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Articles > Culture April, 14, 2015

What no one tells you about volunteering abroad

Marine Lello
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A leading overseas volunteering company offers tourists the opportunity to “Take care of orphans in Africa and go out on an authentic African safari”. I think there is something deeply unsettling about the way these two are matched…

The ‘voluntourism’ industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in travel. Profit making organisations such as World Challenge, Global Leadership Adventures (GLA) and International Volunteer HQ charge predominantly gap year students, to “make a difference” whilst having the cultural experience of a lifetime. There are a number of issues I feel arise with the way the majority of these package holiday experiences are advertised and executed and in the way that young people approach them.

A recent report by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) dubbed the industry as “outdated and colonial”. Colonial in that every iPod, pair of Reeboks and contraceptive tourists take with them accrues a powerful and different significance to the people in underdeveloped countries. We impose unrealistic cultural aspirations to the peoples we are allegedly trying to protect. It seems that westerners, instead of appreciating the cultural experience, give out footballs and pencils, sending a damaging message to the 3rd world.

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Photo By Shawn

In response to this, something I have heard from a number of people that have participated in volunteering abroad is that the damage is already done. The reaches of globalisation have already stretched to the 3rd world, western aspirations are already ingrained in the psyche of the younger generations. Therefore any way in which young people can be educated and involved in the issues affecting the 3rd world, is positive.

There has also been corruption shrouding the industry, with some seeing an opportunity in the large numbers of wealthy westerners wanting to volunteer abroad. In the Cambodian city of Sien Riep, with a population of just 100,00, there are 35 orphanages. A recent survey suggested that 75% of children living in Cambodian orphanages were not orphans. But were there in hope of receiving money and girfts from westerners. This demonstrates quite how severe this issue has become.

But another question begs to be answered – would we be able to go and look after young children in a UK orphanage, with no qualifications, experience or personal justification? The industry treats impoverished children as things to experience, play things in a travelling experience. Therefore, is it really a surprise that the whole experience is being exploited by the organisers themselves?

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Photo By Davamarie

Social media has exasperated the issue; the “overseas selfie” seems to be an essential component to any young traveller’s experience. There is a narcissism to volunteering abroad. The photo of privileged, predominately white middle class children surrounded by ragged looking orphans has become a staple of volunteering abroad, with the young people involved seeming to care more about the likes on their pictures than the symbolic divide they create between rich and poor, a divide that seems uncomfortably racial.

Whilst there are issues the main one is possibly just that people don’t actually realise that what they are doing might be wrong. Tim Meek, a Scottish poet and environmentalist wrote this about a young woman and her experience of travelling the third world:

“She fumigates her underwear, with the scented smoke from an African fire, and believes herself a seasoned mind. Hearing no voice other than her own, above and beyond the tower of Babel.”

I think overall, volunteering abroad can be a positive experience if it motivates young people to help others in a responsible way. But if we want to help others, we don’t need to pay thousands of pounds to experience poverty abroad, not to mention the taxes we have to pay to send just 24 volunteers abroad! Charity starts at home. I for one have never seen a selfie with a homeless person. However, if a more exciting experience entices young people to volunteer abroad, vigilance is essential, spend time researching reputable companies, that offer some training before setting off and that offer programs to match your personal skills and experience.

Have you volunteered abroad? What was your experience like? Do you think this may widen the racial and economical gap, at some unconscious level?

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  1. Samantha

    I think its good for people

  2. My brother is currently spending his gap year in Honduras (Central America) which is a reasonably poor country. He is on an island called Roatán and the majority of its inhabitants are black. He works in a school teaching English to predominantly Spanish speaki children. He is having the time of his life and doing a gap year overseas is definitely not outdated. Myself and my family visited him in the Easter holidays and we saw the impact he was having in helping the children learn English and helping to improve the school and community. You cannot suggest that gap years are outdated without spending a year abroad. My brother would tell you that it is the best thing he has ever done and I intent to take a gap year to either Chile or the Dominican Republic to do a similar thing. Many of my friends want to do the same so I can tell you it is certainly not outdated and it is one of the best things you can do with your life