It’s common for young people to spend time in schools or assisting in the construction of homes or community buildings. But without professional training or specialist skills, some end up wondering how much assistance they really gave. This begs the question whether their money would not have been better spent hiring qualified locals to do the work, thus providing much-needed employment.
In addition, many volunteers receive little instruction about the culture and background of communities they visit. This can lead to an insensitive approach towards locals. And in some cases, volunteers feel they have gained little experience of the wider country, if they have had no opportunity to sightsee or travel around.
Aid workers say they can point to many examples where volunteer projects have created divisions in communities, for example, house-building schemes where some people are chosen to benefit, while others are left out. And it’s common for volunteering schemes to involve short-term projects, where there is little work done towards sustainable development and poverty relief.
However, those familiar with the volunteer travel industry say that, as with all areas of development, there are good schemes and bad ones. They argue that the best volunteering organisations place an emphasis on training and on learning about local cultures and environments, as well as working alongside local partners. This can lead to programmes which benefit whole communities.
At a time when many charities are seeing a reduction in donations, volunteering is also a way to engage more people in the work of development organisations. Often, youngsters raise money for their trips by involving friends and family, thus highlighting development and conservation needs. And volunteering can build a very personal bridge between individuals in the West and local people. This often creates a lifelong commitment to developing communities and usually a deeper understanding about the issues they face, and the need for campaigning on areas such as unfair trading practices.
So while there may be some ‘gap year’ companies whose only concern is to make money, there are also many organisations dedicated to supporting developing communities in the long-term and involving young people in a meaningful way in that development.