16 August 2005
by Laura Roberts
The increasing number of students taking gap years has led to a sharp rise in companies exploiting their desire to find volunteer work abroad, according to the Voluntary Service Overseas
Some commercial companies offering gap-year volunteering provide little support or training, charge extortionate fees and, at worst, run projects of no benefit to local communities, the charity says.
Events like Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign have raised awareness of world issues and fuelled the desire of many young people to volunteer in the developing world. VSO is concerned that students are paying to be involved in purposeless projects that do not offer constructive help to deprived communities. A spokeswoman for VSO said: "They are not in dialogue with the communities they work with. VSO work is long-term and we have identified where we can be the greatest help. A project completed in isolation can't aid the community."
A former employee of one gap-year organization approved by the Year Out Group revealed that expeditions are marketed as conservation exercises to attract customers. Ten weeks diving costs £2,100 even though dives are only every other day using poor equipment.
The source said: "They just wanted the volunteers to have a good time and bring positive feedback. Even though they paid so much, diving equipment was sub-standard and frankly unsafe." The surveys were there to occupy the volunteers, not for a serious conservation purpose."
Lindsey Cruden, 20, from Turriff, Aberdeenshire, was inspired by her experience in India with VSO and now studies social work at Manchester University. She said: "I was going to do a trip costing around £4,000 but through the VSO I did a World Exchange programme where I did community work for three months in India." It cost £500 and included flights, insurance and vaccines.
Kirsten Matthews, 22, from Nairn, was an English language assistant for eight months in Chile. She said: "With Raleigh International, you pay thousands of pounds for 12 weeks and a month of that is an activity holiday. I went with Gap Activity Projects which only cost £400. They find you a job and provide a liaison person. "I stayed for longer than my actual placement, unlike all the people I went with, who left early and went travelling. "We worked in private schools but I did voluntary work once a week in a state school. "Gap years contribute a cultural exchange more than any thing else."
Raleigh International volunteers must raise from £1,500 for four weeks to £3,000 for 10 weeks, not including flights. Volunteers spend three weeks in conservation, three weeks in construction and three weeks on an adventure activity. Janice Miller, business development director for Raleigh International, said: "I have reservations about the difference you can make teaching for such a short amount of time. "A number of organizations do not offer the training they should. They literally take the money and off the kids go.
"Young people may think they are working for a charity when words like 'volunteer' and 'fundraising' are used, but in reality they are not charities." A spokeswoman for Oxfam said: "When it comes to volunteering, we'd be more likely to take people on in the UK than overseas as it's our policy always to take on local people in developing countries. There are usually local people who can do the unskilled work that untrained graduates might do, for example construction workers in the tsunami-hit areas."