It’s amazing how many people volunteer at unsustainable gap year programs abroad. Even after all the negative publicity about voluntourism, so many unsustainable projects are still running. We can put all the blame on the people behind the projects. But is that truly fair? Or do the volunteers have some responsibility as well? After all, they sign up for it.
Volunteering gives you the chance to live in a different country for some time, you can learn and experience and of course, explore. All of this can be an amazing experience if… it’s done right. And that starts with you!
After all, we the travellers can also investigate the projects, and we should check our own motives. Why do we want to go and volunteer abroad during our gap year?
I have lots of conversations with volunteers in Ghana
During my work as a host in a guesthouse in Ghana, I talk to many travellers, including people who are here during their gap year. For a couple of weekends in a row I hosted young people from all over Europe who all worked with the same, very expensive, but terrible organization. And it got me thinking.
Why are there so many terrible projects out there? Because there is a market for them. Still, there is a market for projects where they let you cuddle with lions, where they let you work in orphanages or teach while you are not a teacher or give you tours in hospitals while you have no medical experience.
All these projects are there and people still patronize them. Even though there is so much information available that is explaining why these practices are so wrong. And more and more information is added, but still, intelligent and very decent people sign up. Luckily some of them see what is wrong while they are here. But the market can only change when the consumer demands change!
Check your motives for volunteering through gap year programs
I’ve said it before and I will keep on saying it… Do you come because you want to help, make an impact, make the poor children smile during your gap year? Or maybe you like giving back to the world, or you want to make the world a better place, or is it going to look well on your CV?
If your motive is the last one. Nothing wrong with that as long as you prepare yourself well, don’t impose your ideas, but learn and experience.
I want to help people! Let’s say that this is your motive for volunteering abroad…
- Why abroad?
- What can I do?
- What do I know about life in general?
- What do I know about life in that particular country?
- How long do I want to stay?
- Am I really going to be able to help?
- Can I look at life in a different culture in an objective manner?
- Am I aware of my privilege?
- Do I feel superior…. Deep down inside??
Please check the following statements and situations made by people who want to volunteer during their gap year:
I love animals!!
I’m going to volunteer in this animal shelter in Africa because I love animals. I think I want to be a veterinarian after my gap year…
Sounds great, but……. Are you doing good for the animals when you are inexperienced? Did you check well if this shelter is sustainable? Oooh, the website and former volunteers said that it is a good and responsible place?
Then it must be ok…….
Any project that allows ever-changing volunteers to have up-close contact with the wild animals is simply not sustainable!!
Another one, I love kids!!
I love kids! I get inspired by them! I love how their minds work!
So I’m going to volunteer in a project with children, bond with them, take their pictures, take selfies and post the pictures and 4 weeks later I go home…
Did I tell you how much I love kids??
I am going to make a positive impact
That’s very easy to say or to write on a note. But quite difficult to do in a country that you don’t know in a limited amount of time.
Maybe start by trying not to make a negative impact. How??
By preparing yourself!! By knowing your own motives and by doing no harm!
I’m going to teach in Africa
I’m not a teacher but I want to do something useful so I’m going to an African country and teach the children there.
Who thinks this is logical? Who thinks this is useful? Who thinks this is making a positive impact?
I want to feel useful
There are such amazing projects where you indeed can make a difference by doing fundraising and PR, while also experiencing, learning and exploring. Would you believe that lots of people who are looking for volunteering projects abroad don’t like this?
Why? Because they want to feel useful and build a school or teach or whatever. Am just wondering what is useful about taking the job of a local??
Taking a gap year is for yourself, and that is ok!
It’s time to really unpack this. When you take a gap year you are mainly doing it for yourself. Which is absolutely fine! When travelling or volunteering in a responsible manner, your being a traveller is already making a positive impact. Not because you are the one bringing items, smiles or your own teaching curriculum. But by spending locally and spreading a different narrative about the African continent.
So let’s take responsibility for our own actions instead of always pointing fingers at others. Such as the organizations that offer gap year programs. The bad, terrible and damaging projects can exist because there is a market for them.
Luckily, people can change
Did you know that Pat volunteered as a teacher without a teaching background? And that Dilo cuddled with wild animals before?? And we took selfies with African children. Pat even hosted volunteers who worked in schools, hospitals and a children’s home in the past.
The cool thing is, people can change, develop, learn. We did and still are. And so can you!
We are pointing at you, but are very aware of the fact that three fingers are pointing back at ourselves. It’s up to us, the travellers to do better! We love to help you with that.
Click here, to read more about us.
We made a checklist on how to choose the right volunteering project for you.