Viewpoint: Is gap year volunteering a bad thing?

Backpack, camera, compass, multi-tool

Volunteering abroad to build schools or dig wells might make people feel good about themselves - but it can be detrimental to those who are supposed to be helped, writes tour company founder Daniela Papi.

I've volunteered all over the world - building homes in Papua New Guinea, doing post-tsunami work in Sri Lanka, helping paint a school in Thailand - and I used to think it was the best way to travel.

In 2005 I even organised my own volunteer trip - a bike ride across Cambodia with five friends. We were going to raise funds to build a school, and teach students we met along the way about the environment and health.

There turned out to be more than one small problem. We didn't really know that much about the environment or health - or Cambodia for that matter.

About the author

Daniela Papi

Daniela Papi founded a tour company based on her principles.

Hear more from her on Radio 4's Four Thought on Wednesday 1 May at 20:45 BST or download the Four Thought podcast

Much of the money we had raised for other small projects had been wasted, or landed in corrupt hands. And that school we helped to build? Well, when I arrived to see it, I found a half-empty building.

I decided to stay in Cambodia a bit longer to see how we could better use our time and money. That bit longer eventually turned into six years living in Cambodia and that first school building turned into an education NGO (non-governmental organisation).

To raise money for our work, I started a volunteer travel company that led hundreds of volunteers on trips to Cambodia.

At first, our tours looked a lot like that first bike ride, with foreigners coming in to "serve" people in places they knew very little about. I slowly stopped believing in our "voluntourism" offerings and began to see that young people didn't need more fabricated opportunities to "serve" but rather opportunities to learn how to better contribute their time and money in the future.

I feel that the growing practice of sending young people abroad to volunteer is often not only failing the communities they are meant to be serving, but also setting these travellers, and by extension our whole society, up for failure in the long run.

From half-built school to home of an education NGO in Cambodia The school - now housing an NGO - that Daniela Papi helped build in Cambodia

Hundreds of thousands of young people are going abroad to volunteer each year, as part of school requirements, to build their CVs, and as part of gap year trips.

Yet much of this demand is fuelled by the belief that because we come from financially wealthier countries, we have the right, or the obligation, to bestow our benevolence on people. Never mind if we don't speak the language, don't have the skills or experience to qualify for the jobs we're doing, or don't know anything about what life is like "over there".

Gap Yah

  • Viral videos by comedy group Unexpected Items that spoof well-heeled types on gap years - or "yahs", as their drawn-out vowels have it
  • Features Orlando (actor Matt Lacey) on the phone to his friend Tarquin
  • Each anecdote about his adventures abroad ends "... then I just chundered everywah"
  • "I think at this difficult time, the thing they probably need most is to have a Western presence" - Orlando, organising a fundraiser for "Haiti, in Africa"

As a former serial volunteer myself, I'm not in any way trying to criticise the good intentions of these volunteer travellers - I know from my own experience that our desire to help is sincere - but I now also know that good intentions are not enough.

Our lack of critical engagement about international volunteering is creating a double standard.

When someone goes for a work experience or internship placement in a law firm or an accounting company, they don't expect to be leading a case in a courtroom, or managing their own clients - they understand their number one job is to learn (and bring the coffee). Yet when we go abroad, we sometimes forget that we have to learn before we can serve.

It's like we think we are all Clark Kent. At home we slave away and work hard to be useful in our jobs, but then we enter a magical phone booth and - ta-dah - we take off to a far-away country and somehow our Superman suit, or our volunteer T-shirt, gives us all of the power and knowledge we need to save the world.

We're teaching our next generation of leaders that development work is easy, and that their skills are so valuable to the people abroad that it is worth donating money to send them to help.

And we're teaching them that, just because they come from the UK or the US, they are in a position of superiority over the people they are going to "serve".

Start Quote

A number of volunteers are completely unsupervised - you just walk in and play with the kids”

End Quote

We must stop volunteering abroad from becoming about us fulfilling our dreams of being heroes. The travellers are not just missing out on learning the lessons that lead to more sustainable changes in themselves and in the world, but they are also often negatively impacting the people they are meant to be "serving".

Orphanage volunteering is one of the most popular volunteer travel offerings in part because it fits with both our desire to be heroes and our desire for fun.

Volunteering to take care of orphans might not sound too bad at first - at least I didn't think so on my initial orphanage visits.

But then I started to realise that my visit repeated over and over and over again can indeed become a problem.

Imagine if an orphanage near your home had a rotating door of volunteers coming to play with these children who have already been deemed vulnerable.

Orphanages in Cambodia

  • Number of orphanages up from 153 to 269 in five years, says 2011 Unicef report
  • These house almost 12,000 children - up from 6,254 in 2005
  • Just 28% have lost both parents
  • 21 are state-run, the rest by private operators
  • Many turn to tourism and volunteers for funding
  • "The open access of volunteers to children presents a significant child protection risk," says Unicef, adding that overseas volunteers and tourists should not visit residential orphanages
  • Many campaigners now ask concerned people to give money to established charities working in Cambodia, rather than volunteering at orphanages

Imagine if, during times when they were meant to be in school, they were performing "orphanage dance shows" day after day to visiting tourists. Imagine if any tourist could come in off the street and take one of the children out for the day with them? You are right in any assumptions you might have about what type of harm that could expose them to.

In Cambodia, orphanage volunteering has become a big business. While the number of orphans has decreased, the number of orphanages has risen with the rise of tourism. Unicef estimates that three out of every four children in Cambodian orphanages actually have one or more living parents.

