It's becoming the time of year when the national printed press bash volunteering on a gap year. No that's no quite true. There's certainly a debate to be had about the value of volunteering with certain projects around the world, but really it's part of the broader debate on approaches to development work in general. For example, the charge of "new colonialist" is something that could be levelled at any number of developmental projects across the globe.
Judith Brodie, VSO Director, origin of the "new colonialist" quote issued another press release this year- hammering home her message in case we'd forgotten:
"Last year VSO warned that gappers risked becoming the new colonialists if attitudes to voluntary work in the developing world didn't change. It argued that the gap year market was increasingly catering to the needs of volunteers, rather than the communities they claim to support."
Dutifully papers like the Daily Telegraph, The Times and Daily Mail printed the whole of the press release pretty much slanted in such a way that the message seemed to be that volunteering abroad is basically an ineffective guilt soothing waste of time. Daily Mail reader Mike from Dunstable better sums up this school of thought than I can:
"I don't understand why all of a sudden students seem to think it compulsory to have a "gap year" which appears to be a waste of time. Why can't they go straight off to university and waste their time there instead."
Unfortunately none of the papers printed what the VSO Director seemed to be basically saying which was: if you're going to do voluntary work overseas research it well. VSO produced an interesting checklist that serves to ensure volunteers should have, rightly, high expectations of their volunteer management:
1. Will you be given a defined role and purpose?
2. Will you meet face to face with your provider and attend a selection day to assess your suitability for the volunteering opportunities and gain detailed information about the structure of your placement?
3. How much will it cost and what does this pay for?
4. How will you be supported with training and personal development needs before, during and after your placement?
5. Is the work you do linked to long-term community partnerships that have a lasting impact? And how do volunteers work in partnership with the local community?
6. Does the organisation you are going with have established offices overseas that work in partnership with local people?
7. Can your organisation guarantee you 24 hour a day health, safety and security assistance?
8. Does the organisation have a commitment to diversity amongst its volunteers?
9. How does the organisation encourage long-term awareness of real development issues?
10. How will your work be monitored and evaluated so that others can build on what you have done?
If we want to improve standards in volunteer management, educating potential volunteers about what the ingredients to a worthwhile volunteering experience are, is surely an important part of this.
There's certainly an interesting debate to be had and it's worth reading the case studies in The Guardian (last year!). There's a firey debate after The Times article. The Guardian this year asks rather facetiously whether gap years should be for 'backpacking' fun?
The pick of the crop is this thoughtful article blogged by Alex Klaushofer at AlertNet titled "Are gap-year do-gooders wasting their time?"
What certainly comes through is that volunteering certainly is a hot topic which has a wider appeal than many give it credit for. The challenge for us is how to help ensure high standards in volunteering are ensured. Last year Dr. Kate Simpson launched the initiative Ethical Volunteering which takes anyone interested in volunteering through three steps to finding and discerning ethical and valuable volunteering experiences.
I have to declare an interest in this issue as someone who volunteered abroad for eight years. Much of the polemic comes from companies selling volunteering experiences. Tom Griffiths, Founder of gapyear.com, a portal for finding gapyear placements, questions VSO's neutrality making the point that VSO is itself a competitor working to attract gapyearers. It's interesting to ponder whether when the volunteer is a paying customer who the actual beneficiary is in the equation.
One point I'd agree with that comes through is that research is key and paying an agency should not be seen as a way of shortcutting this time consuming process. Often you'll be handsomely repaid for every hour you spend doing you research, looking into opportunities, communities, personal skills, etc., whether or not you volunteer via an agency.
People should not rule out doing this research in situ and build in a certain period of time for getting your bearings (learning language, finding your way around, meeting the people) before starting to volunteer. So often the most interesting opportunities are advertised word of mouth and can only be found once you're there. In addition, organisations will inevitably listen more to anyone who's already in the country and you'll be better placed to say realistically what you're able to offer.
In summary, it comes back to the guidance from ethical volunteering:
1) Look for an ethical organisation
2) Question the organisation
3) Question yourself
As JFK (who set up the Peace Corps) said (almost): ask yourself what you can offer the community through volunteering, not what the community can offer you because you're volunteering.
Keep this to heart and your volunteering during your gapyear (whenever you take it) could well be one of the most rewarding, minute for minute, of your life.