The popularity of gap years has reached galactic proportions, with an estimated 230,000 teenagers swapping the cosy entrails of suburbia for a very expensive peek into the third world this year. A large percentage of these adolescents will take part in voluntary projects with large Anglo-American corporations, which give young adults the chance to work in a developing country.
The cynics will tell you that these trips are merely exotic holidays dressed up as quasi-messianic missions to save the poor and oppressed through the construction of wells and corrugated iron shacks. It will not be too long before the noble gapper cures leprosy, counsels a gorilla, caresses a dolphin and buggers off back to Surrey to start his reading list. This familiar portrait begs the question: who are voluntary gap year projects actually helping?
“This modern institution is almost more harmful and divisive in terms of our own society here in the UK”
Many argue that trips of this nature do nothing except propagate a patronising view of developing nations around the globe. However, I believe that this modern institution is almost more harmful and divisive in terms of our own society here in the UK. After all, the gap year is an eminently upper-class and exclusive tradition which finds its roots in the Grand Tour: the obligatory schlep around all the major European art galleries undertaken by nobility throughout the latter half of the last millennium. Since then travel and an ‘awareness’ of other cultures has started to become a necessary part of one’s life experience; “I say Monty, that Sistine Chapel! Smashing ceiling, eh?!” Things have scarcely changed at all.
One of the first things you are certain to hear in any British university is an inane and monotonous description of “that time in Laos/Uganda/Thailand/Namibia/Cambodia when we drank out of bucket/saw a temple/monkey/beggar.” Then come the T-shirts, I counted three on my first day in Oxford, proudly bearing the name of a country in which they spent the equivalent of a local monthly salary each day.
All this could explain why the British gap year has never quite shed its nauseatingly upper-class image. Indeed, members of the royal family have been intimately involved with the Grand Tour march II; Prince Charles famously established Raleigh International, an organisation which saw Prince William helping schoolchildren in Chile. Prince Harry also took a gap year working in an orphanage in Lesotho. One can only imagine what their clumsy grand-father, the Duke of Edinburgh, said on hearing the news; a man who, while on an official visit to Australia in 2002, asked an Aborigine whether he was “still throwing spears”.
“The year abroad is partly responsible for a perverse image of Africa and Asia as playgrounds for the white upper-classes”
What’s more, it is no coincidence that almost half of all pupils from independent schools take gap years, compared with about twenty percent from state schools. The more one examines the facts, the clearer it becomes that the gap year is an exclusive and potentially damaging institution, not just abroad but also at home. The year abroad is partly responsible for a perverse image of Africa and Asia as playgrounds for the white upper-classes; places with a two grand entrance fee where young adults go to get a tokenistic view of ‘real’ life and bolster their CV, before going back to the comfort and safety of a developed nation.
Whilst it would be prurient to suggest that all gappers leave with these egotistical intentions, it is debatable whether their poorly planned projects have any long-term benefit to the wider community at all. Judith Brodie, the director of Voluntary Service Organisation UK, said “While there are many good gap-year providers, we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious, ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them.” It would seem that in many cases, “gappers” are simply not getting value for money and are not having a positive impact on the local community. Elizabeth Atkinson, an American university student described her gap year experience at a school in Sri Lanka as “a farce” and bemoaned above all a lack of appropriate training and tools. “It was frustrating not to have the facilities with which to adequately teach the children”, she explained.
Indeed, it would seem that this dubious upsurge of altruism amongst teenagers worldwide is readily exploited by faceless corporations ready to make money, not only out of naive gappers, but more reprehensibly out of the vulnerable local communities.