The pitfalls of a feel-good gap year
Published 13/11/2010 | 05:00
If you're one of the thousands of new graduates wondering how to kill time before the economy picks up, you might be considering a year volunteering abroad.
Maybe you're off to Africa to teach English in a remote village, share your football skills with kids in a Rio slum or work in a Romanian orphanage for a few months?
Nice thought. In theory, they're all worthy ideas. What better way to see the world and give something back while you're at it. But what if your presence in a developing country did more harm than good?
A new study has come up with that troubling conclusion. It found that gap-year volunteers even risk endangering deprived communities in poor countries by putting local people out of work and hindering their long-term development.
The report, by South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council, is scornful of so-called voluntourism, a post-recession phenomenon where cash-poor, time-rich youngsters avoid the credit crunch in their own country and head off on volunteering holidays to work for free.
The research found that volunteers who work with underprivileged children -- in particular on short-term stays -- only add to the cycle of neglect and disruption in the lives of those they care for.
Many of the children miss the volunteers when they leave and suffer deep withdrawal symptoms after they go.
"It can be devastating for them to form a bond with a volunteer who then moves on after a few weeks," says Professor Linda Richter, co-author of the research.
"Short-term volunteer tourists are encouraged to make intimate connections with previously neglected, abused and abandoned young children.
"However, shortly after these connections have been made, tourists leave -- many undoubtedly feeling that they have made a positive contribution to the plight of very vulnerable children. And, in turn, feeling very special as a result of receiving a needy child's affection."
One manager at a children's home in Cape Town, which is "extremely oversubscribed" with volunteers from Europe and the US, described the harmful effects these fly-by-night visits can have on their charges.
"Everyone wants to work with the children, feed babies and play with the kids," said Janice Mulholland of Nazareth House children's home.
"But having a roller-coaster of different faces is not a good thing to do to these children."
While genuine volunteers want to make a difference, she added, some want to "validate themselves as being a good person".
The warning comes at a time when voluntourism is booming due to the glut of qualified graduates in Ireland with nothing else to do.
Specialist travel companies, who track down jobs abroad for unemployed students in return for fees of several thousand euros, have seen a surge in popularity.
Because the jobs they provide are often low-skilled, it leaves less work for local people, especially when foreigners are willing to pay for the privilege of doing that job. You don't need a degree in economics to work out how that could wreck a local community.
So before you pack your rucksack, think long and hard about the pros and cons of volunteering abroad and make sure the job you want is not being taken from a local person who needs it more. If you decide to stay put, there are plenty of charities at home who would be only too thrilled to avail of your services.