Guest Post from Andrew Tipp
Gap year volunteering. It’s a rite of passage. For years intrepid young backpackers have been leaving home to do some good and see the world. This has naturally resulted in an explosion of volunteering companies meeting the surge in demand for interesting projects, adventurous locations and worthwhile causes.
So volunteering is now a gazillion pound industry. But in recent times volunteering has come under fire, with questions arising about the cost of placements, the sustainability of projects, the motivations/expectations of volunteers, the benefit of unqualified volunteers and the effect of volunteering on social and economic dynamics in poor communities.
The problems with volunteering
Now, I’ve been a volunteer and a travel editor, and I definitely agree these are important questions. It matters where the money goes, if backpackers are taking local jobs, whether volunteers are actually making a difference, and how appropriate it is to send unqualified young people to work as teachers, carers and builders thousands of miles away.
And sometimes volunteering goes wrong. Very wrong. People have bad experiences. Money doesn’t flow down to those who need it. Placements exist that serve little purpose. But like any industry, volunteering has good guys and bad guys; there are people who want to make money while doing something ethical and beneficial … and there are people that just want to make money.
So in a world where people are lining up to attack volunteering and brand volunteers as a cross between guilty middle-class do-gooders and self-righteous have-a-go-heroes, is volunteering still worthwhile?
The answer is, of course, yes.
Why volunteering is still awesome
Why is volunteering still a good idea? Well, for a start you can genuinely make a difference. You need to pick your project carefully, though; make sure it’s something you’re interested in, committed to and think you have a feel for. Make sure it’s somewhere you’re needed.
Remember that volunteering isn’t just a holiday – ignore the people that brand it ‘voluntourism’; real volunteering is hard work, not a vacation. The developing world is not your playground. There’s no reason volunteering shouldn’t be fun, but it shouldn’t be all about the fun. You might be able to find a week-long project cuddling cute animals, but work that’ll really make a difference will be demanding, challenging and rewarding – not merely gratifying; it’s not all about posing with smiling orphans.
Volunteering abroad is beneficial for communities. Top quality volunteering matches young gappers with raw skills to projects that lack those skills – it serves a need by providing something that community doesn’t have. And volunteers invest in the local economy; buying food, drink, clothes and presents.
A meeting of cultures
Young backpackers volunteering in a foreign country brings about a cultural exchange. Volunteers obviously immerse themselves in the culture and traditions of their host country, but the community they stay in learn a lot from volunteer. In the school I volunteered at in South Africa, most kids had never seen a westerner; a volunteer arriving changes that, and they can learn more about the world outside their village or town. You really make a connection to these kids, which is humbling and meaningful. It’s also a responsibility. It makes you grow up faster.
There are plenty more reasons why volunteering can be amazing. Leaving your comfort zone and venturing into the unknown can genuinely broaden your mind and build up personal skills. You learn to be more organised, take the initiative and work on your confidence. And these aren’t just buzzwords to put on your CV, these are real skills that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your time as a human person.
So what does all this mean?
Despite all the criticisms, volunteering as a model is really workable. The concept of young people from relatively affluent backgrounds investing their time, money, skill and passion into worthwhile and sustainable projects in poorer communities is a good one. When it comes to choosing specific placements and projects, the important thing is to split the ethical and eco-friendly wheat from the immoral and unscrupulous chaff.
If you’re about to head out on a big volunteering trip, don’t let the doom-mongers scare you. Have an incredible time, abandon that comfort zone, learn as much as you can and put your heart and soul into whatever you’re doing. It’ll be worth it.
About the author
Andrew Tipp is a writer, blogger and editor, and has presented gap year talks at roadshows and trade fairs. He’s spent more than a year volunteering and backpacking around the world, and has previously worked as a travel editor for gapyear.com. His favorite part of the world is Latin America, particularly Bolivia and Peru.