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The Social Cost of Volunteer Work

The Social Cost of Volunteer Work

After I graduated from high school I was filled with the wish to see the world, to experience new cultures and to leave the dull day to day live in northern Germany. I was definitely not the only one, who decided to let university wait for another year (or two) and explore the world. In fact so many of my classmates went to New Zealand and Australia that they just accidentally ran into each other from time to time as, all following the holy lines of the Lonely Planet pilgrimage, the hotspots for the backpackers were often the same.

This likeliness of travelers is not a coincidence, it is the result of the huge industry behind it. Backpacking has changed. What was once the search for your own soul and far away cultures, today has become a big business, fulfilling every wish a traveler could have and offering services that range from organized trips and cheap flights for the ones looking for a nice getaway to the new trend voluntourism for the more philanthropic traveler. The sta travel group, a travel agency specializing in making youth oversea journeys as easy as booking an all-inclusive get away to Turkey, sold services for almost a billion US Dollars in 2011.

Next to simply experiencing new cultures and seeing new countries, collecting work experience abroad is the main goals of many young backpackers. A gap year after school is used to learn English, leave the rainy weather of home for a while and ideally make some money while you are at it. In fact the Australian fruit and vegetable industry is so sure that enough northern Europeans are willing to leave their grey day to day life behind to seize the joy of harvesting grapes and take care of kettle in Australian heat, that their sector pretty much relies on this work force.

While Australia keeps advertising their country as a great backpacking location and is happy to welcome the temporary workforce, which is assured to go back to their own countries, they keep intensifying the migration and asylum laws for migrants from troubled regions such as Indonesia. While Australia alone granted their work and travel visas to almost 250 thousand young travelers from all over their world, around 1000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East die each year on their boat trips to Australia, trying to reach a better life in the western country.


Next to the huge work and travel industry baiting thousands of Europeans to New Zealand, Canada and Australia, a new trend has risen, combining the wish to see a different culture, the wish to help and the awareness of the gold star that doing social work will add to your CV: voluntourism. Much like the work and travel industry this sector also focuses on the demands of the paying costumer instead of the people in need.

Voluntourism takes advantage of the young Westerners, trying to help in developing countries and their idea that without work experience abroad getting a job later on will be incredibly hard, by charging up to a thousand dollars for two months full of work, often exceeding the 40 hour week. For many of these so called charity jobs the volunteers also have to find their own accommodation and food- if they are not willing to pay a few dollars extra to the agencies, arranging the stays oversea.

Work placements with children or animals are the most popular ones, as nothing will get you as many facebook-likes as a picture of you holding a brightly smiling orphan or a little baby animal and as we all know: in the end these trips are about making your friends as jealous as possible, while looking extremely selfless. And of course these children should be okay with getting to know new volunteers every three months, as wasting more that two or three months of your precious time on working seems a little exaggerated. After all you still want to see something of the country you are visiting! However labeling these voluntourists as arrogant young westerners or suffering from the pressure of cramming as much extra curricular activities, hobbies and social work in their CVs as humanly possible, ignores that the organizations behind these work placements are anything but social companies. From the thousands of dollars that are paid to work in these project often nothing more than about 20 dollars are given to the actual people in need, running the orphanages or schools in which the voluntourists work.

While we may be sorry for the youngsters just freshly out of high school, spending their hard earned money on these trips and then being gutted about the wrong picture of glorious beaches, happy children and the possibility to be an important partaker in the fight against global inequality, presented to them, the real losers here are the people in the developing world. They are being cheated of 14077222015_7450146c29_zmoney that huge travel companies definitely do not need and it are their children who are suffering from inexperienced kids toying with their education and the emotions, who will have to let go off their so called attachment figures after only a few months and are then expected to welcome the next person with equally open arms. These projects are not made to help the people in the developing world, they are structured to fulfill the expectations of the voluntourist and often at the cost of the people they are supposedly helping.

The real problem is not young westerners wanting to gain experience in other countries or their dreams not being fulfilled, the real problem is the greediness of companies and governments fulfilling these wishes by exploiting people who it will harm a lot deeper than these Western kids looking for an adventure. This ideal of making business of anything once again widens the gap between developed and developing world.


By Céline Sonnenberg

Image Credit:

Picture 1: Michael McDonough, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2

Picture 2: ccbarr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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