The tragic rise of Gap year voluntourism

Face it, these trips are an indulgence, beneficial primarily for travel agents

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Soon thousands of school-leavers are going to book their gap years. Deferring further study and apprenticeships, many will choose a packaged holiday in the so-called third world. And right this moment, you can bet, in Mumbai, in the cramped shanties of Soweto, and in the favelas of Rio there are nervous white kids flashing smiles for the camera.

In the last two decades voluntourism has soared.  The desire on the part of young people to combine do-gooding with a rattling good time has – in effect– been hijacked and turned to profit by travel agents. Back in 2007, the University of London found that more than 800 organisations were providing volunteering opportunities in 200 countries. Often, these organisations charge vast sums for experiences that can be acquired far cheaper in the host countries, creaming off thousands from unsuspecting Ruperts and Prunellas.

Once these brave souls land they can now stay in hostels exclusively for the use of gap year students. When they go to work, villagers are treated to the sight of a bunch of toffs ploughing or brick-laying for a week or two, before these temporary workers move on to let the next batch take their place. Expeditions promise students a ‘career enhancing’ experience. Charity becomes an easy adventure, one that can be photographed extensively for the benefit of friends back home.

But let’s forget chippiness for a moment. According to Al Jazeera, orphanage tourism in Cambodia fuelled by an increase in voluntourism has led to impoverishment, sexual abuse and violence against kids there. In orphanages in Africa and Asia, the young people are used to seeing western kids as their benefactors, bearing trinkets from a vastly better land. This creates a “Western-infused cultural oasis” very distinct from the communities they live in, and potentially damaging to their development as people they come to like, perhaps even love, are continually coming and going.

My own village in East India has been visited by gap-year travellers. Last year I saw an unskilled 17-year-old digging trenches in my village, dressed in a marigold garland and a red vermilion tikka. His arrival had consigned the local labourer to a footnote. An unsatisfactory half-dug trench was left to be worked on by the next batch of fresh faced volunteers.

This voluntourism breeds envy and contempt. It breeds smugness. It breeds boastfulness at cocktail parties.  It breeds the future accountant who spent his eighteenth summer stoned in Jaipur reading Ludlow’s Hasheesh Eater, the Whitehall mandarin who puked her guts out on the holy ghat of Benares and the media salesperson who brags of urinating on Macchu Picchu.  For travellers it cements the notion that the world is their oyster, to be explored and enjoyed like some kind of latter-day Lara Croft or Indiana Jones.

The only positive of this whole charade is that it embarrasses third world governments. Many try their best to shield shanty towns from visiting foreign dignitaries; that young travellers plaster images of these places across their Facebook accounts makes that defence far harder to keep up.

I appreciate reading this won’t please gap-year students past and future, nor the parents who often pay for their trips. But consider this; by allowing irresponsible volunteering to continue we are perpetuating the myth of white man’s burden. Today’s generation schooled in this myth will grow up exactly like yesteryear’s generation thinking that it is their moral duty to intervene in the darkest stretches of the planet. Simply put, it is not. And their presence often does more damage than good. 

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