10 September 2011 ~ 3 Comments

Do gap year volunteer programs do more harm than good?

I was recently on a radio show on CBC radio in Canada called “Q with Jian Ghomeshi” in a segment titled “Do gap year volunteer programs do more harm than good?”.

You can listen to it here if you’d like. I agree with the comment regarding animal and conservation projects (trail clean-ups etc) as being examples of volunteer programs which have the potential to add a lot of value. And I agree that it’s not black and white. My main point in speaking on this issue is that we need to consider our impact – collectively and individuals – when we engage in programs claiming social impact as a main purpose. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • http://www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org/blog/ Jake Ling

    thats the problem that its not always black and white and there is so much disinformation competing with cautionary advice like yours that its hard to tell whats what.

    unfortunately marketing which is designed to connect with a potential volunteer on an emotional level and claims something like “make an amazing difference on people more unfortunate than yourself” will always outshine cautionary advice for a gap year youngster who hasnt yet had enough life experience to become as cynical as us 😉

    the problem with animal conservation centers at least here in South America is that some trap animals and keep them like a zoo and claim they are rehabilitating them to bring lots of unsuspecting gringos and cash – but then again there are some great animal rescue centers out there as well where an high turnover of lots of short term volunteers make a difference

    how do we get the message out about the good guys without resorting to the same wild marketing claims?   naming and shaming the bad guys?  trying to set a good example?  hope someone else can help answer !

  • Clive @CliveSir

    This is such a treacherous topic! You did a good job in being objective here, Daniela. We should always question impact and also realise that there is a lot of selfishness in volunteering and development.

    In the interview you made the point that some orphanages had children who were not orphans at all – that some children had one or both parents alive. I am sure you realise this, but I want to point out to anyone reading this that you can’t assume that all of these children are borrowed for the purpose of attracting sympathetic donations. In some cases parents are ill, neglectful or abusive, or the conditions at home are so bad that they are better off out of the home environment. Perhaps these places should be called Children’s Homes. ‘Orphanage’ is a more emotive label -relevant when there is little or no public social care and you need to rely on private donations- but either may be deserving or deceitful.

  • Darren

    Like you say – “it’s not black and white”. I resent much of the work done by ‘charities’, where they act as tour operators – selling expensive gap year experiences where you can learn something new and help something in need. These charities are simply tour operators and the majority of monies received for projects pays for administration, marketing, staff etc… very little, if any goes to the good cause at the end of it.

    Though it’s easy to bash these tour operators, I think scrapping them would do more harm that good, as some do do useful work that helps good causes. Regulation is again a slippery-slope to protectionism –  reduce involvement, reduce monies to the causes that need it.

    I think that ngo led programs which charge very reasonable costs and act in a financially transparent manner would be a good step forward. Too much power is in the hands of businesses, calling themselves charities – charging £2000/month for an 18 student to paint a fence in Africa.