Earlier this month, California-based Scottish actress Louise Linton became the target of international ridicule after an extract of her memoir about volunteering in Zambia on a gap year was published by the Telegraph newspaper.

Her writing drew criticism for inaccuracies and for promoting harmful stereotypes about Africa. But Linton’s memoir of her Zambian experience also raised fundamental questions about overseas volunteer programmes for gap-year students.

A tradition that started in Britain in the 1960s, gap years are a rite of passage for young people often from Western nations who typically spend a year between school and university volunteering in poor countries.

However, volunteer programmes can be prohibitively expensive, costing thousands of dollars to join. Also disputed is the effectiveness of their efforts to make a sustainable difference to poor societies they claim to serve, with some research even suggesting they can be damaging. Inevitably, questions are being raised as to whether the whole concept of gap-year travelling and charity work has now become “voluntourism”, where the wealthy travel under the guise of doing good, but in fact contribute little.

Mind the wealth gap

Gap-year volunteering is more about young privileged people and “poverty tourism” than about actually helping underprivileged communities in a poor village in Africa, Asia or Latin America, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Goldrick-Rab is the author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.

So-called poverty tourism is a growing trend where tourists from wealthy countries make short trips to poor neighbourhoods while on holiday in developing countries to get a sense of real life for poor communities there.

There’s a social-class gap in the so-called gap year - Sara Goldrick-Rab

“There’s a social-class gap in the so-called gap year,” said Goldrick-Rab, who authored a study about gap-year and socio-economic inequalities. “Only the truly privileged can afford to go abroad and to double-down on that with poverty tourism. It’s pretty outrageous.”

She particularly deplores the glamourisation of gap years: “It’s especially appalling because gap years are pitched to people like a lovely way to spend time between high school and college.”

In reality, many poor and working-class students cannot afford to pay for university and are forced to take a year off to work and save, she added.

And, the fees and other costs of some of these programmes clearly bear out the pricing bias. A four-to-five week gap-year adventure to an African country — and there is a whole range of causes and countries to choose from — could set a gapper back anywhere from $3,830 to more than $6,000, excluding airfares.

There are very good reasons for the high costs of some volunteer-focused gap-year programmes, said Ethan Knight, executive director and founder at American Gap Association, in Portland, Oregon.

“The best volunteer organisations have a primary contact on the ground that they're paying even when students are not on site,” he said. “There’s also a solid risk-management plan and insurance to evacuate, medical and mental health consultants in case something should go wrong, and often times a paid staff or educator whose job is to supervise student-safety but also to help educate and reflect with students.”

Still, when it comes to volunteers making a real difference, the length of time on the ground is essential. “[The impact] is exponential the longer the student is on site, but increasingly easy to be of detriment the shorter on site,” said Knight. While the hope is for the local students to interact with and learn from these communities, there is a “decent chance that the project isn't part of a larger vision for the community thus leading to a much-reduced benefit if at all,” Knight added.

There was also the “possibility for US students to create drama through a poor understanding of local mores and customs, a potential lack of what the community really needs, which in most cases are skill development and not a painted mural”.  

Cost challenge

Ellan Dickieson was completing her final year of an undergraduate programme in psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, Canada when she decided to spent eight months in Botswana in 2008. She hoped to gain some useful experience needed for a master’s degree in social work she planned to pursue.

The challenge was to come up with C$4,000 ($3050) said Dickieson, 30, now working as a creditor relations specialist at Credit Counselling Canada.

These opportunities are limited to kids from not necessarily rich, but definitely middle- to upper-class families

Dickieson raised the funds with the help of local community groups and hosted some “dinners for donation”, which made the trip possible. The Botswana experience, she said, benefited her in getting into her master’s programme, which allowed her to take on lead roles within organisations.

“There is a significant cost and I would agree that these opportunities are limited to kids from not necessarily rich, but definitely middle- to upper-class families,” she said.

The commodification of gap years is particularly concerning in the UK, said Fabian Frenzel, a lecturer at the University of Leicester and author of Slumming It: The Tourist Valorisation of Urban Poverty. “It would be good if the British government considered reviving state-sponsored volunteering programmes to offer an alternative to the highly commercialised market and open the experience to people from all backgrounds,” he said.

Altruistic or agenda-driven?

There is some skepticism about the motive of young students wanting to do social good in faraway countries with cultures, customs and climates alien to them. After all, why not volunteer closer to home?

I felt as though everyone wanted a profile picture of themselves with orphans in Africa – Ellan Dickieson

Dickieson, who has spent four years on and off in Botswana, has seen this first-hand. While working with a local kids’ club, she would be beseeched by young volunteers from abroad requesting short-term placement. “I felt as though everyone wanted a profile picture of themselves with orphans in Africa,” she said. “It was a check off their bucket list, and taking these volunteers to the kids’ club felt unethical and exploitative.”

Similar accusations of flippancy were made against Linton, who was accused of trying to augment her own self-esteem, rather than the lives of those she encountered during her time volunteering in Zambia.

Frenzel conceded that ethical and social ideals of volunteering can’t be separated from selfish agendas. “Whenever doing good gets advertised as such, it is no longer from a purely ethical perspective, [or] completely altruistic,” he said. “Moral philosophy tells us that the only way to really do good is to do it secretly.”

Effectiveness of programmes

Detractors argue that brief excursions to poor communities make little difference to the lives of the impoverished. Worse, the more expensive the programme, the less socially responsible it is, according to a study conducted by Leeds Metropolitan University, in the UK.

Some organisations will exploit well-meaning people’s intentions for profit

Some organisations will exploit well-meaning people’s intentions for profit, said Rachel Harrison, director of recruitment, delivery and communications at London-based Raleigh International, a charity that provides overseas volunteer projects for people taking a gap year or career break.

“It’s important that the young people do their research and think long and hard about why they want to get involved,” she said. “They need to be looking to work with an organisation that runs long-term programmes that form part of the local and national development plans.”

Words of wisdom?

Many gap-year travellers like to share their experiences — through blogs or books — in the hope of inspiring and engaging their peers. This could be a tricky undertaking that can easily backfire, as Linton discovered when her book was slammed on social media, spawning the #LintonLies hashtag.

Emma Harrison, head of global communications at UK-based Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), stressed sensitivity and honesty as key to communicating experiences in different cultures. And that is exactly where many quick-dip accounts of gap-year volunteers falter. “It is very naïve to think that we can understand the intricacies of a culture in a short period of time,” said Dickieson, who wrote a blog on her Botswana experience. “You need to be very careful when you choose to share your experience publicly.”

The fear of offending, however, shouldn’t hold people back, argued Frenzel. “Sure, there’s good writing and bad writing,” he said. “But writing is an act that allows others to debate with us, to put our thoughts into some logic. It is indispensable for a global debate on social justice and equality.”

But for a more direct impact of their gap year volunteering efforts, students should only pick a programme after rigorous research. “An educated volunteer will understand that the [programme’s] impact is much more so than building a wall or any number of other seemingly minor projects,” said Knight. Hopefully, he says, they are “building a relationship that will benefit the locals much more long-term”.

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