Revealed: Your gap year volunteering could be harming the community

Big “voluntourism” companies don’t let you see the real world


Whether it was a gap year round South America or a summer in Borneo, we all know someone who’s volunteered abroad. Cue weeks of adorable photos of them alongside playing children, feeding elephants, and building wells, all while getting the tan of their dreams and helping underprivileged communities. But what good are they actually doing? You might think you’re bringing joy and knowledge to the exotic country you visit, but actually, your wanderlust is a burden, and potentially a corrupt one.

Picture source: Tourism Concern

One study conducted by Unicef in Nepal  found a whopping 85 per cent of the “orphans” volunteers were helping actually had parents, who were often unaware of how their children were being used to make money. Sometimes these children had come from a destructive background, even despite having parents.

Beth, a third year Manchester student, lives with several people who’ve volunteered abroad, and questions how useful their work really was. She said “I feel like a lot of volunteering is poverty tourism, and people do more harm than good.

“I have a lot of friends who’ve been and I think they lose sight of the fact it’s people’s real lives, not just a new profile picture opportunity.”

These volunteer opportunities don’t come cheap, however, with people paying hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds to go out with the intention of changing the world.

Aberdeen student Holly said: “It’s a shame that unskilled people pay money to do work when they could use the money to send over skilled workers who could make a difference.”

Working firsthand in communities means you understand what you are helping

With each company sending sometimes in excess of 10,000 volunteers around the globe each year, totalling approximately 1.6 million worldwide, smaller projects are becoming less and less popular. Experts reckon the market of ‘voluntourism’ is worth in excess of £1.3bn a year, and this figure is only going to rise.

The most popular destinations are places such as Ghana, Cambodia and Thailand. Chloe, an English student currently volunteering in popular Cambodia, says you need to work closely with the people you’re helping to know you’re making a difference to their lives.

She said “I’m working cross-culturally alongside Cambodians which is incredibly annoying due to communication issues, but equally is very rewarding.

“The problem with voluntourism is people come in to paint a school for example, and then the locals have to paint over the walls again. I live with the family that I’m directly helping and it’s really great to work alongside them.

“You get a better idea of what they need as opposed to what they want.”

If you stay in a hotel it doesn’t count

Philip Holmes, chief executive of Freedom Matters, a charity battling trafficking and modern day slavery, spoke to The Tab about his work in Nepal and how dangerous “voluntourism” can be.

He warned of the dangers of taking children away from their roots and shipping them across the country into orphanages, and said children being educated in English or Nepali are sometimes unable to communicate with their own families.

“On a rescue operation I went on there was a mother of one of the girls, and the mother couldn’t speak to her daughter. They didn’t speak the same language any more.

“She moved her daughter down to South India and hadn’t seen her for 10 years. That’s the kind of split between a mother and her daughter that occurs, and it’s absolutely disastrous.”

His advice for anyone thinking of going out to volunteer was “Ask yourself a few serious questions first of all.

“If you were to go to a children’s care home in the UK, how would you be received if you were rocking up there wanting to be a volunteer? They’d be asking for security checks, qualifications, experience. So why should a different standard apply in Nepal?

“Are you potentially contributing towards the exploitation and abuse of children? Are you potentially contributing towards child trafficking? You can come and go and never be any the wiser of the damage you can do to the children’s lives by a misplaced wish to help.”

Megan, a third year Geography student, volunteered in India and defies the stereotype of the student volunteer. She agrees with Freedom Matter’s advice and says it doesn’t have to be about likes or ego boosting.

“The church that I went with took a youth group there every year and it was the children’s favourite part of the year. A lot of the kids had come from the Mumbai slums. A lot of them still had parents but they just weren’t able to care for them properly, and a lot of them were born with AIDS.”

She warns away from jumping onto a ‘volunteering company bandwagon’: “If you’re signing up to build schools in Ghana or something that you’re not qualified for, then you’re actually not helping that place at all.

“My best advice would be to work on much smaller or more local projects and not go through a big agency. Do some proper volunteering in a place for a much longer period of time where you get to know the people you are working with, and actually become good at the work you are doing.

“In my opinion it’s not clear whether these some of the big companies ever have that nation’s best interests at heart.”

BNOC abroad