Volunteering has become a huge part of the gap year industry in recent years with a huge array of volunteer opportunities, from working with children or wildlife to helping a community project or even conservation research. The people who volunteer are as varied as the opportunities available to them, with a huge array of people from all walks of life and with a vast range of motivations and reasons for volunteering. Yet despite this you can always boil it down to two specific and distinct types of volunteer, and for those of you who are thinking of volunteering on your gap year, it is up to you which one you would prefer to be.
The first are the genuine volunteers. These people work with genuine organisations alongside genuine projects and local communities, and work hard to utilise their own skills to supplement and help the community or cause they are volunteering with. Some have professional skills and qualifications and work with genuine NGOs and organisations to utilise those skills where they are needed most, others have wider skill sets from construction to management to bring to the table and find a way to use those talents for the benefit of the organisation. Neither assume that their western volunteer status gives them any actual rights or privileges in the project or organisation they are working with. They understand that the locals are the experts, that they know and understand the needs of their own community or the cause better than anyone. These volunteers know that the project can benefit from their skills, but they are only there to supplement the skill and culture of the local population so that the project will eventually become self sustaining. They understand that they as a volunteer stand to learn and gain as much from the experience as they have to give. They respect and empower the locals, the community and the volunteer opportunity.
The second type of person – the one that is becoming increasingly more common in the gap year voluntourism industry – is the lord and saviour personified. As a citizen of a Western society and therefore obviously superior to the entire developing world, they leap into volunteering with a god complex so big it can barely be contained in the superman costume they are inevitably wearing under their tiger beer singlets. Make no mistake, these people are here to save the world and make sure everyone back home knows it with a snazzy new Facebook profile photo! After paying thousands of pounds for the privilege of volunteering – most, if not all, of which goes into the profit margins of a voluntourism company – they set off with grand dreams of helping all the poor people in the world or to fix all the worlds problems (provided of course they have a nice place to sleep with mod cons and a bar nearby), completely self assured in the knowledge that all it will take to solve any issue in a poor developing country is a western presence there.
Whether they are digging a well or building a school, these voluntourists ensure that they get their priorities right, that ‘it is the most profound, life changing thing they have ever done’. It is all about them, how they have ‘given something back’, how they can later boast of their time ‘helping out in a poor orphanage in a distant land’ to all their obviously impressed mates back home. Cue a ton of Facebook profile pictures of them hugging local children or crouching near an endangered animal.
Yet if you suggested to these people that they give up their weekends for a volunteer project back home they would probably look at you like the Antichrist and run a mile.
It doesn’t really matter that the local community these voluntourists are sent to doesn’t really need a badly built shack with a nicely painted ‘school’ sign above the door, or a hole in the ground tentatively labelled a well. What really matters – to the voluntourism company at least – is that whatever they happen to be doing is meaningless enough to be nothing more than a little project for the conveyor belt of voluntourists to come and work on for a few days or a week before moving on.
It doesn’t matter one bit that these voluntourists don’t have the qualification, skill or experience to do the jobs they want to do, it doesn’t matter that they don’t speak the language or understand the culture or community they are visiting. It doesn’t even matter that they may be causing vast amounts of harm in the long term. The companies make a shed load of profit and the voluntourists know with absolute certainty that after it is all done that all the little poor people will be eternally grateful and they can fly away back home with a chest full of pride!
That is what is important, right?
These voluntourists get sent on masse to aid projects, medical centres or animal sanctuaries, convinced in their naive little minds that they will be directing vast relief efforts, immunising little children from ravaging disease or nursing a small baby orang-utan back to health, regardless of the fact that they have absolutely zero experience or knowledge of project management or aid, nor any professional skill or qualification in medicine, nursing, veterinary practice or conservation management. They expect to teach entire classrooms of wide eyed little poor children, despite having no formal qualification, education, training or knowledge themselves, but no matter they are western volunteers after all so the children will benefit.
I mean seriously, think about it for a minute. If this was happening in the UK, would an untrained, unqualified volunteer with absolutely no criminal or background checks be allowed to go into any school and look after and teach kids for the day? Would a hospital allow any untrained volunteer without numerous checks and balances to come in and perform the duties of a qualified nurse? Of course not.
Volunteering abroad is not about what you want. It is not about appeasing some sort of western guilt neurosis or massaging some hero complex you may have. It is about understanding the culture of the country you are visiting, learning about how your skills can work in partnership with locals to support, empower and nurture each other. It is about working together to improve a situation, not imposing some sort of benevolent superiority.
Unfortunately in the profit making factory line that is the voluntourism industry, this is what volunteering is becoming in the modern gap year travel sector. It is a business, plain and simple, and the eager volunteers – regardless of their motivations or intent – are more often than not becoming a disruptive force to the very communities and causes they want to help.
The good news is each and every volunteer has the power to change this, to ensure this recent status quo doesn’t continue.
As you prepare for your gap year or backpacking trip and look into volunteering, ask yourself very carefully what your motivations are for doing so. Look very closely at what skills and qualifications you have and how they could be useful to the type of organisation you want to volunteer with, and most of all, look very carefully at the type of organisation you want to volunteer with.
Then you can ask yourself which type of volunteer do you want to be?
What’s your take on the voluntourism industry? Have you ever volunteered abroad? What were your opinions of it? Let me know in the comments section below.
*Note to the more sensitive out there, heavy doses of sarcasm were used liberally throughout this article to make a point, and was not meant to offend.