The gap year voluntourism industry is hardly a pinnacle of ethical, responsible tourism at the best of times, but now their dirty little secret is about to be exposed, and the lie about volunteering abroad that they have been telling travellers for a long time will be laid bare.
Just when you think the negative aspects of voluntourism couldn’t get any worse, parts of the gap year industry are greenwashing their paid travel experiences with the terminology of volunteering in an effort to appeal to a wider market and increase their profit. These are travel experiences where it is volunteering in name only and has zero positive effect for the local community and no relation to any good volunteering practice. And this is wrong on so many levels.
Voluntourism is big business now. It’s undeniable. Large parts of the gap year industry has taken the concept of volunteering, packaged it and turned it into a multi billion dollar industry.
There are countless travel providers such as STA travel and Go Abroad that offer or promote paid experiences under the umbrella term of ‘volunteering’. More often than not these experiences are about as far from a true, responsible volunteering experience as you can get, yet are sold to the trusting – and often well intentioned – public as a responsible way to ‘give back’.
The misappropriation of language in this way is a large part of greenwashing, with large commercial organisations hiding behind a charitable status or a ‘volunteer’ badge that allows them to earn profits off money that would be better spent on genuine causes.
Not all volunteering is bad, and there are still ways you can participate in some genuine volunteering programmes and make a positive difference, provided you do your research, use your skills and qualifications in an appropriate way, work with the right partners and avoid the bad ones who are usually for profit companies.
Unfortunately there is an even bigger problem in the voluntourism world, where even voluntourism isn’t volunteering anymore.
There are providers within the gap year industry who are selling travel experiences for vast sums, and covering their marketing and promotion with the terminology of volunteering.
They are selling the dream of volunteering, but it is all a greenwashed lie.
There is no real responsible volunteering in these ‘experiences’ at all.
This USA Ranch ‘Volunteering’ programme from GapYear.Com (since this article was published the specific page has subsequently been taken down by them which is why there is now no link to it) is a prime example of this. It sells itself as a ‘hands on’ experience where you will essentially learn to be a cowboy (or girl), with plenty of horse riding, fence building and other cool activities that you would expect from a cowboy ranch. All for a minimum of £1,499.
What a ‘bargain’. And I use that term in absolutely no sense of its true meaning.
This programme and many others like it have zero social or envioronmental impacts, no cause to fight for. They aren’t helping or empowering a local community or assisting a genuine aid, conservation or relief effort. They have no benefit to anyone apart from the owner of the ranch and those selling the ‘experience’, because who would turn down free labour and a hefty profit, right?
These providers are exploiting the good will and good intentions of those naive travellers who frankly may not know better, and assume that because it says volunteering on the brochure, that they will somehow be doing some good during their experience. The little practicalities of what good they are doing, who the work is benefiting is inconsequential.
A recent twitter discussion with gapyear.com, the industry provider behind the USA ranch programme, highlighted these problems when they couldn’t even answer the most basic of questions that every volunteer should ask. In fact, their only real responses were ‘it’s great that you love volunteering, but some people might like to do it for different reasons than yours’, and even worse, ‘It is important to note that this example causes no harm whatsoever.’
This may come as a shock to those running the experience (although I suspect they know full well but just don’t care), not causing harm is just not good enough. Travellers who sign up for a nice week of horse riding and fence building may not be doing any harm, but they aren’t doing any damn good either! And that is the very essence of a true volunteer experience! And frankly unless their motivations are to make a true positive impact to a community or a cause (in which case they wouldn’t be involved in these experiences anyway), I don’t really care what their motivations or reasons are for doing it, because they aren’t volunteers, it isn’t volunteering and you shouldn’t be selling it as such.
Now hanging round on a ranch, roasting a few marshmallows by a campfire and riding a few horses as you pretend to be a cowboy for a while sounds like a grand travel experience. I don’t doubt that. But what it isn’t in any way, shape or form is volunteering, and GapYear.com should be ashamed of themselves for even promoting it in this way.
I should say this isn’t the only one, I am not just picking on GapYear.com here. STA Travel, G Adventures, Real Gap and so many others sell the same type of false voluntourism. There are tons of gap year industry companies selling adventure tours as ‘volunteer’ experiences, with flashy titles such as ‘live with lion cubs in south Africa’ or ‘volunteer with children in Guatemala’. All are equally as wrong.
This is greenwashing at it’s most blatant and obvious. They are simply slapping a label of responsible tourism on their packaged experiences and are relying on the naivety of travellers and tourists to get away with it. It shouldn’t be allowed.
