5 criticisms of volunteering abroad that don’t make sense

by Poi on May 23, 2013

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By Andrew Tipp

Gap year volunteering gets a bad reputation sometimes. Every year thousands of teens and twenty-somethings head out to see the world, to experience different cultures and make some kind of personal, significant contribution.

But they have to overcome some pretty stinging arguments and criticism before they do; from the media to the proverbial man in the street, a lot of opinions and viewpoints fly around questioning the merit of travelling abroad in an attempt to do some good.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, a lot of these criticisms don’t make sense. Second, many young people can believe them and be put off volunteering.

So what are the uncredible criticisms, the questionable queries? Here are five of the most common claims countered.

1. Volunteers should just send money abroad

You hear this all the time. ‘Don’t go yourself, just send money’. It’s a ridiculous argument. Why? Because most volunteers do give money. They pay for projects, they invest money into local economies. Oh, and they also give their time.

‘Just sending money’ is essentially charity. Which, again, a lot of volunteers contribute towards as well. A lot of them also pay for sustainable projects in the form of Foreign Aid – through their taxes.

Anyway, all these things miss the point of volunteering, which is to see the world and experience cultures by giving up time and money and immersing yourself in one specific place. None of which can be accomplished with a credit card and website payment screen.

gap year Volunteer

2. ‘Voluntourism’ is selfish – local communities don’t benefit

This is another line which misses the point most volunteering projects, which is to act as a cultural exchange. By putting UK volunteers in often remote and rural schools, orphanages and communities, Westerners are gaining a cultural experience – but so are local kids.

By meeting and befriending UK volunteers, some kids in Peru or Ghana can learn about a world beyond their own. This isn’t a messiah/missionary thing; it’s a fact: in poor developing villages not everyone has the internet. Local kids will meet young people from different cultures, ethnicities and religions. And they will be fascinated. And that’s worthwhile.

3. All volunteers are ‘Gap Yah’ rich kids

It’s a stereotype that gap year volunteers are all rich, privileged teenagers who either didn’t pay their way or don’t care about their placement. Or think they’re saving the world. Or all three.

This cliched view of volunteers just isn’t true. About 80 per cent of volunteers raise money for travelling through fundraising, working, applying for bursaries and budgeting. They pay their way and then some.

Yes, of course there are some wealthy 19-year-old Gap Yah kids out there that will bore everyone at university the following September with their ‘anecdotes’ from Malawi – but these are the minority, not the majority.

Volunteering

4. Volunteering projects don’t give you any real skills

Seriously? This is just a crazy argument. Volunteering takes you out of your comfort zone and puts you down in a place where you need to learn new skills to survive.

Volunteering teaches you to budget, manage, be organised and take the initiative. It allows your to build confidence and self-esteem, to accomplish things you never thought possible when you flew out. It genuinely makes you more employable.

Even if you’re working on a menial task in a laborious role, you’re still going to take something constructive and positive away from that experience.

5. Volunteers should just stay in the UK and work on projects there

Wow. Just wow. As I pointed out earlier, volunteering abroad is partly about experiencing the world, discovering and exploring other cultures, traditions and wildlife. Obviously, that’s not going to happen by volunteering somewhere down the road, is it?

Does that mean local UK volunteering isn’t worthwhile? No. Why can’t you do both? In fact, it looks like UK volunteering has increased in recent years, so maybe domestic volunteering might one day compete for coolness with placements abroad?

Of course, there are lots of valid criticisms of the volunteering phenomenon. It’s a largely unregulated industry, and questions over the merit of certain projects, the ethical concerns of putting unskilled volunteers in skilled positions, taking jobs from locals, the trustworthiness of some companies, and the treatment of both locals and volunteers… All these are justified challenges and these issues should be raised.

But it’s important to sort the real issues from the imagined ones, and there are plenty of worthwhile volunteering programs abroad offered by gap year travel companies.

What do you think of my arguments above? What have I missed that you’d add? Let me know by leaving some comments.

