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.”
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