Gap Years and overseas volunteering have suffered discreditation over the past number of years, frequently becoming the target of many jokes like the Gap Yah video. It’s worth mentioning that the actor in that video, Matt Lacey, made this comment about his sketch: "It's a satire on the great number of people who seem to be leaving these shores to vomit all over the developing world."
The problems with short term ‘volunteering’ holidays for the market are many, but it’s not a case that every organisation should be tarred with the same brush. The issues that inflame the public perception of volunteering trips are quite easy to identify, and not too difficult to solve; at one level, it’s all about ethics and at another level, it's a lot about money.
For example, the volunteer programmes are frequently too short term and not part of a long term developmental aim; there is a need for continuity and for volunteers to contribute later on down the line to the programmes they have been involved with, rather than the find ‘em and forget ‘em culture that often pertains.
Volunteers are often under-prepared, untrained or unsuited to the volunteer programmes that they sign up to, and the company often has no selection or training process in place.
Insufficient investment and resources actually reach the target destination (that is, too high a proportion of let’s say, the signing on fee, is kept in the hands of the intermediary agents). In the worst cases, there is simply no interest in using these trips as a way of creating wealth and development in a community. The whole trip is commercially one-sided.
There is an image that some programmes have more cosmetic glamour than genuine and lasting value, and it’s all about a commercial ‘product’ when actually what we are dealing with here are real people and real communities who deserve a say in this type of tourism.
There is an uncomfortable feeling that this is a one-way kind of trade, whereby the aid programme is established to improve the life skills and CVs of the volunteers involved , as opposed to best serving the needs of the target groups whose interests the programmes are ostensibly designed to help.
There remains the lingering suspicion that the balance between outright philanthropy and vested commercial interest is creeping relentlessly in favour of the latter.
Adventure Alternative is one of the companies that believes in commerce supporting development, and that a school trip, a gap trip or a sabbatical is essentially a form of international development and that it should promote the Millennium Development Goals and the more recent UN Resolution for Business and Human Rights. It should have clearly defined development aims, and those aims should be overseen and implemented by experienced, professional people.
There should also be a joint responsibility with the communities and the clients and the company. In essence, we can use tourism to provide a structured benefit to a village where there might not have been a route to market. A Gap trip is simply another type of tourism which can do that.
But if we are going to sell a product which purports to provide genuine benefit in terms of education, health, social welfare and emotional well-being then we need to have a long term, professional, progressive and learned approach to it! This is why we started Moving Mountains at the same time as AA, and it is the charity determines the projects and programmes which we send people on. It is not a commercial decision, it is a developmental decision.
If it is done right then a short term holiday or school trip or 3 month gap trip spent interacting with local people, helping to build a classroom, learning building techniques and making friends can be a good thing. As long as that one trip is part of a structured mission spread over many years, providing capital investment and resources, and as long as the community have an equal role in deciding that development, and as long as it’s not a case of a colonial-style invasion of wealthy visitors dispensing their largesse to ‘poor’ people with no voice (and perpetuating a desperately old-fashioned and condescending form of ‘aid’) then it can do good.
For example, renovating a school in western Kenya is actually part of a ten year programme which Moving Mountains has with the Kenyan Dept of Education to improve academic facilities in an entire district, providing facilities for 20 schools and achieving the official goal of putting all children through free primary education and a 100% take-up on secondary education, with a long term view to a 40% take-up on tertiary level education. So MM is renovating 20 schools, building early child development centres, providing libraries and laboratories, promoting a sports programme, training teachers in child protection and care, and supporting a holistic welfare support service for hundreds of children without team of counsellors. The programme allows both the company and the charity to be a part of that huge vision, and at the same time offer the scheme to Kenyan youth as well.
Fundamentally it is all about ethics, the underlying reason that the company began in the first place. Was it genuinely to offer a product to a client in order to use money cleverly and wisely in order to make a difference, or was it all about making a profit?
Adventure Alternative puts considerable resources and investment into the companies it starts around the world, and it provides full-time careers for people in all those companies. The financial risk therefore is on the company, not the employees. We treat the staff the same, whether they are working in the UK office or the Kathmandu or Nairobi office. Each company becomes self-sufficient, because our aim is to create sustainability. But our development trips, gap trips and school trips all contribute to the long term aims of the charity Moving Mountains, and that was the fundamental vision that Gavin Bate had when he started both organisations in the early nineties.
Our ethic is contained in the criteria of Fair Trade Volunteering, and we believe it is the onus of every Gap Year and volunteering company to go beyond the usual description of providing personal development, and accept that these trips are about sharing the money with people who are equally deserving of the spoils of tourism.