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Gap years: virtuous volunteering or a colonial hangover?


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From nascent beginnings around forty years ago, the gap year has experienced a swelling wave of popularity and the tides show no sign of turning. It is estimated that a surge of 2.5 million students planned on opting for a year out to travel in 2012. Whilst a study conducted by the University of Western Australia upholds that gap year students receive higher marks than those who pass directly from school to university, by a margin of around 2.3% higher in first year, the gap year has been plagued by controversy.

Criticisms levelled at gap years include allegations of being the pursuit of the privileged and most condemningly, as an idea born of the fractured remnants of neo-colonialism.

One of the sobering realities of what is often perceived as a drink-fuelled binge overseas, is the exploitation that many projects for inexperienced Westerners can engender. Tour company founder Daniela Papi offers a damning critique of some gap year volunteering projects in a piece that interrogates the relationship between volunteers and the people they are meant to be serving. Whilst volunteering in deprived areas can offer the warm rush of goodwill for participants, it can also be detrimental for those they are supposed to be helping.

Whilst many volunteers are driven by deep rooted desires to help those less fortunate and do strive for a reciprocal relationship, this is often difficult to achieve in an erratic environment. In recent years we have witnessed an unprecedented explosion of interest in helping in orphanages for example. Although the majority of travellers have sincere aims to aid orphaned and vulnerable children, many of these face fragile futures and are then subjected to the instability of an unremitting ebb and flow of new faces, which may only be around for a period of weeks.

Furthermore, such interest has lead to such establishments becoming businesses; in 2011 Unicef reported a startling spike in the number of orphanages in Cambodia during the last five years and suggests that only 28% of “orphans” have lost both parents. Furthermore, whilst 21 of these organisations are state run, the remaining 248 are privately owned and funded by tourists and volunteering projects. Unicef warns tourists that "the open access of volunteers to children presents a significant child protection risk.”

It also seems that the gap year industry is a tightly wrought, gold standard business; for a princely £479 you can build a house in Costa Rica (one week) or you can be a medical volunteer for the healthy sum of £2,799 (eight weeks) in Namibia. The glaring problem with such projects is that you don’t earn your place, you pay for it and often require no previous experience to work with an often vulnerable demographic. One student I spoke to claimed to have assisted in an operation in a Cambodian hospital at 18 years old, despite an obvious lack of medical training. Sadly, the monetary motivations that bolster some gap year organisations designed to help those most in need frequently exploit the naivety of would-be philanthropists and the needs of LEDCs alike.

Additionally, due to the lack of experience offered by swarms of volunteers that annually flood the shores of South East Asia, South America and Africa, a report from think-tank Demos reveals that one in five people said that they did not feel that their presence abroad made any discernible difference to the lives of those they went to help. But how could it? Most of these well-intentioned holiday makers do not have the experience or the know-how to effectively build houses, teach English or help support sustainable projects. This eagerness to accept anyone to work abroad, often in precarious settings and in positions of responsibility, conceals a neocolonial undercurrent that suggests that the third world is a practicing ground for comfortably off Westerners. 

A student I spoke with, who had had a gap year but had not participated in volunteering projects, justified his decision by arguing that he found that volunteers sometimes take the attitude that a gap year is a rite of passage, rather than a moral duty. He added that people often take a gap year to learn about the third world and then come back with the attitude that they have now done their bit, after seeing the human face of suffering and that this view could potentially serve as a way of legitimising apathy later on in life.

Although it is generally assumed that volunteering can leave a young person with new found perspectives, studies suggest that volunteer tourists’ previously formed perceptions of poverty can in fact be reinforced, if not coupled with encouragement to question the broader issues that surround global inequalities. Sadly, volunteers do sometimes leave their newly adopted home with rose tinted ideas of poorer peoples’ acceptance of their lot and an idealised view of their apparent lack of materialism. Furthermore many attribute the poverty of the Other to luck, rather than globalisation and the workings of an international economy.

In contrast, some gap year organisations do lead projects with greater longevity and ethically sustainable objectives; movements such as Fair Trade Volunteering, launched in 2012, promote ethical volunteering within the sector. To make sure your desires to do good translate into concrete realities it is important to research the company you want to work for to search for tangible signs of collaboration with the local community and to collate more information about their long term goals.

To give gap year volunteering a sustainable and morally driven future, we must reject the simplistic idea that seeing poverty and suffering abroad equates to knowing and understanding it, let alone assuming that a few weeks of volunteering can diminish its vice-like grip over communities. To encourage a genuine sense of global citizenry, we first need to teach people how to help before sending off swathes of hapless teenagers to countries afflicted by poverty.

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