Gap-Year Volunteering: We Can Be Heroes, But Just for One Day?

by Niamh on May 19, 2013

Niamh · Popular Culture · May 19, 2013


In order to plump up their résumés many young people are embarking on trips to less economically developed regions, lending their time to building projects, teaching programs, orphanages and other so-called worthy causes.

Too many people, however, are bowling into countries and volunteering without any research and instead lending their time to the organization that plucks most strongly at their heart strings, notes Daniela Papi, the founder of PEPY Tours (specializes in setting people up with a volunteering holiday), in this BBC News article.

The “Me” style volunteering (Yes, I just linked “Me” to volunteering!) is unhelpful, Papi says: “We must stop volunteering abroad from becoming about us fulfilling our dreams of being heroes.”

I think it is important to clarify that volunteering abroad is not a BAD thing, but being a one-person crusade may not be effective.

There tend to be two stumbling blocks for volunteers who may harbor the best intentions:

1) Poor research. They rock up to an orphanage, see a sorry sight and are immediately compelled to jump in, offering their time and money. What’s the problem? Supply and demand for one. In Cambodia, for example, while the number of orphans has decreased the number of orphanages has increased. It turns out that the main source of income for orphanages has been tourism and volunteers, so it’s in the interest of corrupt managers of orphanages to keep their charges poor-looking or impoverished as this evokes a stronger sense of charity in visitors. There are also policies that allow anyone to come in and take an orphan out for the day (as if an orphan were a pet), thus, in a worst-case scenario, leaving the vulnerable open to significant risk, not to mention the continuing disappointment of having a connection with someone only to be returned.

(As an aside, I volunteered at a charity in the south of Malaysia that helped children and adults with physical and learning disabilities and witnessedsimilar problems to the ones in Cambodia. The unit was incredibly under-staffed, to the point that both service users and the staff were at risk. Frequently, busloads of tourists rolled in to donate money and equipment, in addition to the continuous sponsorship that several local organizations provided. I can still remember one particularly grand gesture of RM50, 000 (about $16,500 U.S.) going to build a library on the site. Nice idea, but not one of the users was able to read! The donation was misguided. Although spending toward literacy would have been nice, the charity felt it could not tell donors how it would like the money to be spent (sourcing and more staff), since this would have been offensive. These heroes rode in on their white horses, threw some money around and departed. With all the best intentions they acquired the worst results.)

2) The Clark Kent Effect. Hopping on a flight is the equivalent of a phone booth and your volunteering T-Shirt is your Superman costume: Suddenly you have the power to save the world!

Papi says the issue with this is that, “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 U.K. or the U.S., that they are in a position of superiority over the people they are going to “serve.””

The hero mentality can become detrimental to the actual cause, because the action that started out with grounds in the “We” Cycle has actually turned into a personal project, thus categorizing it as “Me” action. It is therefore important to research whom, what and where you will be helping, to avoid getting conned, as well as ensuring the effort you put in has the maximum impact. It’s not just volunteering. The more “We” Cycle approach is about “Responsible Volunteering.”

If you would like to get involved in some Responsible Volunteering check out:


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