18 August 2006
by Patrick Bartham
Buoyed by three A-levels and a place at university, Jonty and Bunty and a quarter of a million of their mates set out to save the world. First they went climbing in Kathmandu. Then they stumbled into a local school and taught English to baffled Nepalese. Fifty spliffs and a thousand emails later, they returned home with a Hindu charm and tie-dye trousers. They had lots of great stories but the world remained thoroughly unsaved.
Gap years are having a rough time. Ageing cynics have long declared the term for the rite of passage between school and university refers to the empty space between the ears of overprivileged teenagers. Or the chasm between materialistic students dripping with iPods and the impoverished subjects of their misguided charity. This week, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) opined that the "charity tourism" of many year-out programmes was a new form of colonialism. Students who travel to developing countries risk doing more harm than good, argued Judith Brodie, UK director of VSO, criticising the emphasis on volunteer enjoyment rather than on how to help the communities they work in.
Wealthy young westerners have traipsed off travelling ever since the grand tours of the Enlightenment. Now, instead of plundering the Elgin marbles, young idealists help run game parks in Africa (revealed this week to be the most popular volunteering gap year destination) or build bridges in Asia.
The year out has never quite shed its posh image. The charity Raleigh International - which sprang from a nautical youth project set up by Prince Charles and Colonel John Blashford-Snell - sent Prince William to help schoolchildren in Chile, where he struggled to explain to mystified pupils what a wombat was. Prince Harry also used his gap year to garner some positive PR by working in an orphanage in Lesotho. Almost half of all private-school pupils take gap years, compared with about one in five students overall, and eight out of 10 students who go travelling are actually from state schools.
Can teenagers tipsy on the excitement of both the Make Poverty History campaign and leaving home really help developing countries? "Absolutely," says Brodie. "Young people bring a whole range of skills - flexibility, enthusiasm, commitment - and may already have experience of working with voluntary organisations. With well-planned programmes with clear objectives, young people can add great value in a number of ways."
It is not feckless hedonism or misplaced idealism that VSO is criticising, but the booming industry in pre-packaged volunteering programmes. These are often run for a profit (although badly organised non-profit-making schemes may be just as harmful). "This is a growth industry and very competitive so the objectives may not be to deliver the maximum benefits to the communities these young people are working in," says Brodie.
Websites such as www.ethicalvolunteering.org can help volunteers to critically examine schemes. They should check what training they will receive, whether local people are involved in running the project, what proportion of their fees go to the communities they are helping and whether the project delivers lasting and sustainable benefits.
Andrew MacDowall, 23, Economic researcher
I had organized my teaching placement, or thought I had, at a school in India through a contact I met when I was trekking. We were picked up at the airport and the guy just said, "So, you want to do some teaching?", and drove us to a local school. It was a ramshackle building with broken windows, and I don't know who looked more surprised - us or the head teacher who had no idea we were coming.
We were given books and some basic materials to help us teach English, but no training whatsoever. I was a terrible teacher. The syllabus was boring so I didn't stick to it - instead, I just answered all of their questions about life in Britain and helped them practise English. It was better than the existing English teaching in the school, which consisted of non-English speakers trying to read English books to them, so perhaps in the long term having me there was better than nothing. But showing them a map of Britain was probably a mistake, because they wanted to know what that big line through Ireland was. Trying to explain the Troubles to a group of 10-year-olds with limited English was tricky.
Historically, middle-class boys in khaki shorts have made their way in the Indian subcontinent. Now their grandsons are doing it with "making a change" in mind, but where their colonialist forbears stayed in India, the modern generation return to their comfy homes in Leamington Spa. I really dislike the organised gap-year companies which clearly make a massive profit, and although I made mistakes with my volunteering, but I learned a lot and I genuinely think I contributed to the school, despite my frankly inept teaching.
Sarah Cosser, 23, Trainee doctor
I went to Zimbabwe and spent a few weeks working in a hospital, but we were definitely tourists over there. I had been an auxiliary nurse in England and I didn't know if I wanted to be a doctor. It was a really useful experience for me, and the people were amazing but we didn't need to be there.
