Helping out at an African nursery or digging trenches in rural India has become a fashionable – rite of passage for a generation of young Britons.
But many volunteers end up doing more harm than good – and the gap year trend is even being blamed for potentially fuelling child abuse in the host communities.
Mounting concern that the growing numbers of tourists keen to work in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal could be leading to local children being abandoned or abducted to meet the demand has led to calls for a radical rethink on the ethics of so-called voluntourism.
Delegates at a conference in Croydon, south London, organised by Tourism Concern asked prospective volunteers to think hard about their choice of destination – and consider staying at home to help deprived people in the UK instead.
The charity’s executive director, Mark Watson, said that while the desire to help others was commendable, too many expensive commercial volunteering opportunities ended up exploiting both those offering help and harming the lives of those meant to be on the receiving end.
“Volunteers often have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences; volunteer placements can prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home after a few weeks,” Mr Watson said.
“We feel that there are many opportunities for people to undertake meaningful volunteering in their own community, where they will receive proper training, support and supervision – without the need to pay a tour operator for the privilege.
“In the majority of cases, people would be far better off (and have a more rewarding experience) volunteering at home and spending their money on travelling and staying in places listed in our Ethical Travel Guide,” he added.
A study by Unicef in Nepal found that 85 per cent of children in the orphanages they visited had at least one parent still alive. Children’s workers in Cambodia have warned tourists against travelling to the country to volunteer in orphanages after the number of new institutions rose by 75 per cent over the past five years.
Among other speakers was Philippa Biddle. She described taking part in a development project building an orphanage and library in Tanzania. She said each night local men dismantled the structurally unsound work they had done – relaying bricks while the students slept.
“Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level,” she recalled.
Laura Woodward of Raleigh International, a non-profit-making sustainable development charity which works with young volunteers and communities around the world living in poverty, said few commercial organisations offered high-quality placements that brought benefit to their host countries.
She said the conference was right to highlight concerns over voluntourism. “It’s true that there are many fantastic volunteering opportunities for people in their own communities, and we strongly encourage volunteers to take action in their own communities upon their return; indeed, this has become a fundamental element of our programmes,” she said.