The most corrupt orphanage managers even have an incentive to keep the children looking poor, because, as I have heard many travellers say, tourists often want to give their time and money to the poorest looking place, as they think that is where it is needed most.

People often say, "doing something is better than doing nothing". But it isn't. Not when that something is often wasteful at best, and at worst causing a lot of harm.

We need to focus on learning first - not just encouraging jumping in. Like the legal intern delivering coffee and learning what it takes to be a good lawyer, their most significant impact in the role is not achieved in a short time, but rather in avoiding being too much of a distraction in the short-term and learning how to have a real impact in the long run.

We can encourage young people to move from serving, to learning how to serve. It's a small change in vocabulary, but it can have a big impact on our futures.

This piece is based on an edited version of Daniela Papi's Four Thought on BBC Radio 4

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 221.


    I'm certainly no rich kid & grew up in Brixton on a council estate. I do not use any of my volunteering trips to boost my CV either. I done them because i actually wanted to help people who were less fortunate than myself & didn't have the skills to get their project off the ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    It's like the "stars" like VIctoria B who went to a poor country and could not help but speak about herself all the time to these poor kids. I put these things in the same "basket" of self gratifiying gestures who don't con anybody but those who do them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    Kids with too much time, too much money and too much ego.


    Hmmm Free Labour. Surprised the Tories haven't cottoned on to this one by now and introduced some weird national service type scheme with a certificate at the end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    The posh kids should get a proper job, earn some money and send a big chunk of it to the poor countries. Or better still they should grow up and then influence those in power to do more for poor people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    It must be nice that these kids are able to afford to jaunt off either just before or just after university for a year. Fair enough they may have worked and saved the money for it themselves in some cases but I worked before I went to uni in order to put myself through uni, then was straight back in to work after it in order to pay off the loans and make a life! Do these kids have it different?

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    It's very simple:

    a. It makes people feel good about themselves.

    b. Helps them to put something on the CV and gain a slight advantage so they can get into a uni or find a job.

    Too bad only rich kids can afford to self-fund these trips huh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Do students still take a gap year before "Uni"?
    I really thought that type of behaviour belonged to a bygone era.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    @200. fraz3375

    Q: What do you the volunteers and corrupt officials have in common?
    A: Both are ultimately self-interested and don't care much for those they're purporting to help.

    If these volunteers really cared, they'd be investing in local businesses and creating jobs, not taking away work from the people who need it most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    51.BathBerk- That's exactly the point though, it has everything to do with poorer countries being used as an "experience" and nothing to do with actually genuinely helping people, certainly not on the best possible way.

    If there is such a thing as utterly self-centered and selfish "altruism" then "voluntourism" is it.

    The whole thing is pure 19th century given a modern "green-wash".

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    It's good for the kids to see a bit of the world but, in truth, the money would be far more effectively spent employing local people to do the work themselves thus aiding the local economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    I agree its a farce that people get recognition from employers for a trip which their parents or other people essentially funded - I went abroad for 10 months to build my skills and mature as an employee - I worked for 8 months in the UK full time to pay for it and the money I earned through my employment abroad I spent while I was there so the money was being reinvested into the local economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Agree with the author, I did volunteer work in Cambodia and became highly cynical of NGOs. Organisation was a shambles, I built homes with poor quality wood that would rot within two years, there was a terrible waste of money with no accountability and top it all off the head of the team there regularly used prostitutes - exploiting the very people we were supposed to be helping.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Save us from 'do gooders' with their own complicated psychological reasons for doing so. If you really want to do something try picking up litter at home, clearing urban overgrown areas, helping in care homes as visitors (not staff as they are badly paid enough as it is), and make the UK a better place. Too many UK projects are run by pensioners as only they have the time, but rather quaint ideas

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    There is two sides to this. 'GAP year' companies trying to make money at the expense of people in the countries they work in and NGO's who do things properly. Volunteers can be vital fundraisers and if projects are set up and ran right they can work to support local staff and people. I know of many NGO's like this that do this carefully with fantastic results. Don't brand all projects negatively

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    Really good warning about how to volunteer badly. I think there lacks some balance however as the article does not suggest that there is much good volunteering. I have seen both!

    I find that youth who have volunteered in developing countries will come back and grumble less about the UK and it helps them see how lucky they are. But yes, volunteering needs to be managed by more experienced people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Rich westerners (including young people who can afford a long break after school or university!) can best help developing countries by taking organised holidays, buying local goods, in other words paying money for services as we do at home. Please don't do work that local people could earn money for, or set up schemes they cannot sustain. Help build the real economy instead of creating dependency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Glad to see my piece is causing a lot of discussions! Thanks for the comments! I agree this is a nuanced issue: indeed not all "voluntourism" is good and certainly not all of it is bad. We are working on a "Learning Service" model, hoping to put the learning first in volunteer travel-more info at learning service dot info. Thanks for those thoughtful comments on here! Delighted to hear the debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Any who knows history knows this is just the latest "fad" for the young well off. An "experiance" that started with the "Grand Tour" during the Georgian times and was for a long time the proof of a well educated upper class person.

    It allows those that can afford it to be able to put lovely anwsers to all the "experiance" questions asked at interviews for Grads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    195. Tom
    Spot on Tom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    Why do Western kids go to poor countries to build schools?

    Cos western grown-ups won't lift a finger (except a middle finger).


Page 29 of 40



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.