Later on, I did a two-month elective in India as part of my medical training, and I certainly wasn't going over there to rescue anyone. It made me realise that if I was going to practise medicine abroad, I would need to do it for a significant period because you need to be part of the community in order to do it properly. There are so many cultural subtleties that I would miss, and in India there are a lot of brilliantly educated people who understand the communities they are working with far better than doctors from the UK could. I worked in a mission hospital run by an elderly Indian doctor who refused to take foreign aid because he really felt the hospital should be run by and for the community.
I'm not sure how much difference an unskilled 18-year-old can make on a gap year. It's very different if you've got trained teachers, nurses or doctors. I met a Canadian obstetrician who was so up-to-date with modern practice he was able to do a lot of really valuable teaching.
Tom Nicolson, 22, Currently working at a school in Ecuador
I can see some evidence for the theory that gap-year people are the "new colonialists". Volunteers bring iPods and cameras to schools, so the gulf in wealth is quite visible. One of the first questions I got from a child here is, "Tiernes camera?", which means "Do you have a camera?"
It was disheartening to have travelled 5,000 miles only to find that all I'm really here for now is money and assets. Everything we give to the children is snatched and more demanded. Should a child receive a new pencil, their friend will want the same privilege. There is aggression and so many kids will fight, lie and haggle to get what they want, be it fruit, chocolate or stationery.
There is also the question of whether we should be teaching them English in the first place. The native language here, Kitchwa, has already been squeezed out by Spanish. Because of our influence, children know what is out there to be had - the ugly behaviour of some of the children is comparable to spoilt children in the UK.
There is no doubt that being here has a positive influence to the bulk of the children, but the key is in finding the balance. In the past week, there has been a stop on sweets and sugar, and a ban on cameras and other western technology.
Some of the other volunteers, especially the 18- and 19-year-olds, are not really here for anything else than to go out and get drunk. There is a ridiculous mixture of people here. The charity needs the money, the kids are told they need help, but ultimately they are hindered by interference.
Careful consideration is necessary before we jump into these places with our size 12s. These children learn that their lives are crap where they are and it makes them want to move out.
Owen Callander, 23, Job seeker
I took six months out to go travelling and do some voluntary work. After trekking through Argentina and Patagonia I went to the Inti Wara Yassi animal refuge in Bolivia. I was working to rehabilitate monkeys brought in by the public to prepare them for life outside the centre. We had to pay to stay there, but it was clear the money was going to the refuge. There was an initial fee of $80 for the first two weeks, then $3 a day for lodgings thereafter.
I had heard about the refuge by word of mouth, and people were confident that it was a worthwhile place to work. It's an ongoing project, and there are always volunteers there. We had an amazing time, but we were up at 7.30am every day and working until 6pm. The focus was the work. I got a lot out of it, and I did feel I made a difference while I was there, but it wasn't about "me", it was about the park and the fulfilment you get from working closely with the animals.
Anna Seligman, 21, Law student
I went to Tanzania with an organisation called Changing Worlds and worked in a boarding school for children aged 6-13. Originally, I just wanted to go travelling and see the world, but then I decided that I wanted to immerse myself in a different culture and see how other people lived. I also wanted to give something back. I am certain that I had a good short-term effect on the children - for one, when they were in my lessons, I didn't use the cane like their other teachers - and I hope that I had a long-lasting impact too.
I don't think people on gap years are the new colonialists; it depends on the individual. There was certainly one Brit in my group who kept going on about how good the experience would look on his CV, but at the end it became something much deeper for him, too.
Tommy Seddon, 21, English literature student
I was a little surprised to read that my gap year had helped create a new army of "colonialists". I spent the first six months of 2004 teaching English as a foreign language in Thali, a small village just outside of Kathmandu in Nepal. I had had a one-week course to "train" me as a teacher, although upon arrival this turned out to be useless, as the resources we thought we might have (moveable desks, enough paper, classes small enough to organise group activities) were clearly not there. However, I learned to get by and taught as a language assistant, providing opportunities for children between the ages of 6 and 13 to try out their English, in addition to helping the teachers brush up on theirs. The school we worked at had received western volunteer teachers for a few years, including some who were second- or third-year students. My time abroad may have had an impact on the lives of the students, but I am almost certain it was a universally positive one.
