Feature Tuesdays: Is voluntourism costing poor countries too much?

DSC_0180By Natalie Deans

For most students a gap year is a rite of passage. What better way is there to spend your student loan than to buy a one way ticket and tread the path, now well-trodden by the thousands of kindred spirits whom have gained many a memory in foreign lands?  However, in the past decade those potential travellers seem to have grown a social conscience with the increasing popularity of voluntourism.

With over 800 organisations offering expeditions to more than 200 countries, according to the University of London, the opportunity for young people to combine their want for travel with charity work has soared. And they’re taking full advantage of it, it offers up a chance to see the world while adding a little extra to the CV for their return to reality.

But voluntourism isn’t all it seems. Often short expeditions can run into thousands of pounds, not including flights. Or visas. Or vaccinations. Or even the kit you’ll need to go there.  Then when you finally arrive, the work in the community is often busy work which could be better done by a local instead of a group of Brits redoing the last job half finished by the last group.

While speaking to a group of Progressio ICS charity volunteers in Nicaragua, Chris Campbell, British Ambassador for Nicaragua, said the problems of large scale sustainable development were both in the private charity sector and in government funded programmes.

And from experience I agree, I was one of the volunteers Mr Campbell was speaking to in Nicaragua. I have just finished a 10 week placement in a government funded International Citizen Service programme which sent 15 Brits abroad to “make a difference”. The only difference between our programme and the private voluntourism is our bill was footed by the UK tax payer and the private organisations are better equipped to do actual work.

“It’s not really about developing the country,” said Mr Campbell. “It’s about developing yourselves and you coming home and in three months or 10 months realising you do something different because of your time here.”

This reinforces the belief held by many that voluntourism is more good times than good work.

Mr Campbell also stated governments were better suited to smaller development projects, such as giving families electricity, rather than large projects –those are better left to large private organisations with the experience to make such things work.

Which is all well and good, but when speaking of previous projects Mr Campbell said: “For £700 per unit, you can give a household solar panels for electricity.

“This had an amazing effect on their standard of living. Kids were healthier because they didn’t have to do DSC_0163their homework in the dark, by paraffin lamps. Adults could run a business from their home because they could power what they need and provide for their family.”

To send 15 of us to Nicaragua cost in the region of £125,000, not to mention the additional costs of leasing a home for us, drivers, petrol, our cook and our cleaner (both of whom get paid almost double a school teacher’s wage because they work for a UK charity). Our programme runs four cycles a year, for four years. To do the approximate maths; £2 million is spent sending British youths to Nicaragua to do busy work and gain experience while that DFID (Department for International Development) funded money could provide 2857 Nicaraguan families with electricity.

I’m not ungrateful for my chance to go to Nicaragua, especially since it was almost free, but is the memories of some privileged kids from a developed country worth squandering millions of pounds allocated to developing a third world country?

DFID funds eight ICS charities across fourteen countries, and I can’t talk about any failings of charities other than Progressio ICS because I haven’t experienced them, but if each has a similar problem then it isn’t just poultry £2 million being wasted. It could be much, much more.

Discontent fuelled our trip, with lack of resources, lack of work and even lack of food. One opinion was united, even with the most enthusiastic of volunteers: “This isn’t development work, it’s community service in a nicer climate.”

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