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The Responsible Traveller: volunteering and the reality gap

Posted by Richard Hammond at 10:00 on Wednesday 02 September 2009

Increasingly, travellers are volunteering for placements abroad to work on conservation and development projects, thinking they will be benefit local communities while seeing some incredible parts of the world. But these trips can fail to live up to the lofty expectations - and the price, writes Richard Hammond...





A helping hand on the Bokamoso Bike programme, S. Africa Photo: Travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk

The Reality Gap
“Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” This ancient Chinese proverb reflects the underlying ethos of volunteering. Whether it’s just a weekend break or a long term placement overseas, the idea is that by living and working on scientific, conservation or development projects volunteers learn new skills, gain an understanding of local culture while giving something back to the places they visit. At least that’s the message sold by an increasing number of companies looking to cash in on the buoyant gap year market…

After leaving university, I volunteered for Raleigh International on an expedition to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, mapping coral reefs and working on conservation initiatives to protect the indigenous birds, such as the pink pigeon and Mauritian Kestrel. Back then, gap year projects like these were arranged by just a handful of voluntary organisations, requiring volunteers to raise thousands of pounds for several months of hard graft.

But times have changed. According to Market Research company Mintel, by 2006, the UK gap year was estimated to be over half a million people who spent US$5 billion, while the market for volunteering grew 5-10% from 2001-2006, reaching a value of US$150 million in 2006.

The typical gap year voluntary travel market has also diversified into a more casual (and usually short term) form known as “voluntourism” where travellers typically tag on to their holiday a few hours or days of volunteer work. Hands Up Holidays, one of the leading voluntourism companies, declares on its website: “Meaningful Volunteering + Luxury Sightseeing = An Inspiring Vacation.” The company offers over 100 voluntourism experiences in over 30 countries, typically 14 days long, such as a ‘Taste of Volunteering’ trip touring the north-east Natal province of Brazil, which includes helping out on a variety of projects such as constructing a cistern and reservoir, honey extraction, reforestation, and house building.

The opportunities for volunteering have never been greater, but there is increasing concern that not all placements deliver on what they promise. According to Catherine Raynor ofVoluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which organises work for volunteers from six months to two years in 41 developing countries, “While there are many good gap-year providers, there are a number of badly planned schemes that are spurious. Some volunteering gap year trips that cost several thousand pounds ultimately benefit no one apart from the travel companies that organise them”.

Delve into the active discussion groups of the increasing number of social networking sites dedicated to volunteering and among the tales of amazing experiences, you’re also likely to find those that tell of woe. Optimistic students armed with good intentions have arrived to find the organisers are not expecting them, or worse, they are not welcome by the host community.

Hannah Saunders, 19, from London, who paid a commercial organisation over £1,000 to teach English and maths to children in India found that the reality was very different from what she expected:

“I didn’t have any training or preparation from the organisation before I went, and they didn’t expect me to have any qualifications. I had a really tough time and suffered from culture shock, as India is so different from anywhere else, which I wasn’t ready for. I turned up at the learning centre 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.”

So how can you tell whether a volunteering experience will turn out to be worthwhile? Key ‘volunteering’ into a search engine and it will throw up hundreds of organisations offering everything from rigorous science research to little more than glorified holidays in the sun. According to Peter Lynch, author of the recently published Bradt Guide to Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering, it’s virtually impossible to choose the right kind of trip just by looking at the various websites. “The most important thing is to think through what is important for you, what is you want to hope to get out of the trip and what do you hope to leave as your contribution, environmentally and culturally. It’s easy to side-tracked with all the glitz, but half of all volunteering companies are really just tourism companies.”

Kate Stefanko at Travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk, which sends volunteers to community projects in Gambia, Madagascar, Nepal, Indonesia, Pakistan and South Africa, says that often the most worthwhile projects originate within the destination where local people have sought out specific help from agencies to select volunteers. “The bottom line is that the communities have to be involved and have the final say in the decision to accept volunteers and feel comfortable to turn down volunteers if they feel they are inappropriate.”

Although there is no governing body that regulates the volunteering industry, Comhlámh – an Irish association of development workers – has drawn up a Code of Good Practice for volunteers and agencies (www.volunteeringoptions.org). Comhlámh’s website also has a list of volunteering projects worldwide. The Ethical Volunteering website (ethicalvolunteering.org)has some useful tips on how to choose the right agency depending on how much time you have to give, and www.gapadvice.org provides an advisory service for gap year placements.

The most responsible organizations offer pre-departure training and provide support and further training during the project, including someone in the destination who has direct responsibility for volunteers with adequate provision in case things go wrong. VSO’s Catherine Raynor says this kind of support is crucial in managing expectations of both the volunteer and the volunteering organisation: “Life in developing countries is incredibly challenging and it’s not right for everyone. You can have the best professional skills in the world but if you can’t cope on a personal level with the challenges that are going to be thrown at you then it’s going to be a dissatisfactory experience for you and for the people you are working with.”


An edited version of this article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in his column ‘The Responsible Traveller’ in the September issue of Geographical, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also: Five Great Volunteering Trips

See previous article: The responsible traveller: ethical trekking

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