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The Façade of Gap-Year ‘Voluntourism’ Needs to Be Addressed

Information: This article covers the topic of abuse. 

Volunteers. We all know them. We’ve all seen them. At some point, we might have wished we were them.

Gap years are increasing in popularity as we struggle more and more to decide on our university narratives. South East-Asia is by far the most popular destination, but a select few do-gooders exchange their sun-tanning, drug-filled full-moon-party-experiences for a month or two in a remote village, caring for local children.

However, to an extent, this growing tendency presents more problems than it solves.

It is problematic that well-off teenagers from the Western hemisphere publicise pictures on Instagram of children who have not given their consent to having their picture published online. In a world where the internet is used by criminals and paedophiles and the Dark Web gathers the worst of humanity, it is troubling that heaps of teens throw young children into danger without a thought for the distasteful consequences.

Moreover, volunteers are stealing valuable work-places from locals in countries where the demand for work is higher than the supply. Whilst it might seem fun for an unqualified 19-year-old to teach English to youngsters in rural Nicaragua (and it is undoubtedly impressive for the CV) children such as these would benefit much more from having an educated and qualified teacher that remains longer than four weeks. It is also more beneficial for the community if its members are employed in learning and care-taking institutions. Instead, they remain  unemployed, unable to spend money in local businesses and thus unable to contribute to economic growth.

What is more, most institutions that welcome gap-year volunteers lack the ability to conduct background checks on those that arrive. This, in principle, enables just about anyone to work with vulnerable and disadvantaged children. The organisation ECPAT International work to tackle commercial sexual abuse and child trafficking. They have identified Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (SECTT) as one of the most pressing issues of children’s rights. This issue of ‘voluntourism’ arguably simplifies the abuser’s road to the abused.

The online ‘Urban Dictionary‘ defines the phrase ‘white saviour’ as those Western individuals going in to ‘fix’ issues in the developing world ‘without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.’ It is this ‘white saviour’ complex that is worryingly ingrained in Western society, and even the millennial generation, although considered to be more outspoken and socially conscious than most previous generations have been, cannot plausibly see the fault lines.

As such, we may be so caught up in our quest to ‘save’ and be seen to save, ‘help’ and be seen to help, and indulge ourselves in extra-European othering, that we have fatally disregarded what ‘they’ actually need. Sadly, it is most often the case that the provision of socio-economic prosperity falls outside the remit of the gap-year volunteer.

What is more, voluntourism also conduces the creation of ‘orphanages’ that exist primarily as businesses, encouraging child institutionalisation. Non-orphans are taken away from their homes to live in orphanages so that the youngsters of the West can update their Facebook cover photo and accrue some form of self-affirmation. In fact, charity organisation Lumos claims that this could be the case for up to 90% of children living in orphanages in the world. Having care-takers come and go every two months is not beneficial for a child in an already vulnerable position, and is likely to do more harm than good in the long term.

Most importantly, it is deeply troubling that our generation still believes that the developing world needs us to ‘save them’. The white saviour complex is so deeply ingrained in us that we fail to understand the damage that voluntourism can do to those that deserve it the least.

But hey, at least you got a ton of likes on Instagram!



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