Monday, September 10, 2007


Gap-year volunteers may be better off spending their time traveling than help- ing out on spurious schemes abroad that can do more harm than good, according to Voluntary Service Overseas, an international-development charity.

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) said badly planned so-called “voluntourism” schemes by companies making a business out of channeling public sympathy were having a negative impact on young people and the communities they worked with.

Up to 200,000 Britons take a gap year each year, 130,000 of them having finished high school. And in the United States, the numbers of students taking a year off — either between high school and college or during college — is growing. The average gap-year traveler spends almost $10,000.

VSO is working with established gap-year companies to devise a code of good practice to help would-be “gappers” weigh their options.

Events such as Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign have fueled the desire of many young people to volunteer. However, VSO — whose average volunteer age is 44 — is concerned that increasing numbers of students are paying to be involved in purposeless projects that do not offer constructive help to deprived communities.

Eva, 26, a volunteer who only gave her first name, paid $4,000 to spend six months volunteering with environmental projects in Mexico.

But when she arrived, she found there was little for her to do and instead of getting involved in rural projects where she felt she could make a difference, she spent the majority of her time inputting data to spreadsheets.

“It was depressing to be doing administrative work all day, as I had spent six months at home working in an office to save up enough money to fly to Mexico,” she said.

“I was told I would live with a local family, when the reality was that the family simply rented out a room and the integration that I had been promised was nonexistent.”

Another gap-year student was asked to survey an endangered coral reef in Madagascar, only to find that the work was pointless because the reef had been surveyed 200 times by other volunteers, recording no useful data and probably further damaging the reef.

A teenager who went to Calcutta to help feed homeless street children discovered that the man running the program expected the children to fend for themselves from Friday to Monday because he preferred not to work weekends.

The VSO said that in the worst instances, unskilled teenage volunteers from Europe and the United States can do more harm than good, draining host communities of resources if the volunteers need training or constant support.

“While there are many good gap-year providers, we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious,” said Judith Brodie, director of VSO UK.

“Young people want to make a difference through volunteering, but they would be better off traveling and experiencing different cultures rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and that can leave a big hole in their wallet.”

Last year VSO — which does not charge volunteers — warned that gap-year students risk becoming the “new colonialists” if attitudes to voluntary work in the developing world do not change and if schemes were designed with the enjoyment of volunteers in mind.

Almost half of all private-school pupils take gap years, compared with about one in five students overall.

VSO has two programs for 18- to 25-year-olds, for which it provides flights, accommodation, training, visas and a living allowance.

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