Voluntourism and the ‘gap yah’ stereotype; young people and the Western saviour complex

I’ve already mentioned how aware I am that sometimes, to those who don’t know much about what I’m doing and why I’m travelling, I could be viewed as just one of the hordes of young people on a gap year to ‘find themselves’ through travel. Maybe I am.

Such a stereotype! It’s one I am definitely familiar with, as many students at my university seem to have already taken a “gap yah”, so called in a mockery of the “rah” accent and background of the typical Exeter student; well off, middle class and privately educated. I assure you that despite falling into the fairly loose “middle-class” category, I am neither rich nor public-schooled. My parents have always made it clear that they will support me, but we don’t have money to throw around, and I am always conscious of my spending. I attended several run-of-the-mill comprehensive schools, and a state college.

So I perhaps don’t quite fit the “Exetah” stereotype, but as far as being a white, middle-class, “Oxbridge-almost” (that’s another story), lacking a regional accent, I suppose I fit some of the criteria. Not to turn this into some kind of tale about what a special snowflake I am, and how I’m not like other people. I am simply writing this to talk about my own feelings on this stereotype and what we can do to dispel it.

From this cookie-cutter background comes a breed of young adults who, to hear most people tell it, go out to trample the backpacking routes of the world, particularly Europe and Southeast Asia, fresh out of their public schools with a wad of money in their pocket from Mummy and Daddy. Whilst I know some people of whom this is a painfully accurate description, I am not one of them. Whilst it is true that my parents have contributed to my savings since my childhood, and helped me out with some pre-travel purchases, this trip, as well as my two weeks in Germany last month, has been mainly self-funded.

I decided to use my savings for this trip because I’ve always been fairly frugal, always told myself that the money is “for the future”, “for university”, “for a deposit on a house”. But now, my priorities and circumstances have changed a great deal, and at the end of the day, I’d rather spend money on memorable experiences than something tangible. At the moment, I can’t see myself ever wanting to settle forever in one place, so a mortgage or anything similar after university seems pointless.

Regardless of many people’s disdain for this breed of young traveller, I see nothing wrong with travelling for leisure if you have the means, but I prefer to combine it with doing some good, and getting to know a place and its people rather than just rushing through the Lonely Planet approved sights , taking what I want, and leaving again.

I would also mention that I am not taking a gap year for the sake of it, for those who don’t know, or because I’m “undecided” about my future. I began a course in Law with German Law at Exeter University, but half way through the year, realised that it really wasn’t the path I wanted to pursue. Forcing myself to continue with a course which, despite the fact that I was averaging good grades, was making me frustrated and bored, was not achieving anything. That, combined with the fact that I have had something of a difficult year due to a variety of reasons, meant that I was struggling with depression and anxiety whilst trying to remain on top of my work; never doing any work until an assignment was due and on many days feeling unable even to get out of bed and leave my room, let alone be constructive in any way.

I am starting a new degree next year, in Theology. This has been one of the most thought out, but ultimately best decisions I have ever made, and I am a lot happier for it. I am excited to go back to university and start afresh in September, but I wanted to spend the rest of the year doing something exciting, but also contributing to other people’s lives.

In recent years, with the increase in demand for gap year volunteering opportunities and “voluntourism”, many companies and independent organisations have set up schemes where they charge an often ridiculous amount of money, much of which is kept internally and pays administration costs, for people to go abroad and volunteer, teaching English or helping in communities abroad. However, whilst they look legitimate on the surface, these organisations rarely contribute as much to the projects they support as they claim to, and most of the payments made by young, well intentioned travellers never reaches the local communities they visit.

The site I have used, Workaway.info, is similar in that it has a database of hosts looking for work on various projects all over the world, for example teaching, helping in NGOs, babysitting, working on farms and joining hostel staff. The difference is, that other than an original joining fee of about £18, there is no charge whatsoever. A few of the hosts ask for donations per day, but most do not. Consequently, the only thing I have paid for during my trips so far have been my flights, internal travel, and paying for any leisure activities I have done in my spare time. I have also been using Couchsurfing for accommodation between placements, which cuts out hostel and hotel costs, another big money drain when travelling.

Most Workaway hosts ask for no more than 4-5 hours of work, 5 days a week, in exchange for free food and accommodation. There are placements available in nearly every country of every continent, and an amazing range of opportunities. With no hidden costs, Workaway is an excellent, budget method of transparent volunteering which allows smaller NGOs and projects to find help without having to suffer at the hands of a large organisation taking some form of payment.

My first placement was a two-week stay in Bavaria, Germany, where I stayed with a lovely family of five in a town fairly close to Nuremberg, and helped around the house and with some babysitting. It was extraordinarily light work for what I gained from it, and I got on very well with the whole family, and loved it there! I hope to return one day to help in the family again. As a first placement, it gave me excellent hopes for my future projects. I had plenty of free time, and as an opportunity for cultural exchange, Workaway is definitely the best way of traveling I’ve encountered.

I think that often, young people who volunteer during their gap year suffer from something of a “Western saviour complex”. That is to say, they believe that the lives of the people they are helping in Africa or Asia are inferior to their own, and that by sweeping in for a couple of weeks – often not even staying in the community they are “helping”, but in a Western-styled hotel nearby – they can hugely enrich the lives of those people. What they don’t realise is that every country, every town or village community, is unique and their lives are not lesser, but different, perhaps the conditions may not be what we are used to, and the people may not be as wealthy as those in the West; they may struggle and suffer in ways we cannot imagine. But it does not mean that we have the right to come in, in our magnanimity, to bestow the kindly hand of a rich Westerner to build a school or dig a well.

How much we actually contribute by carrying out these projects is debatable. I think that often, it is far more valuable to spend time with people and learn about their culture, participating in it and truly exchanging ideas, than to build some short fix solution or donate a bit of money. The classic image of university-aged British students going to an African village, taking a picture with an orphan, singing a song or two, and flying back home is sadly an accurate one in many cases.

Many people I know and like are guilty of the same thing, as am I, to an extent. Less now, because I understand the consequences of my travel and make a concentrated effort to actually make a contribution and get to know the places I travel to.

However, all this said, I know so many young people who utterly defy this stereotype. People who selflessly donate their time at home and abroad to worthy causes. I believe every cause is worthy, in its individual way. We cannot judge one thing against another solely by our Western standards.

One does not necessarily need qualifications to teach English to non-English speakers, though it helps! I’ve found that many smaller charities and schools are simply glad of the help, experiences and perspectives you can offer, rather than your formal qualifications to do so. It does not mean you are useless, or naïve, if you come armed only with enthusiasm and a passion to contribute to a project.

My own experiences in India so far – despite having only been here for just over a week – have been above and beyond what I expected. I am determined to help where I can, here and in my further travels. I hope to find several placements in Thailand and Cambodia; I want to learn and share cultures, not just do a whistle-stop tour of the SE Asia backpacking route. That isn’t to say I won’t take a few days to see the sights, the wonders of the world, the classic tourist stops, but I am learning that there is a time and a place for that, and a time and place for concentrating on the lives of the people in the places you visit.

It’s a cliché to say that you want to “give back” to a place you go to, but it is a relevant one. Giving back doesn’t necessarily mean giving money or building a bridge across a river in a developing country.

Sometimes it just means answering the questions a local person asks you, and above all, listening to what they have to share.

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