What's the point of gap years?
16 August 2006
by Mike Pallis
Gap years are at risk of becoming outdated and a new form of colonialism. The reason for this, according to the charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is that gap years "tend to focus on how British youngsters can help poor communities overseas, rather than on what we can learn from them".
The solution? Well, VSO's answer is to plug their own gap year scheme, "global xchange". Of course, it's sheer coincidence that, with A-levels results coming out, now is the busiest time in the increasingly competitive gap year market, and providers need all the publicity they can get...
Whilst the cheapness of the stunt may grate, VSO raise an interesting question: what is the point of gap years? Are they to help others, are they to help yourself, are they to have fun - and is doing a bit of each not possible?
Over the past 20 years, the popularity of gap years has exploded. The original idea was to go abroad and "help" those less fortunate; to "do something". This reason is still at the forefront of the minds of many who want to go away. Sure there's a large dollop of self interest in there - they could be teaching in Tower Hamlets rather than Timbuktu - but there's altruism too.
The problem arises because, over the same 20 year period, thinking on international development has undergone a radical shift. Small, foreigner-led projects are now just passé. Whereas many western governments used to get hands on and, say, build schools, now the fashion is for them to simply provide funds to allow developing countries to build their own schools (called DBS - direct budgetary support).
Many organizations who subscribe to this DBS method gloatingly see themselves as enlightened and delight in pouring scorn on those of us who take the quick, high-satisfaction approach of buying a donkey, building a well, or sponsoring a child. Or doing a gap year.
Most gap years probably are still stuck in the old-school mould of development. That doesn't mean, however, that anyone with youthful zest for "helping" should be made to feel like a mustachio-twirling, cane-swishing, savage-taming colonialist.
Consider the example of AIDS education: In communities where the prevailing view is that you can cure Aids by sleeping with a virgin, western volunteers can be more than helpful; they can save lives. They can use the advantage of being an outsider to talk openly and frankly with their African peers in a way that most local schoolmasters could never do. The volunteers will also learn a thing or two about themselves and the local culture. There's no either/or between helping and learning. Both arise together.
Yes, there are countless examples of pointless gap years, just as there are countless pointless adventure holidays, and countless boy scouts who helped an old lady cross a street she didn't want to cross. Labeling gap year students as colonialists will only succeed in scaring them away from volunteering. If that happens, both British young people and those abroad will have lost out on a great opportunity for mutual enrichment.