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.
Sustainable volunteer work is the key to providing growth opportunities for local communities.
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.
We strive to give local communities the tools they need to be self-sufficient.
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.
How Adventure Alternative Breaks the Mold
Adventure Alternative is one of the companies that believe 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.
Community involvement starts with buy-in from locals. Our work in Nepal is proof that together we can all make an impact in the wellbeing of a small community.
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.
Kenya and Moving Mountains
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 a 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.
Connecting with locals in rural villages of Nepal.
Ethics and Volunteering
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.
The volunteering and school expedition programme is run by three organisations and it is important to explain what each of them does and how they will all help you to have a safe and productive time abroad. All of them are interlinked in a model that was put together by Gavin Bate and it has created a supportive and complementary network and staff structure which enables us to run these trips and be confident that they represent ‘clever’ aid and relevant sustainable developmental.
Your involvement is part of something long-lasting, and you will start to see that as you go on the trip.
Adventure Alternative's Role
Adventure Alternative is the company that provides the trip and all the logistics and support and staffing. There is an Adventure Alternative UK and there is also an Adventure Alternative Kenya (and Nepal, Tanzania, Russia, Borneo). Each regional company is standalone but receives investment and resources from the UK to provide a high level of salary and training for the employees. Any volunteering trip is regarded as a holiday and 'AA' is the registered tour operator which can legally advertise and sell such trips. It provides financial bonding and insurance plus the staffing to manage all the logistics of your trip.
Moving Mountains Role
Moving Mountains is the charity that provides the projects and the programmes. It is financially supported by the company in terms of nearly all the administration and overheads. There is a Moving Mountains UK and there is also a Moving Mountains Kenya (and Ireland, Nepal and Borneo). Each regional NGO is standalone but receives the funding for all the projects and programmes it implements. Some of that money comes from donations, some from fundraising events, and some of it comes from clients such as volunteers and school trips or fundraising trips. Every project and programme you visit is benefiting by the money you are raising, and you will see it every step of the way.
AA UK provides
- all the pre-trip training and post-trip support
- all the administration for the group going on your trip
- financial protection for your money
- expert advice and monitoring of your trip throughout
- investment in the equipment you will use, eg trucks, tents
- organisation membership eg Association of Independent Tour Operators, Fair Trade Volunteering
- the promotion, advertising and marketing of the trips
AA Kenya provides
- the staffing in-country, eg drivers, cooks and guides
- the local tour license to run the trip
- the office back-up and implementation of your trip in Nairobi
- all the transport and facilitation of the activities you will do
- all the logistics of being sheltered, fed and safe during your stay
Moving Mountains provides
- arrangement and running of all the projects and programmes
- a professional underpinning of all the developmental aid
- team leaders and all our field workers working with you
- the allocation of your fundraising to all the aspects of our work
- training and development for your time in-country including the peer programme, the school help programme, Black Cats and learning Swahili.
Having a laugh and getting involved with the local community on the ground in Kenya.
The money you pay to Adventure Alternative covers all of the logistical elements of your trip, the training before you go, and a proportion of all the overheads required to staff and manage the main office, plus the equipment and vehicles we keep in-country for your use. This is normally not something that can fundraise for.
The money you fundraise for Moving Mountains covers all of the projects and programmes we run, that you will be taking part in, plus the costs of the peer you will be spending time with if that is the case.