Why students will pay a high price for the Gap Year with a conscience

discovers that travelling and trying to save the planet could cost the earth

Sam Fugill discovers that travelling and trying to save the planet could cost the earth

Taking a gap year to do some volunteering sounded like exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to do after my degree. It seemed like the ideal way to bridge the gap between my university drinking days and the cold sober life of the world of work. It would be the chance for me to travel, to experience a different culture, to gain all of those exciting skills that I’m told would be incredibly appealing to graduate employers, and so on. A year spent volunteering would also prove to my cynical friends that I do indeed have at least a handful of moral fibers within my body and a little compassion for those who aren’t as fortunate as I.

There was no shortage of companies willing to take me abroad to fulfil my ambitions in having ‘the year of my life’; all claimed to have the best packages, offering me everything from the reassuringly named ‘in-country logistical support’ to the eyebrow-raising ‘emergency evacuation insurance’. Faced with the child in a sweetshop dilemma, I had the somewhat difficult task of deciding which company would have the honour and privilege of taking me abroad.

Having filled in numerous ‘contact us’, ‘get in touch’ and ‘find out more’ forms on charity websites and sent countless emails, it wasn’t long until our local postman began to deliver lots of brightly coloured and exciting looking information packs. Enclosed was a whole host of papers, brochures and DVDs each with an arsenal of information specially prepared to bombard my impressionable mind. The projects each company offered really were exceptional. I could be helping eight year olds in Ecuador practice their skills in English language, saving endangered turtles in Equatorial New Guinea or building a school from mud bricks in Nigeria. The choices were endless.

Then I discovered that this gap year was going to be somewhat of a pricey affair. Of course, I was aware that I would have to pay a little bit, but not even three years of paying tuition fees had prepared me for this. For a three month trip (and remember that I was really wanting to travel for a year), I was given quotes in excess of three thousand pounds. Add to this the additional cost of flights which, when flying half way around the world, was going to be quite a substantial extra. This all added up to be quite lot of money, and it is even more when you are leaving university having acquired debt amounting to something in the region of ten thousand pounds.

I wasn’t, however, going to let this setback force me to abandon my ambitious plans. I wanted to travel, and I refused to be put off this early. If the plans had to be revised and six months of grim temporary work would have to separate me from the exciting day when I finally boarded the plane, then so be it. After all, volunteering was going to be self-sacrificial hard work, and it seemed to me that there would be no harm in practicing before I went.

Then I began to get lots of hounding telephone calls from various companies, “Hello? Mr Fugill? We are ever so keen to have you travel with us, and we were wondering if there is anything we can do to help you make the right decision…”. Call me naïve, but it wasn’t until these calls became more and more frequent and intense that it finally dawned on me that these apparently just-trying-to-be-helpful companies seemed incredibly keen to have me sign all of the paperwork. It wasn’t long until I realised that they weren’t going to stop until I had signed the cheque. I was about to discover some hidden costs.

I began to ask questions of the companies that called me. I wanted to know how much of the project fee actually went to the project itself. I wanted to know whether the people and communities that I wanted to help were actually going to benefit from the money I would have to raise. Although I was well aware that these companies would take a proportion to cover their own costs, the true extent of this was absolutely staggering.

One company, i-to-i travel, takes two thirds of the project fee for themselves, while Challenges Worldwide invests approximately 50 per cent of the project fee directly into the project itself. UNA Exchange, Youth Action for Peace UK and Global Vision International also maintain a degree of ambiguity regarding the breakdown of the fees that they charge. If they are not marked as not-for-profit, or registered as a charity, they are likely to be commercial companies and could be taking a large proportion of the cost for their own profit.

I spoke with some of my friends who had travelled on volunteer programs before. Kat Woolford travelled with Teaching & Projects Abroad before coming to university. Her three month journalism based project in Romania cost her in the region of three thousand pounds, a price she admits seemed excessively high. She was informed by the company that the project costs that much so that it can subsidise some of their more expensive projects, such as those in America. Another York Student, travelling with Gap Challenge in Ecuador on a conservation project, questioned the company with regards to how the money he paid for the project was spent, but was ultimately given no satisfactory answer. This was not encouraging news.

I asked what on earth could justify the companies taking from me such seemingly excessive amounts of money. Administration, handling fees, office expenses, advertising, marketing, research, publicity were all reasons quoted at me in an attempt to calm down my angry complaining. This, however, wasn’t good enough. Why should I raise all the money and do all the work to pay for the marketing campaign of a commercial company? That wasn’t what I had in mind when I decided to volunteer.

It wasn’t long before I was to come to a resigned decision. The gap year was off. If I had known that the majority of my money-making efforts had been directed towards whatever project I was to go on, then I might have been able to cope with the dead-end work needed to make it happen. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to do all of that hard work just to cover somebody’s ‘administration costs’.

Perhaps most startling was that I would have never found out about these cost breakdowns if I had never asked. This isn’t information that these companies were shouting about. Instead, the forms and web pages concerned with costs, said nothing about the money that they would be quietly setting aside for themselves. This gave the slightly misleading impression that the companies shared the same altruistic motives as the would-be-volunteers.

It seems disappointing that it’s not even possible to do some worthwhile work without lining the pockets of somebody else.

Volunteering, in peculiar contradiction to its name, seems to have become a profit-making activity.

One comment

  1. 3 Nov ’13 at 7:07 pm

    Dianne Sharma Winter

    Thanks for your honesty regarding the unregulated Voluntourism Industry. I have met many people in various locations in India and SE Asia where I live and work who have had unhappy experiences with volunteering. Its such a shame that this is happeneing but I would urge all Gap Year travelers to consider the alternatives such as supporting ethical travel in developing countries. Ethical and Rurual tourism initiatives are usually run as a local NGO with strict accountability and the benefits are visible to all.
    Travelers get to have a cultural connection and learn about the realities of local life while their hard earned money goes directly into the community that hosts them.