When I came to university I had no idea just how many gap year students there were – in fact, in halls everyone on my floor had taken one, and suddenly I was the odd one out. Of course, there could be any number of reasons why someone took a year or two out before university, but it has become somewhat of a tradition for people to volunteer abroad on their ‘gap yah’ in order to help people who are less well-off and to really ‘find themselves.’ Finding yourself and what you care about whilst helping others seems like a fantastic idea, except for the fact that voluntourism is becoming increasingly problematic.
Many travel abroad to build schools or homes for communities that need them, which is a perfectly good cause and something that we should definitely be involved in. But what qualifies you, an 18 year old boy or girl, fresh out of sixth form or college with no experience of building anything that wasn’t flat-packed from Ikea, to help build a school abroad? What are you contributing to the project apart from incredibly unskilled labour? Admittedly, your presence is boosting the local economy by making it into a tourist destination, but in the process you’re taking jobs away from local workers who would do a far better job. In some cases, the work by tourists has been so bad that local builders tear down the work done during the day at night and rebuild, all to keep up the illusion that you are helping.
I wholeheartedly encourage those among us who are qualified to help abroad to go and do so, whether they be engineers, medical staff or teachers, but for the rest of us, it’s best to stay at home. Your time would be better spent raising money through bucket collections, bake sales, charity runs or signing up for schemes like Give As You Earn to give a little of your pay-check to charity every month. The only reason why you would choose to go abroad over helping in your local community when your current skill set is of no use to anyone, especially when you don’t even speak the local dialect, is for a bunch of pretty pictures to upload to Facebook whilst making yourself feel better about the gross inequalities in the world. Volunteering at a food bank is far less exciting than volunteering in India, and you almost certainly won’t get as many likes on your profile picture if it’s you with a homeless man over a picture of you in your ‘gap yah’ trousers somewhere out in Africa, but what does it say about us if this is all we really care about?
By placing more value on photo opportunities and having something to brag about for years to come over the genuine impact you’re having on communities, you’re perverting the purpose of charity. Charity should be about helping others, not making you feel good about yourself or giving you something interesting to talk about. There’s nothing wrong with travelling, embracing new cultures and learning about the world we live in, but by volunteering abroad in the knowledge that your efforts would be better spent elsewhere, you’re ultimately damaging the people you are trying to help.
I’m not saying that we should choose to help people at home before we help those abroad, or that some causes are more worthy than others, what I’m saying is that we need to be more effective in how we spend our time and money. An expensive trip abroad isn’t worth the hassle if the help we’re giving is basically useless, and the cost of flights and accommodation would be better off donated directly to charities. Choosing to volunteer in Nepal for a mere 17 days with YUSU this summer isn’t going to make a big enough difference to make the expense worth it, nor should we pretend it is. I think it’s time we start calling voluntourism by what it really is – a glorified holiday that isn’t helping anyone.
Bottom Line: The money spent travelling abroad would be better off donated directly to charity