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About the author

Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor. He used to work as a travel editor for advice and community site gapyear.com, and has spent more than a year backpacking and volunteering around the world. His favourite countries are Bolivia and Sri Lanka, and he would love to visit the Malay Archipelago. 

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

elaine schoch @ carpetravel.com May 23, 2013 at 10:31 am

These are all great points. I really like number four and think it’s a great reason people should do it, especially before going to school. That way they can have a better understanding of who they are and who they want to be. Then it makes figuring out school – majors/careers – a lot easier and more meaningful. Just my two cents.

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Jessica May 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

Great post! I’ve heard so many criticisms of “voluntourism”, and I just don’t get it. I do think it is important to do your research before volunteering and make sure that you’re working on a project that actually benefits a community; but, provided it’s done responsibly, voluntourism can be a really positive thing.

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Anya May 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Very informative article. Its wrong to say that only rich kids volunteer. anybody with a generous mind and heart can do so.
http://www.rajasthantourismntours.com/rajasthan-tourist-attractions/

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jennifer June 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Great article – love the reference to ‘gap yah’ kids. I live to travel but unfortunately I have to work hard and save my pennies to do it rather than be handed it, and I wouldnt want to be tarred with the same brush as everyone that is handed it. Although I agree that paying money to volunteer is still worthwhile to both the community and the person voltuneering, I think that alot of companies expoilt this and end up making huge profits, when more of the money should really go to the communities.

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Emma Spires June 6, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Great article! I hear the theory that it’s only rich kids that volunteer all the time – it is so narrow minded!

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Ivica June 21, 2013 at 10:32 am

Well, these arguments against volunteering really doesn’t have any sense. Volunteering abroad is more than just volunteering, it is about meeting new people from all over the world and when you work on something together with other people it makes you all more connected with them and in the same time you learn something new about yourself.

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Rebecca July 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

I didn’t hear until recently that some people are against volunteering abroad. I was quick to assume there arguments would be rubbish. While I still think there are many benefits and completely understand your point of view (and share much of it), there is an interesting dimension to volunteering in orphanages that I heard recently in an argument against the benefits of volunteering, that seems very valid and worth thinking about. I couldn’t find the original article but here’s a quote along the same lines…

“Most children in orphanages live with a deep sense of abandonment and most do not have a long-term carer who they are attached to. It is therefore only natural that they form strong bonds with caring volunteers who come to look after them for a while, and who show them care and attention. This bond may include the hope of adoption.

When the volunteer leaves after several weeks or months, the wounds reopen. When this happens month after month, year after year, many children learn to protect themselves from further harm and stop creating human bonds, cauterising themselves from love and hope.”

Some other points I think were that orphanages are built where they can tap on foreigners wanting to help, they take the money for books etc but the guys who run the place use the money for other things. It happens frequently enough that good intentions turn into opportunity for furthering problems in a place. While we feel good about ourselves helping, it might be worth it to think about how our kind actions might be feeding the problem due to the existence of douchebags in this universe.

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Jonny Blair August 19, 2013 at 7:47 am

I agree with this Poi and Kirsty. But I must say through the years I havent met many “rich kids” that volunteer, I’ve found it to be the opposite. Those who have had to work hard for their experiences in life are often those who care more about orphanages and the under priviliged. I visited an orphanage a few weeks ago in Tanzania and have been invited back again next year. I think it’s down to the individual if you’re into it or not. Sending money is a cheaters way out as well – think of the amazing experiences you’ll have when youre out there working with new people and immersing yourself in a new culture! Safe travels. Jonny

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Tammy July 6, 2015 at 5:23 pm

Hi Jonny,
Sending money is not a cheater’s way out, and as someone who is taking the time to give yourself to others, it is sad that you would judge others- they didn’t have to do anything at all. Everyone has different responsibilities in this world, and if they give 50 bucks that they could have used to buy themselves a sweater, and research has been made to find a needy organization that will use the money to actually help their citizens, then a kind gesture has been made. Not all of us have been made to save the whole wide world, some of us take care of people at home- some of us barely have time to take care of people at home! Maybe we should talk with these people we are supposedly “helping,” see what they say they want. Maybe voluntourism really does help some, but it probably doesn’t help everyone- going in and out of others’ lives when one has been through trauma is not very effective either. But the point is that when people are genuinely trying to help others, if we have a better suggestion it should be brought up with kindness and desire to educate to make society a better place. I don’t know what the right answer is to save everyone- but I do know that if someone tells me that they visited a orphanage in Tanzania, they formed a genuine bond with someone, and is going to make a commitiment to try and stay and touch and find out what they truly need, I will equate that as good as someone who took the time to research and find an organization to send a bit of money to.

