Filling a gap

Why some British teens seek a sense of purpose by spending 'gap years' among the world's poor and downtrodden.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Travel broadens the mind. Or so they say. With A-level results released today, thousands of young Britons will be heading, not for university, but for the far-flung corners of the Earth. In particular, an increasing number will fork out thousands of pounds for the privilege of doing unpaid work with some of the world’s poor. What’s the point?

Judith Brodie, head of the charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), caused a stink this week by criticising the thinking that lies behind the provision of gap years. ‘The prevailing attitude towards gap years risks becoming outdated and colonial as it tends to focus on how British youngsters can help poor communities overseas, rather than on what we can learn from them.’

She seemed to contradict herself, though, when she complained that there was too little focus on whether the gap years in question actually help those on the receiving end. ‘Some gap-year providers seem to pay little attention to whether young people are actually making any real long-term difference to the communities they are working in’, Brodie complained. ‘It’s an “all about us” attitude.’

Some of the examples of gap years highlighted in the press in recent days do indeed show up the pointlessness of many of these experiences. One gapper in Madagascar, tasked with surveying a reef, discovered that the survey had been done 20 times previously by other volunteers. Another gapper went to Malaysia only to find that the school in which she was supposed to be teaching English was closed for the summer holidays. The Scotsman interviewed a woman who went to Mexico to assist on environmental projects only to find that there was little for her to do. She ended up spending most of her time entering data into spreadsheets in an office.

When gap years have become such big business, and the number of volunteers seems to outweigh the work they can usefully do (especially given the fact that most 18-year-olds don’t have a great deal to offer in the way of skills), it is hardly surprising that some organisations will try to cash in while selling travellers short. But when even Princes William and Harry feel obliged to scrub toilets and comfort African babies during worthy trips abroad, it is clear that the desire to have a life-changing experience overseas before committing oneself to university or work reveals something worrying about British society today.

The problem is not that the gap-year experience itself is pointless but that everyday life in the West is seen to be pointless. Feeling unfulfilled by life and politics at home, some British youth go looking for ‘enlightenment’ abroad. From this perspective, Brodie is right: gappers are trying to find some meaning to life. The result is that gap years are all too often about me, me, me. When The Times (London) asked for readers’ reactions to Brodie’s comments, one young woman wrote: ‘What’s the point of sending a middle-class 18-year-old girl all the way to Eastern Europe in order to teach orphans the art of aromatherapy? (She actually expected me to donate money towards this enterprise!) I’d much rather donate money towards training a nurse or paying local workers to build hospitals or teach, rather than help my gap-year/student friends to raise money for their CV-enriching “volunteering” holiday.’

The gap-year phenomenon is clearly not just about gaining useful life experience. After all, digging a well in Africa teaches little that you could not learn at home stacking shelves in a supermarket: ie, mindless toil and poverty suck, and maturity is gained through learning to deal with these things and by aiming for something better. The difference in Africa, of course, is that it’s much, much harder to move on to that something better.

A real danger is that volunteers, and the groups that provide them, might bring some very modern colonial ideas to their African or Asian or Latin American ‘charges’: that humans are screwing up the environment; that development is pointless; and that ‘appropriate technology’, not hi-tech, is the way to go. Many charities that send volunteers and assistance to the developing world are these days consumed by just such a small-minded view of progress and development. There is also much in the British national school curriculum that teaches kids that sustainable development is better than industrialisation, and that too much development can damage the planet and our futures.

As a consequence, many of today’s young ‘gappers’ will no doubt be taking some pretty backward ideas with them around the world. Indeed, the very idea that we can ‘learn something’ from overseas communities, as Brodie argued, really means accepting the idea that there is something noble, valuable, special about scraping by on the basics.

The desire to learn about and help others is a good one, but gap years are generally a bad way to achieve that goal. If gappers really want to help the developing world, and themselves, a few months in a dead-end job to pay for a bit of backpacking in the cheap, hot countries where those Tesco wages will stretch further will do a lot more good than trying to impose their version of green-minded do-goodery on the ‘natives’.

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Topics Politics


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