Luke Waterson, 25, Press officer
I had an incredible, culturally enriching time, bouncing on buses through villages where westerners had seldom ever been seen. In Bolivia, I helped out in a local school assisting in overcrowded classrooms where there would be no assistance otherwise. Regardless of motivation, I gave back as much as I took to the countries I visited during my year in South America.
Tourism, good and bad, supports economies of developing nations. Plenty of our compatriots disgrace themselves and offend local people in the resorts of these nations, but other tourists genuinely wish to give something back and gap-year companies exist for this reason. Before, young people who wanted to broaden horizons by contributing positively towards other cultures did not know how to set about it. Now they do. A proportion of the money each volunteer pays these companies does go to fund essential projects in the host country. The unskilled students volunteering have willingness as a qualification. The financial contribution and the exchange of ideas and of languages establishes friendships and enlightens the lives of the people one encounters. Throwing pleasure into the package is an added incentive for young people who want to help others and enjoy themselves. It is difficult to be cynical about that.
Tom Howe, 23, Language school activities coordinator
I worked for five months in Cuenca in Ecuador both teaching English and helping out at a project for street kids. During the week I taught in various schools in the mornings and in the afternoon I would go to a market where a Christian-run project had its premises. The kids who came there for their lunch were not literally street kids - they all had families - but they were very poor. We would serve them lunch and then help them with their homework afterwards, or sometimes play chess.
Apart from improving my Spanish, I felt I benefited a lot from having genuine contact with local people which you don't necessarily get when you are just travelling around. Interacting with locals and getting to know them stops you feeling like you are a visitor at a social zoo. I remember chatting to one old woman who was a cook at the project and she asked where I was from. When I said Britain she genuinely didn't know where that was. Part of the money I paid to the gap-year company subsidised the cost of an Ecuadorian coming to Britain for a year. I think this is a really good idea and helps counter the notion that gap years are neo-colonialist.
Dave Firth, 23, Newspaper sub-editor
I went travelling in Thailand, Australia and Hong Kong to see the world and have a good time. I'd just finished my A-levels and saved up £2,000, and I know it sounds selfish, but I wanted to spend it on myself. I went with four close friends, and for the first three weeks we all got on fine. After that, things descended into silly games that mainly involved jumping on every opportunity to hit each other. It was an amazing trip though, and I'm glad I put all of my energy into having fun. I think it will be almost impossible to do it again given my work commitments.
I know people who have gone off to developing countries to do voluntary work, and I have got a lot of respect for that. Going abroad to make a difference just wasn't what I wanted to do. I was 18 and needed to see something other than England. I may not have helped clean streets but I came back a much better person, genuinely feeling like I knew more about life. Maybe one day I will do some "helpful" travelling, but whether or not you go with the intention to have an impact on a particular country, I think everyone needs to see a new part of the world for a few months at some point in their life.
Tom Sykes, 22, Pursuing a career as a magician
I taught English to children in a small village in Tanzania for three and a half months. There were four of us volunteering and we worked quite hard. I paid a gap-year company £2,600 for the trip, so I certainly wasn't a drain on local resources. The money covered my flights and accommodation and a portion went to the school where I was. There were 100 kids in a class, so the school needed more teachers, but I know I got more out of the experience than if I had been teaching somewhere else. The children enjoyed my lessons and I would read them stories. I believe you can make a difference to people's lives.
We lived in a house with no water or electricity, but were still able to buy luxuries. Having money did separate us from the other teachers in some ways but we did socialise with them. They were very generous to include us in their plans and were too proud to ask us for anything materially. We cooked together and learned about each other's cultures.
Interviews by Helen Dowd, Helen Pidd and Lucy Clouting.