This is the big voluntourism lie.
Many so called volunteer programmes are absolutely nothing of the sort. Just like GapYear.com’s pretend cowboy jaunt they are holiday experiences with a volunteer label tagged on in an attempt to cash in on the lucrative responsible tourism and voluntourism markets.
This is not just a small minority of companies either, this is a large part of the gap year industry and it is doing irreparable damage to the genuine volunteer sector.
One of the major problems with this is many first time travellers are often a little naive in this respect and they are not making informed decisions when deciding to sign up to these programmes.
There is no blame attached there, it is not their fault.
When people decide to take that step of travelling the world and have that feeling of wanting to do some good, then they need the right information to be able to do that. Seeing the big glossy brochures in STA travel or the attractively named travel experiences with ‘volunteer’ slapped all over them are not the best way to get that information. So with a lack of real information and the truth of the situation they aren’t making fully informed decisions.
Travellers good will and intentions are being callously exploited by these voluntourism companies.
It is up to individual travellers themselves to do their research and find out for themselves which are the bad companies they need to avoid, and the big problem is it isn’t always obvious how to do that.
What makes a good volunteer programme?
When choosing where and who to volunteer with, it isn’t as simple as looking in an online industry brochure and seeing what experience you want to do. You have to know the credentials of the company you will be volunteering with, what good they are doing, where the profit goes and many other things besides. So what do you need to know and what do you need to ask?
- Find out what type of company it is, a non profit NGO? A charity? A for profit business or gap year experience company? That will give you a good first clue to whether it is legit or not.
- Ask about the specifics of the work itself. What is the point of the work the organisation is doing?
- Is the work there to benefit the local community in some way and does it change to meet the changing needs of that community, or is it busy work to keep voluntourists busy until the next lot come in on the profit making conveyor belt?
- Ask if the organisation is building a community project that empowers a local community and can be self sustaining.
- Find out if the organisation works with a local community or a specific cause (or both) and ask how long have they been doing so. Does the work have real roots in the local community?
- Ask if the organisation uses local businesses and local labour, or if they essentially only parachute a bunch of ‘volunteers’ in.
- Does the organisation keep track of the progress of community projects after completion?
- Does the volunteer organisation screen volunteers? If so how? What are the requirements? If they aren’t ask why because this can be a big red flag.
- Are volunteers appropriately matched with the tasks that are needed in the community?
- Are skilled volunteers utilised or are unskilled volunteers expected to do everything?
- Always ask for a specific breakdown of any fee you are paying. What exactly does it pay for and how much is used to pay for your upkeep, how much goes back to the community or the project, and how much of the profit goes to the company itself.
All of these are just basic questions and can often lead to deeper, more specific questions that need answering, but they should give you a good idea if the organisation you are volunteering for is a legitimate one or if it is a greenwashed profit company looking to exploit the goodwill of volunteers and the reputation of true volunteering companies. Any good and true organisation will be very transparent and happy to answer any of these questions, those that won’t do that are often suspect.
GapYear.com failed at the first hurdle on this account, and couldn’t – or more accurately wouldn’t – provide answers to the most basic of these questions. Their anger in their emailed response to me and the subsequent disappearance of that ‘experience’ is evidence of that.
So don’t fall for the lie. If you want a great travel experience working as a cowboy, a farmhand or anything else that these gap year companies are selling then great. Go for it. I don’t begrudge you the experience, it genuinely sounds like fun and I hope you have a great time and get value for your money. But don’t in any way kid yourselves that this is volunteering. Don’t let the greenwashed lie fool you into believing you are anything more than a tourist in this situation with absolutely no hint of a volunteering experience.
This may sound harsh, but the reality of breaking down a lie often is. But I don’t want to completely discourage anyone from volunteering at all.
The urge to help, to volunteer, is a good one. Those of you out there who have that need to help, that basic desire to put back and do something good, that is an amazing thing and should be applauded and encouraged, but in the right way.
That motivation to help and to do good has to be nurtured away from being exploited by the voluntourism model, and education and training should be used to herd it toward real volunteering where it can do some real good.
I urge all of you who want to volunteer on your travels to avoid programmes such as these like the plague. Don’t fall for the greenwashing. Don’t fall for the lie. Please do your research, ask the right questions, find out if the work you are doing is really helping and if you are the right person to give that help. Remember that volunteering is not about you or the experience you will have, it is about utilising your skills in the best way to help in a very real way.
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