Charity tourism: Are benevolent gap year students doing more harm than good?

Charity tourism: Are benevolent gap year students doing more harm than good?

We all know how the story goes. After gaining three A Levels and scoring a place at university, gap year students shoot off for three months to save the world. They do a homestay, attempt to teach some bewildered Third World kids some English and maybe do a bit of hiking or skydiving while they've got the opportunity. Then, they return, kitted out in tie-dye harem trousers, and prayer beads and spouting quotes from Shantaram, making sure they get back in time for the Fresher's Week parties. At the end of the summer, they've got some great material for the "tell us an interesting fact about yourself" awkward first seminar group - but ultimately the world is left behind, completely and utterly unsaved.

Charity tourism, "voluntourism", "gap yahs" - whatever you want to call them - have been going for decades now. But while the idea of wealthy westerners travelling to developing countries to carry out volunteer work initially sounds like a worthwhile idea, study the growing phenomenon a little closer and it becomes clear that it's actually insidiously problematic. In fact, just a few years ago volunteers were being named the "new colonialists" by critics who scathingly wrote that many gap years were done purely for the benefit of the westerner who flies off under the pretence of helping others.

This title seems needlessly harsh. More often than not gap year students set off with the best of starry-eyed intentions in the naive hope of putting a dent in the disparity between the First and Third World countries. However, the label does shed some light on the unsavoury underbelly of voluntourism; the poison bubbling under the surface that asks: Are volunteers qualified for the positions they take? Is the multi-million industry pocketing well-meaning foreigners' money? And does the exploitive practice harm locals more than it helps them?

One celebrity who has been vocal in demanding answers for these questions is Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling. After being asked to retweet an appeal from tourism charity, she caused a stir on social after posting her flat-out refusal, stating that it did nothing else but institutionalised child orphanages and profoundly damaged the young people involved. She had a point. The majority of the time, the programs offered by charities ask for thousands of pounds and it's often difficult to see where this money goes. But damn easy to guess where.

Year-out student Olivia Kelly can vouch for this. Having spent a month and a half volunteering in a Nepalese working children's school teaching English, she came to realise the pitfalls of voluntourism. Talking to VT, she stated: "When I booked a place on the program, I thought the pricing was quite extreme, but it was still one of the cheaper ones I'd seen and I really wanted to help while out there, so I went for it. Online, the website had claimed that the money I paid went mainly to the host family, which I believe it did, and to the working children's school to help them buy supplies, which I definitely don't believe it did."

She continued, "When I got there, the school had a few rickety tables, not enough pens, pencils and workbooks and a few half-broken toys that previous volunteers had bought with their own money when they'd got there and that the kids would fight over every single day. I - and all of the others who had volunteered before me had given so much money and it had obviously just gone in the organisation's pockets. I was gutted."

So, is volunteering merely a shady way for charities to steal student's cash, send them into a classroom and give them a pat on the back on their way out? Sadly, with organisations asking for more and more money, all evidence points to the affirmative. Many orphanages and schools in the developing world appear to have become businesses as much as they are charity out to rake in as much cash as they possibly can with no thought for the consequences. Furthermore, not only do children seem to be missing out on the money that slips through their fingertips, reports suggest that they are being damaged by the "one-in, one-out" attitude that is prevalent in these companies.

A 2010 report on “AIDS orphan tourism” by the South Africa-based Human Sciences Research Council stated: “Short-term volunteer tourists are encouraged to ‘make intimate connections’ with previously neglected, abused, and abandoned young children. However, shortly after these so-called connections have been made, tourists leave … [and] many of the children they leave behind have experienced another abandonment to the detriment of their short- and long-term emotional and social development.”

This makes complete sense. Look at most volunteering websites and you'll see that they offer programs anywhere from one week to one year long. Consider how many people go on these trips, then ponder on how many programs there are out there, then think about all of the children and how many do-gooder tourists they wave hello and farewell to with the passing of each year.

Whereas the gap year students who visit these Third World countries are left with pictures on their walls and a stealthy boost to their CV, the young people the visited are left behind to be abandoned by yet another foreigner in a few weeks time. Although many well-intentioned tourists genuinely care for the children they spend time with, they need to have a long, hard think about the instability that they've left those children with. Not to mention the instability they could have unwittingly sprung upon other people in that community.


Voluntourism has been heavily criticised in the past for stealing employment from locals. Take writer Pippa Biddle for instance. She penned a blog post featured on the Huffington Post entitled The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism, which described her volunteering experience in Tanzania and how her and her fellow private boarding school students were so awful at building houses that the locals men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks they had lain and rebuild the structure overnight so the pupils would remain blissfully unaware of their failure. She highlights the fact that sometimes international aid is often not helpful at all to the local community, sometimes even burdening them with groups of ill-qualified but enthusiastic students when they should perhaps have people who are part of their culture, speak their language and could actually make a difference.

Again, gap year student Olivia Kelly agrees, stating that her charity in Nepal gave her little training to teach the children English: "I wasn't qualified as a teacher when I went, but was promised a week of training before I met the kids. The week of 'training' turned out to be an hourlong Nepali class and a brief talk with the organiser on tips in the classroom. Me and my friend were so unprepared when we got there, we didn't speak the language and had trouble communicating with the kids, let alone teaching them anything. Eventually, we gave up trying to teach and just talked to them and played games with them. Although I don't think they'll be winning any English-spelling prizes anytime soon, I do think this was the best thing to do. In the space of one month, we weren't going to change their lives, or make them fluent in English, but we could teach them a little, give them a little bit of fun in their day and answer their questions about another culture."

So, is there anything good about charity tourism, or is it time to pack up shop, go skydiving and leave the struggling communities across the world to it? Of course not. Volunteering can be great - if you do it right. Writers Victoria Smith and Xavier Font have stated that voluntourism charities need to take more responsibility for what they're doing, writing: “These organizations have a responsibility to ensure their programs have positive and not negative impacts and should offer financial transparency. This means proper needs assessments, appropriately recruited, matched and skilled volunteers working with locals, with clear objectives, sustainable program management, reporting and lasting impact and respect.”

Essentially, doing a gap year right takes a lot of research or it could just end up being detrimental to the community. Be smart about where your cash is going. Know the skills you have to offer. Consider the negative impact your trip could have on that tiny village. Because if you don't, no one else will.