I KNOW someone who, many years ago now, went on a gap year to rural India. She tells the story of how, magically, on the last evening of a two-week stint building a local community centre, an elephant poked its trunk through the window of the rudimentary construction where the volunteers were sleeping.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “It was an experience that I’ll never forget.”
Yes, my friend thought it was marvellous. It was a beautiful end to a trip which was, she admits, the perfect blend of fun and tough – of hard work and self-satisfaction.
That was until a few weeks later. Chatting to people after her travels, she discovered that the previous group working on the same project had, coincidentally, had an identical nocturnal visit from an elephant. The group which came after hers had, too.
My friend began to wonder if there was, perhaps, a local who was paid by the organisation she was working with. A man who could convince a tame Dumbo-alike to perform for the tourists week after week to create an “authentic experience”.
It made her question the value of her entire trip – and the thousands of other trips taken by middle-class volunteers to developing countries across the globe every year.
American aid worker Pippa Biddle recently wrote a blog which dealt with this very issue, striking a chord with volunteers worldwide. She first travelled to the Dominican Republic on a high school trip to build a library at an orphanage. The visit cost her $3,000 and Ms Biddle remembers the pride she felt in laying bricks to construct a library which would allow the orphanage to be recognised as a school by the local authorities.
But, like my friend, she had a rude awakening. She discovered that after the volunteers – a group of 15 teenage girls with no construction experience – had gone to bed, local men were having to take apart the building work they had done that day and re-do it through the night.
They did this, she found out, to ensure that the privileged American students would be “unaware of [their] failure”. She has since worked to help support local staff to run programmes in the area – claiming that they do far better without the presence of what she dubs “little white girls”.
Tens of thousands of British youngsters are currently believed to be on a gap year somewhere in the world. Some of them are, I’m sure, doing useful work.
For many, however, the gap year is far more about their own experience and the lasting impact it has on their own lives rather than those of the people they meet in the developing world. There is not necessarily any harm in this – unless the presence of the “little white girls” (and boys) is actively detrimental to the local community.
In Ms Biddle’s case, she argues, it was: the volunteers were creating extra work for people who could instead have been paid directly to carry out the construction themselves.
In the experience of my friend, however, not so much. While discovering the truth ruined her idyllic view of the trip, a brief visit from an elephant is unlikely to have much of an impact on anyone apart from the starry-eyed volunteers themselves.
Schools are often guilty of fuelling the self-worth which perpetuates the gap-year myth. In my local supermarket recently, boys from a private school were bag-packing – collecting money for a rugby tour of South Africa.
While they were there, these ruddy-faced young men explained, they were going to play some underprivileged teams from poor communities. So, therefore, I should be delighted to help fund their visit by allowing them to pack my bag – it was a charity trip, after all. Right.
I’m all for travelling the world. But, like Ms Biddle, I agree my skills are of little use. I can barely construct a Lego brick wall, never mind buildings which need to last for decades.
What I can do is fund-raise from home – and donate to communities in a way which will help them become self-sufficient. And if I want to visit as a tourist, fine. I just need to make sure I am not tricking anyone into believing that “volun-tourism” is valuable volunteering.