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Is Volunteering Abroad the Most Self-Indulgent Gap Year?

We’ve all known that person. He pops up in seminars, she’s talking about it at the bus stop, he’ll give a patronizing, impassioned speech about it because he can, and occasionally, that person will meet another, and they’ll compare their never-ending stories over pre-drinks. They are the dreaded gap year bore.

Gap years, I would say, are essentially a joke on the British middle-classes. Oh, please, tell me more about your gap yah travels. I’m sure it was a totally unique and unforgettable experience. But, in fairness, it’s an easy laugh. Would I take the chance to go travelling round South Asia for six weeks? Am I jealous of someone else’s beach picture on Facebook when they’re traipsing round Mexico whilst I’m in the library at 8pm on a Sunday? Yes, yes, yes.

Gap years are the ultimate self- indulgence year. Even the www.prospects.ac.uk/ website essentially advertises it as such: the chance to ‘learn a new skill, raise your cultural awareness or buy yourself some time before making the move into work or further study.’ And in my opinion that’s what they should be. Some time away from home and parents, a parenthesis where you can test yourself and come back with some good memories. To tell everyone about. For the whole of your first year. The issue with gap years, in my opinion, isn’t there. It’s when they become about something else than fulfilling yourself. Volunteering abroad has become incredibly popular in the last decade, championed by schools and charities, with at its heart, truly intentions. Yet these intentions have come under fire recently, as the actual value of volunteering abroad has been questioned. What impact do these good intentions really have on the local community?

In an article for the Guardian, Ian Birrell argued, a highly negative one. He argues that ‘wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facili- ties; and abused or abandoned chil- dren form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home.’ This raises the somewhat uncom- fortable question of who is then ben- efitting from these gap years, if not tourists themselves. Helping out others becomes another form of self-fulfillment – but sometimes to the detriment of those they seek to help. If you’re wondering where you might be needed, it has been suggested that you should look much closer to home. Although, would you truly want to do that?

In October, Katie Glass nailed this problem on the head, tweeting about the matter: ‘Conference told it’d be better if gap years helped UK communities. Although doubt Bedales kids will fancy a year off in Wolverhampton.’ Volunteering abroad provides the glamour of foreign travel and all the clichés that go with it, of discover- ing a world removed from your own and immersing yourself in a completely different culture, which a year in Britain would certainly not provide. And obviously, it is impossible to slate the entire concept of volunteering abroad: there may very well be opportunities abroad where there is a real need for volunteers, which isn’t to the detriment to the local community. But if you truly feel the altruistic need to help abroad, donating on a monthly basis to a charity might prove more valuable than your two weeks helping out. So if you are tempted to sign up to help out in a school in Africa this year, ask yourself who it will mostly benefit. Because you might just find the answer to be staring right back at you.

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