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Oliver March 31, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Quite a complex topic I think. I like the idea of volunteering very much and I think it can be unique experience indeed. However, it can be a bit frustrating to see that quite a lot of money volunteers pay for their projects ends up in administration. I certainly see the need of efforts in terms of organization, advertising and so on, but it somehow makes volunteering sort of a privilege. At least if try to sort something out before leaving or solely opt for a volunteering experience instead of trying to find a project here and there during long term travels.
I also remember an old article on the Thorn Tree forum which included quite some good points as well in terms of the temporary approach of volunteering. Especially the impact of volunteering in orphanages was considered to some degree questionable due to the coming of going of ” psychological parents” and the lack of stability in terms of relationships. Basically pretty much what Rebecca outlined in her comment above.
In general I adore the idea of volunteering, but I think one needs to get the approach right. It is a potentially enriching exchange indeed, but it can be quite a tightrope walk as well…
Oliver´s last blog post ..Josh McBride ~ The Head And The Heart

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Anna Purna June 20, 2014 at 12:52 am

Six reasons to NOT volunteer while abroad in developing countries:

1) Because you displace a local worker.

2) Because you encourage a brain-drain: Example: There are more Malawian educated doctors in Manchester in the UK than in all of Malawi. Why? Because they cannot compete with free foreign (often amateur) volunteers, many of whom are actually paying to get medical experience practicing on poor Africans.

3) Because you deprive a local person the opportunity to gain experience by solving a local problem themselves. If someone always comes in from outside to fix problems then nobody at home believes they can do it themselves.

4) Because you encourage short-term solutions that last the length of your volunteering tenure when what is often needed is long-term solutions.

5) Because by volunteering you actually encourage those in power to manufacture crisis so that they can then profit off of the solutions. One need not look far in East Africa to see that those who had a hand creating crisis also profited from the hotel/transport/food delivery/etc. of those who came to solve the problem.

6) Because by volunteering you are telling the local population that they are broken and need to be fixed. From your limited perspective that may be true. Once on the ground volunteers often learn the greatest lesson, that the world is more complex than they could ever imagine.

Read Paul Thereoux’s Dark Star Safari. He’s a former Peace Corp worker who went back to African forty years later. Very interesting.

Also, watch (or read) Dambisa Moyo speak about it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyf2Cf5GkTY

Go, see, treat locals as if you have something to LEARN from them, not something to give them.

As an alternative I would suggest that you go, be respectful an

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Nadine July 10, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Obviously a bit behind the times as this is an old article, but it seems like the focus of this article is on what the volunteer can gain from the experience rather than what the community gains. Ideally, anytime someone volunteers they should gain skills and experience. However isn’t the point of volunteering to help someone? And does this type of volunteering actually benefit the community?

Often, articles about voluntourism are accompanied by photos of poor black kids (or other people of colour) with a white volunteer (like the article I came to your blog from) which perpetuates myths and stereotypes. It simplifies the problem and the solution.

Shortly after the tsunami, I found myself in Malaysia and Indonesia. I was asked if I wanted to go to Banda Aceh and help. I totally did want to help. But I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I’m also not a civil engineer. Really, I would have been one more person needing fresh water and accommodation. Children in orphanages are not “experiences” or opportunities for building skills. While seeing outsiders may broaden their perspective, it may also make them feel their poverty even more.

There have always been rumors that orphanages take children from poor families simply to enhance their appeal. If western tourists expect to see orphans, there better be some! This is not always the case, but sending unskilled tourists into poverty-stricken areas so the tourists can feel good and build skills is not something I would be keen to support.

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