Voluntourism and the truth behind the “gap yah”

Image: Chris Hill

Image: Chris Hill

With the New Year ringing in tomorrow, I hope I’m not alone in my frantic efforts to find a New Year’s Resolution. Of course, after finding one, there’s the matter of sticking to it: in the majority of cases, these resolutions are often forgotten by the end of January. However, for those with a desire to make the most of 2015 and ensure it is a year to remember, the growing craze of ‘voluntourism’ may be appealing.

This new phenomena has been growing in popularity over the past couple of years. The aim of ‘voluntourism’ is to provide an opportunity for students and others to travel and submerge themselves in different cultures, partaking in local activities: the key purpose being to improve the lives of local citizens and aid the development of less fortunate communities and countries.

Go Overseas’s 2014 Official Volunteer Abroad Trends Abroad Report revealed that the three most popular destinations for ‘voluntourists’ are currently the Philippines, followed by India and Thailand, with the most popular focus of volunteer programme being medical followed by teaching and wildlife. However, as a result of the International Volunteering Conference held back in October 2014, the beneficial nature of ‘voluntourism’ has come under fire. Many now believe that it would be more worth while for gap year students to volunteer with causes closer to home.

One in five of the UK population currently live in poverty; for every five people, daily life for one is a continuous struggle. It is this kind of statistic that, in part, sheds doubt on the value of volunteers paying to go abroad for the purpose of making a difference. Many argue that it isn’t possible to tackle international issues until we acknowledge and solve the issues closer to home.

The debatable benefits of volunteer abroad programmes are highlighted by Mark Watson, executive director of Tourism Concern who claims that “the desire to travel and experience new cultures around the globe is commendable, as is the desire to volunteer, however it is debatable whether many volunteering opportunities bring real benefits to host communities and many exploit the good intentions of well-meaning volunteers.”

While the desire may be commendable, the International Volunteering Conference revealed that travelling volunteers often take the jobs of local people preventing internal economic strengthening of the less developed countries. In addition to this, Philippa Biddle revealed that, whilst on a volunteering trip to Tanzania, the volunteers work was dismantled overnight and rebuilt by local workers. It has become clear that, however honest the intentions and motives of ‘voluntourists’, they rarely have the skills to complete the purpose of their trip to an adequate standard and their money would be better spent on employing and paying the wages of local citizens.

With all of this being said, it would be both unfair and untrue to state that ‘voluntourism’ is a complete waste of time. Laura Woodward of Raleigh International states that “there are still pressing issues across the globe where young, international volunteers can make a real difference”. While some volunteer programmes do take advantage of the good intentions of volunteers, the need for international aid is undeniable. Volunteering abroad does not prevent people from volunteering closer to home in the future. As long as it is with a reputable agency, it undoubtedly does more good than it does harm.

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