I took a Trekforce gap year abroad (a year out between college and university) myself, and it was one of the best ideas I ever had. It was also one of the best experiences I ever had. That almost 10 years ago, and it seemed much easier to select a gap year organisation then. Since then, the “volunteer abroad” industry has boomed as huge numbers of people seek to do something constructive in a year out. It´s boomed so much, that the new word “voluntourism” has been coined, and even big travel websites like Travelocity have started to market volunteer work abroad. The choice of organisations is now mind boggling…..
15 years ago it used to be mainly charities providing volunteer work placements abroad on a not-for-profit basis. This is the way it should be, but now most “organisations” offering volunteer work placements aren´t doing so with altruism being their primary concern, they´re doing it for the profit. I´ll look at a few examples.
i-to-i is one of the oldest “meaningful travel” companies in the UK, and has offered volunteer placements for years. This year, it was purchased by First Choice, one of the UK´s biggest tour operators. First choice´s primary concern is obviously profit. Volunteer work, on the other hand, should be about poor communities in need benefiting from work placements. I can´t see that the two concepts go hand in hand very well.
My sister had an article written by the Times about her experience of volunteering in Ghana. Basically, she paid £135 for a 4 week volunteer work in Ghana placement. When she arrived she discovered that others volunteers in her group had paid over £1000 to UK based agencies for exactly the same work placement. That´s a 600% mark up taken by the UK based agencies. Who needs that money more - a poor Ghanian NGO, or a well to do “agent” in London? At times it´s shocking.
I´ll look at a couple of examples in Ecuador. I have three close family members who have each volunteered with Quest Overseas in Ecuador. Each family member had almost exactly the same experience doing what they thought at the time was thoroughly important conservation work with an ecolodge in the Amazon region. However, Quest has been sending volunteers to this same ecolodge for over 10 years. The volunteers arrive and do mundane tasks that they are told are important, but in reality, they could be using their skills in a much better, more meaningful way, if Quest took the trouble to find new work placements for their never ending stream of volunteers. Why don´t they look for new placements? I´d guess because it´s easier, and more profitable, to not bother looking for anything new, or for new conservation projects that really are in need of volunteers.
Still in Ecuador, the example of Global Routes (from USA) is quite the opposite. Global Routes actively seek out a different project for each new group of volunteers. They are advised by a local NGO, CRAYCP, about what needs doing at the time. This is meaningful volunteer work, and different communities in need benefit greatly. I have worked and continue to work with CRACYP as they are a great organisation facilitating numerous volunteer placements in Ecuador, and would thouroughly recommend them for those seeking volunteer work in Ecuador.
Choosing a volunteer work placement is daunting as there are so many options out there. From my personal experience, I´d always advise going to the source first - seeking the grass routes “developing world” local NGO´s and approaching them directly for work placements. Otherwise, you´re probabably paying a “developed world” agent to do just that for you, and take a huge cut on the premise that “they have a 24 hour emergency telephone helpline” in case something goes wrong. You´ll either save yourself money, or be able to spend 3 times (or more) as much time in the placement using the same amount of cash.
Volunteer work during one’s gap year can be tough, challenging, frustrating, but at the same time very rewarding.
Be adventurous - volunteering in the “developing world” shouldn´t be about somone holding your hand the whole way through a placement. Volunteer work is about enlightenment, self discovery, and meaningful contributions to communities in need.