“Exploitation of young gappers and vulnerable communities MUST stop” – or should it?

Sallie Grayson sent me this controversial article – what do you think? I’m off to Nepal so the blog will take a hiatus but let’s keep the debate raging.


“Irresponsible, lazy, ignorant, insensitive, disrespectful, uninformed and with no purpose”

This is the opinion of people and places – which is a volunteer recruitment organisation! But they’re not talking about young ‘gappers’ here. They’re talking about many of the organisations that recruit these young people for “volunteer” experiences.


people and places work has just been recognised by the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards – the most prestigious and competitive of their kind in the world – winning the best volunteering category for 2009.


Judges Citation: “people and places has exercised leadership in a sector bedevilled by poor practice and established a replicable business model. Committed to reporting transparently on the money that volunteers pay, they ensure that the volunteers meet their full costs and are not a burden on the community; and carefully match the skills of volunteers to the needs of that community without replacing local labour. They have taken the ground breaking step of having their work externally audited and publishing it online. These four principles set not only a practicable standard for operators to aspire to, but offer valuable guidelines for tourists seeking legitimate and socially beneficial volunteering experiences.”

people and places has been working with local communities in Africa, Asia and South America for the last 4 years, matching skilled volunteers to community needs, with the vast majority of volunteers to date having been over 35, with hard skills to offer.

Now the organisation believes this programme can be extended to the GAP market. As a campaigning organisation, it is keen to bring about change in this least responsible sector of the volunteer market.

“There’s much debate about the validity of volunteering by the traditional ‘gapper’ – post school or university,” says Sallie Grayson, programme director at people and places, “but we firmly believe that these young people have real skills to share, and that with good management and planning, they can help to make a real difference in the communities we serve as well as having a meaningful adventure.

“We’ve worked with our local partners and their communities to design volunteer placements specifically for ‘gappers’, adding a younger element to the larger programme. These young people won’t be replacing local employment and will be part of an ongoing programme that is helping vulnerable communities build the future they want for themselves. We started people and places to campaign for integrity in the volunteer travel market and to promote responsible volunteering – we’re proud that our work has been recognised by such prestigious awards, but we’re not using this as an excuse to rest on our laurels! We see this award as an opportunity to raise the bar and challenge others to do the same.

Well-run volunteer placements provide true social interaction and can develop a profound understanding among people – they can be life-changing experiences for volunteers and local communities.

BUT, all too often, a volunteer trip can be a recipe for disaster – for both parties.

When host communities are vulnerable and eager for assistance, it is a common occurrence for them to be bullied or exploited by volunteer service providers. All too often, a project has little say in the numbers or experience of volunteers who they feel obliged to accept. This lack of consultation can have devastating results – a school may be sent 10 or 12 young volunteers who find themselves hanging around with little to do, other than get in the way of hard pressed local people; gullible (but not guilty) young volunteers may arrive in their projects to discover that their hosts cannot afford to feed them because they cannot afford to feed themselves; volunteers find out that none of their hard earned money has found its way to these hard pressed communities.


There is often equally serious exploitation of young gappers.


“We hear far too many stories from young volunteers of abandonment at airports, last minute changes to completely inappropriate projects, placement in communities where no-one knows anything about them or the fact that they’re coming – until they’re “dropped of” by the local representative (who they can’t contact for the rest of their stay.)


“Inaccurate information is breathtaking and bordering on illegal – descriptions of homestay families who aren’t real but more of a ‘template’ to give a general idea of where these vulnerable young people “may” be staying.”


But how do trusting, well-meaning gappers find themselves in this kind of situation?


All too many volunteer organisations sell a smoke and mirrors promise, using all the buzz words and taking advantage of the fact that they can tell volunteers what they want to hear: “responsible, meaningful, sustainable, ethical, community driven – SAFE!”

people and places has developed a list of questions to ask – and they strongly suggest that all potential volunteers should ask these questions of any organisation they are considering travelling with.

“There are good organisations out there – usually with little or no marketing budget to compete with the presence of ‘the big boys’ – organisations like Blue Ventures, Peru’s Challenge, CREES, Azafady. We want to encourage gappers to find them, and we’ve produced the questions as a helpful tool – we also want gappers to search the chat rooms and forums, read newspaper archives, talk to their friends and families about volunteering.

“And if you’ve had a bad experience, post it on the web or contact us and we’ll post it.

“The bottom line is – do your research – use your head, not your heart!”


2 thoughts on ““Exploitation of young gappers and vulnerable communities MUST stop” – or should it?

  1. First of all, congratulations to Sallie Grayson and people and places. An award is only as good as you make of it, and it looks as though people and places are using the award as leverage to now go into a very interesting area of volunteer abroad and make a huge and positive difference.

    In our experience at GeoVisions, we lean towards older volunteers for many of the reasons Sallie puts forth in her article. Although I think GeoVisions does a great job in background checks and looking over required materials for us to make a match for a project…they is usually (almost always) contradicted by helicopter parents who now “assume” they own the experience, not their child. And the fact that many projects require a 2-5 month commitment and 19 year olds find that very daunting and almost impossible to do. And who can blame them? Every 30-minutes is a new day for me. And I’m 60.

    More to Sallie’s point, GeoVisions last year started using a 15-page Risk Management report that we do on each project we verify. We receive 5-10 requests PER WEEK from new projects we’ve never hear of for our volunteers. First, unless we meet the people at the project, they have no chance at GeoVisions. 2nd, if they don’t have the budget to find us or to come to where we may be (we have at least one person on the ground globally 24/7 traveling to visit projects) then we don’t accept them.

    There is much ado right now about Best Practices. BBC is working on a survey right now and WYSTC is just finishing up the final edits on their (our) Best Practices manual. Unless Best Practices includes how to deal with the actual projects (since there is no Best Practices out there projects can subscribe to that I know of) then we can set the very best example on our end, and send college students into an awful lot of trouble.

    I don’t agree with Voluntourism Gal’s assessment that this is controversial at all. It’s reality.

    Good luck to Sallie with your quest and again, congratulations!

    Randy LeGrant
    Executive Director

  2. Thanks Randy, we certainly intend to use the platform of the award to continue our campaigning. We too receive dozens of applications a week from projects. But I am able to respond that we work with projects through local partners – people who are in and of their community and know so much better than we the needs of the community.These local partners are at the core of our model and the award is more theirs than ours!
    Randy if there is anything we can do together to address the bad practices in this particular marketplace or encourage best practice – please let me know. sallie@travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk.
    Go well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s