voluntourism, the good, the bad, and the ugly

Voluntourism is the new buzz word these days. It is becoming very popular that it is the heated focus of the latest controversy hitting the UK travel news.

According to The Guardian, Voluntary Services Overseas or VSO, an international development charity organization very much like the U.S. Peace Corps, claims that the so-called “voluntourism” phenomenon has spawned ill-planned schemes that leave young people out of pocket – sometimes by several thousand pounds – and do little to provide sustainable and well-targeted help for local communities.

The Guardian quotes Hannah Saunders, 19, from London who spent £1,100 to teach children in Pune, India for 2 months:

“I didn’t have any training or preparation from the organisation before I went, and they didn’t expect me to have any qualifications.”

“When I arrived, although the project did fantastic work, they didn’t know I was coming or what to do with me. I didn’t have enough experience of work to know how to handle that at first, but in the end I asked them if I could work with small groups of children and things did improve. But it would be much better to have better liaison with the project while you are still at home so you can create links and work out what they need you to do.”

I wonder if this is the same Hannah Saunders, 20, also from London, who paid gapguru.com £1,400 to teach children in Pune, India for 3 months and said:

“Understanding the situation of the children was the biggest thing, I really spent a lot of time building my relationship with them but didn’t realise until the end how much they enjoyed having me there and how I have been able to make a difference to them. I recommend future volunteers to take songs, nursery rhymes, paper origami, paper shapes, anything that allows you to interact and gives a result at the end.”

The Telegraph, like The Guardian, quotes Ms. Saunders’ as follows:

“I turned up at the learning centre – a school for slum kids – and the teachers didn’t even know I was coming. It was very hard to find out what I was supposed to be doing. It wasn’t value for money, as there was very little support from the organisation before or during my time there.”

Is VSO really attacking the gap year travel providers? Are well-established volunteer travel providers like i-to-i under attack here?

I checked VSO’s official web site and here is what I found…

VSO’s latest press release advises gap year students to “ditch (un)worthy causes”. Judith Brodie, Director of VSO said:

“Spending your gap year volunteering overseas has become a rite of passage for young people and the gap year market has grown considerably. While there are many good gap year providers we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious – ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organize them. Young people want to make a difference through volunteering, but they would be better off traveling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet.”

VSO continues on to say that “the gap year market was increasingly catering to the needs of volunteers, rather than the communities they claim to support” and “urged providers to work with local communities to ensure young people are doing work that has a meaningful impact”.

VSO has devised this checklist designed to assess the gap year travel providers’ commitment to volunteering. VSO advises you to ask these important questions before you choose your gap year travel provider:

1. Will you be given a defined role and purpose?
2. Will you meet face to face with your provider and attend a selection day to assess your suitability for the volunteering opportunities and gain detailed information about the structure of your placement?
3. How much will it cost and what does this pay for?
4. How will you be supported with training and personal development needs before, during and after your placement?
5. Is the work you do linked to long-term community partnerships that have a lasting impact? And how do volunteers work in partnership with the local community?
6. Does the organisation you are going with have established offices overseas that work in partnership with local people?
7. Can your organisation guarantee you 24 hour a day health, safety and security assistance?
8. Does the organisation have a commitment to diversity amongst its volunteers?
9. How does the organisation encourage long-term awareness of real development issues?
10. How will your work be monitored and evaluated so that others can build on what you have done?

I personally think the UK media has overblown the issue. When I first read Times Online’s news article, I thought jeez VSO surely sounds bitter. It doesn’t want to share a piece of the pie. Maybe VSO is feeling threatened by the rise of for-profit volunteer travel companies, but taking VSO’s statements in full context, it is simply throwing out fair warning and offering a smart and practical guide to choosing a gap year travel provider.

Many for-profit travel companies are jumping in on this new exploding opportunity of volunteers wanting to travel overseas that, like any other booming business, money-loving vultures are likely to jump in on the same opportunity, misleading you, and taking away your hard-earned money. But not all volunteer travel is a scam. And not all volunteers have the same needs, desires, and expectations. So be the informed consumer. Please shop wisely.

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