Gap year volunteers can do more harm than good
Published by the ipaper (29th August, 2016)
It’s that time of year: the results are in, the desired grades have been achieved and plans for the pre-university gap year can be finalised. Thousands of school-leavers are excitedly preparing to head off to exotic parts of the planet for several months of adventure and hedonism. Many will spend time also doing a spot of voluntary work, whether driven by heartfelt desire to help disadvantaged communities or simply to sprinkle something different on their curriculum vitae.
So many students fly off to far-flung parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, joined by professionals searching for something fresh in life and pensioners seeking more than a sun-lounger, that the ‘voluntourism’ sector has become a fast-booming niche of the travel industry. It is thought to be worth nearly £1.5bn a year. Scores of firms now offer ‘unforgettable’ and ‘authentic’ experiences, promising that in return for a fat cheque ‘energy and enthusiasm can help improve the lives of those less fortunate’.
The reality is rather different. For the best of intentions can lead to the worst outcomes in a complex world. These armies of well-meaning Westerners marching across the globe are all too often breaking up families, assisting poverty and undermining development with their backfiring – and sometimes backbreaking – activities in impoverished nations. Many would do more good simply spending money having fun in the sun instead of falling for delusions that they can save the poor.
The whistle was blown on this misguided industry last week by JK Rowling. The wealthy author might seem an unlikely source for such controversy, yet she has emerged as a model celebrity in the way she uses her fame. She reacted angrily when asked to tweet an appeal from a charity offering ‘volunteer experiences’ in a poor nation. ‘I will never re-tweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs,’ she said, going on to savage a sector that promotes orphans as playthings for foreigners while damaging families.
Orphanages are seen as the most appealing part of the voluntourism sector. Rich foreigners are moved by their stories and like posting selfies surrounded by the smiling poor kids they aided on social media. Yet as Rowling pointed out, many institutions are ‘money magnets’ in a business that incentivises them to be run purely for profit and treats children as commodities. Studies in places such as Bali, Cambodia and Ghana have found up to 90 per cent of those inside are not actually orphans; they are lured there with often-fraudulent promises of money, schooling or security.
It is widely accepted that children are best brought up if possible in families and close communities, not institutions. One study in Africa found institutional care up to six times more costly than alternative childcare arrangements. But the voluntourism trade fuels the growth of centres that tear apart families, often clustered around tourist attractions. Some are well-run. Others promote day trips for visitors to drop in, play and cuddle children; just imagine the furore if this occurred in our orphanages. Inevitably, there are cases of exploitation by paedophiles. Even if volunteers stay longer and do fine work, they then depart and break bonds forged with possibly damaged charges.
The core problem is poverty. Yet this is far from the only alarming aspect of a trade that can depress rather than aid development. What are the ethics of an untrained 18-year-old fresh out of school thinking they are qualified to teach, for example? The money some spend on gap year ventures could fund training of local people instead, who would drive education in their communities for decades. And rather than a Western office worker spending a few weeks building a school, surely the job is better going to a skilled local tradesperson?
Campaigners are becoming increasingly vocal about clumsy altruism doing more harm than good. Sometimes bumbling efforts would be comical if not so corrosive. Writer Pippa Biddle spent $3,000 on a two-week trip to Tanzania combining building an orphanage’s library with a safari. Her team spent six hours a day mixing cement and laying bricks – only for locals to secretly dismantle their sub-standard work and remedy it while they slept. ‘It would have been more cost-effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work,’ she said correctly.
There is a big difference between people using well-honed skills to benefit less privileged people and wealthy dilettantes thinking they can do profound good with amateurish antics in developing nations. Sadly the rise of this industry is another manifestation of the white saviour complex that lies behind a booming £100bn aid sector. Needs of poor communities are subverted by the demands of rich foreigners. And there are uncomfortable dynamics in many relationships involved, plus double standards in the idea that Westerners alone can flit around the world doing good.
I do not mean to disparage the intentions of idealists driven by the best motivations. Yet the road to hell is paved with nice ideas. If travellers really want to assist poor places rather than simply feel good, enhance their own job opportunities or grab some great selfies, then they should investigate with great care before departure rather than fall for the patter of dodgy salespeople. Maybe just go, spend money, meet people and see the world. But don’t be fooled into thinking problems of grinding poverty can be cured by well-meaning Westerners on guilt trips.