Gap year: the pros and cons of voluntourism

It should have taken Nathan Bennett 15 minutes to walk along the dirt track towards the school in Tanzania where he recently volunteered.

But by the end of his four months in Moshi, a village in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, it took him 90 minutes to make the journey, after chatting to crowds of smiling locals and playing with the hordes of excited children who turned out to greet him.

The 27-year-old, from Kensington, in Melbourne, spent his time volunteering in an orphanage, where he taught preschool children basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Despite not knowing the local language of Swahili before he arrived, Bennett said he had no trouble communicating with the children, giving praise with a universal thumbs-up, and he was able to build strong relationships.

"The kids were very fragile and some of them had had an unstable life," he says. "So being there for them every day gave them a bit of stability."

Bennett chose to volunteer because of a simple desire to make a difference to a community in Africa, even if his contribution was only small.

Thousands of young people share similar ambitions and volunteering abroad is quickly becoming a burgeoning tourism industry, worth $2.6 billion worldwide. 

The industry is known as "voluntourism" and involves participants travelling overseas to work in a developing community.

The work varies from building projects, teaching, conservation, medicine, journalism, human rights or archaeology.


Volunteering is a costly venture, and students taking time off from their studies are paying big bucks to "work, explore and immerse" themselves in a cultural experience.

One of the largest international volunteer organisations, Projects Abroad, operates in 29 countries, including Cambodia, Nepal, Tanzania and Peru.

Australian company manager Will Pashley says volunteering in students' gap year or uni break is now seen as something productive and worthwhile.

"Volunteers are immersing themselves, adopting and embracing a different lifestyle, far away from the comforts of an air-conditioned home or office," Pashley says.

"There are challenges; they need to be resourceful, patient and creative, but the experience it builds confidence, leadership and the team-work skills of individuals.

"They might not change the world, but they're going to contribute something."

But despite the benefits of volunteering abroad, there are some stark criticisms of this booming and profitable industry.

Bennett's orphanage experience in Tanzania was largely positive, but he acknowledges leaving the kids was "traumatic" for them, a concern also raised by international children's fund, UNICEF.

International program co-ordinator for UNICEF Rebecca Keogh says it is a huge problem when children experience the loss of a short-term connection with a foreign caregiver.

"Building relationships with a series of volunteers ... erodes the traditional care structure that helps with the healthy development of children," Keogh says.

"We take the safety, security and protection of the children in our care [in Australia] very seriously and we recognise that children are vulnerable and it requires professionals to provide adequate care.

"Tourists who want to visit orphanages should question if it's not appropriate in their own country, why is it appropriate somewhere else?"

Keogh also suggests the commercialisation of volunteering has led to a rise in orphanage tourism, which creates a problem of supply and demand.

"Three out of every four children in a Cambodian orphanage have a community-based living option with family members," she says.

"But families are enticed by the prospect of better education for their child, and in some cases there is active recruitment. Orphanage providers go into local communities and promote that a child will have better care."

Associate Fellow of the Institute of Social Justice at the Australian Catholic University Dr Nichole Georgeou agrees, denouncing the trend of "orphanages being seen as a business opportunity".

"The orphanage owners are getting the lion's share of the profits and the kids are having to perform constantly for bus loads of Western tourists," she says.

"In many cases, there aren't police checks for volunteers, so people could easily take children out of the orphanages and anything could happen to them."

Cambodian orphanage the Children's Umbrella Centre Organisation was a popular destination for volunteers before being shut down in 2012 following complaints by short-term workers about cases of abuse, neglect and improper treatment of the children by the centre's director.

Pashley says Projects Abroad takes child protection very seriously, with strict training for volunteers and policies on photography.

"We are really responsible about this; we ask for police checks and we encourage volunteers to be appropriate with photography," he says.

"There are designated times when it is OK to take a photo with a group of children, but we don't encourage them to take photos of the children by themselves ... images can be easily exploited."

Keogh points out that people volunteer overseas with the best intentions, but "can unintentionally cause more harm than good".

"No one is saying volunteering is a bad thing, but people need to be really well informed ... and know which skills they bring to the table," she says.

Skills and education-based programs are seen as the most beneficial and sustainable for both the volunteers and the overseas communities.

Megan Speer is another example of the growing number of voluntourists who wishes to put her skills to good use, while giving back to those in need.

The 20-year-old from Newcastle is preparing to volunteer in the Philippines for two months starting next month, where she will work in a children's shelter, offering advice on children's activities and helping out during meal times.

A social science student at Macquarie University in Sydney, Speer says she is aware of the dangers of voluntourism and realises that her contribution in the Philippines will only be small.

"What reassures me is the fact that when I leave, another group of people will be there to continue the work," Speer says.

She wants to build a career around helping others, either working for a non-government organisation or helping with refugee resettlement.

Georgeou says she advocates for skills-based programs, with an educational component.

"If people are serious about doing something and understanding what poverty is, a long-term immersion and education program is the best opportunity," she says.

PEPY Tours is one organisation which focuses on "responsible travel", while Palms Australia Overseas Volunteering emphasises the recruitment of skilled volunteers for their two-year programs. 

Palms executive director Roger O'Halloran says their programs are initiated when they receive a request from communities overseas to help develop services and address community concerns.

"In East Timor, a community recognised they needed someone with qualifications and skills to address an erosion problem affecting water pipes. So we sent an environmental engineer, who shared her skills with members of the community," O'Halloran says.

"I'm cynical about voluntourism when building programs are done by people who aren't trained, which takes the opportunity away from local people who could be trained to do them.

"But it can open people's eyes and volunteers learn that situations should be addressed in a more meaningful way."