TLDR: Don't travel with World Unite

Last month, my girlfriend and I spent two weeks in Zanzibar to learn Swahili. We decided to go through an organization that friends of us had recommended, called World Unite. This turned out to be a mistake.

World Unite is an organization that not only offers language lessons, but also acts as a middleman for volunteering positions in East Africa, South America, India, and a few other places. At the time, we didn't think about this twice, but when we got to Zanzibar and got to know how the organization worked, we realized that we might be inadvertently sponsoring the activities of a very questionable company.

The first sign that something might be wrong was when our language teacher asked us to lend her a small amount of money, the equivalent of about 8 euros, so she could pay her electricity bill and keep the lights on. We were surprised by this, because we knew she had been paid in advance for our language lessons, and at the rate of €21,60 per hour, which was what World Unite charged us, she would have had to receive 432 euros, which is a small fortune on Zanzibar. The average wage, as reported by the BBC in 2015, is less than 1 USD a day.

The truth was, as we discovered later when our teacher tried to repay us, that she received only 1/5th of the money we had paid to World Unite. With all the family members she was supporting, this just wasn't enough for her to be able to pay for electricity on time.

And it's not just that. I understand that an organization like this needs some money to cover operational costs, but it appears that World Unite is deliberately trying to hide that they are making a profit in the way they present their invoices.

Our invoice consisted of three items:

  • Language lessons: €432
  • Service fee: €100
  • Ferry port pick up: €20

Looking at this, one might expect that apart from the service fee, there might be some percentage of overhead on the language lessons, but an 80% profit margin seems outrageous.

Upset by what we learned, we decided to send an email to World Unite to explain the situation to them, and request a partial refund, so that we could pay this money directly to the teacher. They responded with the message that they would not be providing a refund, and also that: World Unite! is not a charitable organization.

That last statement is interesting, not because it is deceptive, but because it is entirely accurate. World Unite manages to come across as a non-profit, because of the way they market themselves, but the opposite is true. Their website for instance, looks like your typical NGO website, with pictures of volunteers helping out those who are in need. We asked around among the volunteers we met that worked through World Unite, and almost all of them assumed that they were dealing with a non-profit organization.

There might not be any malicious intent in the way that World Unite presents itself and how it conducts its operations, but it is problematic nonetheless. Because it is a for-profit company, it is not hard to imagine why the focus seems to be on selling experiences, rather than contributing positively to local society. It became clear, from the volunteers that we spoke to, that World Unite is more concerned with selling voluntourism trips than it is with the effects that this form of tourism has on the participants and the welfare of the locals they are proclaiming to help.

One of the volunteers told us that she was working at a psychiatric clinic. The conditions at this clinic were so poor, even for local standards, that she decided to confront World Unite's Zanzibar coordinator about this. The coordinator simply responded by saying that she was sorry the placement had not worked out as the volunteer had expected, without taking any responsibility or showing any concern for the wellbeing of patients at this clinic.

Other volunteers taught classes at a local school. When asked about how much they thought they were contributing, they admitted that because they were there, the teachers that were paid to teach the classes had nothing to do. They were just hanging out around the school, because the volunteers, who neither spoke the language nor understood the culture, had taken over their jobs.

These examples point to a reality where good intentions are converted into profits, instead of being turned into something useful. All at the expense of the local community. Unfortunately, while this is just one organization, the same sort of examples can probably be found in many other places. And even though this topic has been well covered in, amongst others, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post, not everyone is aware of the issues surrounding voluntourism, which allows organizations like World Unite to operate like they always have.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that all volunteer work is somehow bad, but please be careful when you go out there looking for life changing experiences, and try to investigate what the effects of your trip might be, before jumping into something. And most of all, be wary of companies that are making a profit exploiting good intentions.