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Who is your gap year project really helping?

Becky Crawford argues that not all help is holy and questions whether young people willing to volunteer should always be allowed to jump straight in

“So what did you do on your gap year then?” This is a familiar question to all those who opted to take a year’s break between school and higher education.

Mostly, the answer is travel, quickly followed by a claim to have done charity work in a developing country. This charity work can involve anything from teaching and community work to conservation or construction. However, the question begs to be asked: whom are these projects really helping, besides the volunteers?

Volunteer tourism and gap year projects have taken such a rise in the last decade that the organizations running these projects are often large profit-making businesses.

The appeal is clear: being able to travel the world whilst also ‘doing good’. It seems like a win-win situation, until these projects begin to harm the local community, rather than benefit them.

Firstly, we should examine the motives of the flock of Western teenagers eager to be flung to all four corners of the earth – a short- term break before returning back to ‘real life’. Is it the burning desire to see change in the lives of low economic income families in that South African township that motivates young people to spend 2 months in Cape Town? Or is the allure of taking a selfie while stroking an elephant’s trunk or holding a cute African child?

Western culture is often guilty of projecting needs onto others. If we see someone living without a house, we assume that is what they need. This logic can seem simple, but it results in the charity giver feeling pleased about themselves. However, all they have done is projected their way of life onto someone else.

Too many charities are recruiting young volunteers to fulfill the needs projected onto the people by Western culture, rather than fulfilling the needs that actually exist. For example, volunteering at an orphanage can easily create a dependency syndrome for the vulnerable children involved. They form attachments to the ever revolving sphere of volunteers, only for them to leave after a few months, thus deepening the chasm of pre-existing abandonment issues. Therefore, if your motive for spending your gap year in a developing country is not to actively address a need that actually exists, then maybe it is time to question your impact.

Furthermore, gap year volunteers are often under equipped to have any long lasting impact in a situation. Volunteers without teaching qualifications are able to teach children not just English but a plethora of subjects. Volunteers help with construction, ignoring the fact that the country in question hosts qualified builders who could actually earn a living from completing a job better than they could. Not to mention the language barrier that is often a huge obstacle in even communicating with the local people.

We have somehow developed a culture in which, contrary to meritocracy, the fact that you are willing to volunteer is more important than the skills you can bring.

Of course, on the surface, this is a good thing. We should take advantage of young people who are willing to volunteer their time for a good cause. However, this can become very damaging when it idealises the ‘white saviour’ image. If Indian slum children’s only role models are Western volunteers, this sends both the message that they need to be ‘helped’, and that this ‘help’ cannot come from people of their own culture and heritage.

Travel is great. Visiting other cultures opens your eyes, introduces you to new perspectives, and helps you to establish your identity. However, there needs to be a cultural shift that is not happy to accept people blindly ‘helping’ without intelligently questioning what impact Western volunteers can have on the world, and who they are there for. Sustainable and long term development should always be the primary aim, not just a holiday that results in exotic selfies.

Image: Flickr/Moving Mountains Trust

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