunteers bring capital, legitimacy, and protection. However, international volunteerism—which generally involves people traveling from the global north to less privileged communities in the global south—can also replicate neocolonial dynamics, particularly given the tendency for volunteers from the global north to embody expertise (Redfield, 2012). Migrant shelters offer a valuable vantage point for studying these tensions amid the anticipated return of distinct forms of mobility: international volunteers arriving from the global north and record-breaking numbers of migrants arriving from farther south. This study examines how aid workers made sense of these tensions amid the unprecedented decrease in the flow of both volunteers and migrants and their anticipated return.


The paper presents results from an ethnographic study of aid work at a humanitarian migrant shelter in central Mexico in July of 2021, as the lifting of international travel restrictions and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations allowed for the return of international volunteers. Data collection involved 150 hours of participant observation, as well as semi-structured interviews with aid workers (n=15) and migrants accessing the shelter (n=34). Data analysis involved thematic and narrative analysis of fieldnotes and interview transcriptions, including inductive and deductive approaches to identifying emergent themes, developing preliminary codes, and refining them.


Aid workers interviewed for this study explained that, prior to the pandemic, their work often consisted of stewarding generally scarce resources that flowed through the organization from volunteers to migrants. When the flow of volunteers stopped abruptly, they recognized both the shelters’ ability to make do without international volunteer support and relief from the “neediness” of volunteers, who often require substantial training, supervision, and administrative labor. This paper argues that shelter workers reconceptualized the anticipated return of international volunteers, including the author, in terms of “mobility privilege,” where volunteers, in addition to migrants, must demonstrate deservingness. Ultimately, aid workers described this shift as part of a broader effort to reconceptualize humanitarian ethics from a politics of aid to one of collaboration.

Conclusions and Implications

By demonstrating how shelter workers reframed conceptualized pandemic-related travel restrictions in terms of “mobility privilege,” this study provides insight into how crisis moments as opportunities to reassemble organizational inequalities. These findings align with critical scholarship on how differentiating between allyship and accomplish can reimagine how privilege is recognized and mobilized in human service work.