1st August 2011
The Guardian reports that Britain’s reputation abroad is at risk of being damaged by the extremely lucrative so-called ‘gap-year’ industry, raising fears of a perception that the West is engaged in a new form of colonialism.
The gap-year industry is a $US10 billion business for Western companies, costing volunteers between $US2,500 – $US7,500 for a mere two-month experience.
The warning comes from a leading British think-tank, Demos. Author of the report, Jonathan Birdwell, said there was even evidence that an ill thought-out gap year could be bad for local communities and Britain’s relations with other countries.
“There is a risk of such programmes perpetuating negative stereotypes of western ‘colonialism’ and ‘charity’: a new way for the west to assert its power,” he said, adding that “projects that do not appear to have benefits or make a difference for communities abroad leave volunteers unmotivated and disillusioned”.
One respondent is quoted as saying: “I felt that the local community could have done the work we were doing; there were lots of unemployed people there. I’d have preferred to work with local unemployed and helped them in some way to benefit their community.”
However, one in five people who took a gap year said they believed their presence in the place they visited made no positive difference to the lives of those around them. Moreover, nine out of 10 young people surveyed by YouGov for Demos said they had improved their self-confidence, self-reliance and sense of motivation following a stint of volunteering in a developing country.
Young people planning a gap year should focus on what they can offer their hosts in order to discourage the view that volunteering is merely a new way of exercising power, the Demos report says. Those who carefully select the projects in which they take part are likely to make the most of their time, while doing the most to dispel the belief that their trips are merely self-interested.
The report says there should be pre-departure training to ensure that young people are able to offer relevant skills. It says placements which are short are just as likely to have positive outcomes in personal development and civic participation as long-term ones. Young people who live with a host family are also more likely to report positive outcomes in “skills, identity and values”.
The study comes in the wake of the British government’s launch of the International Citizen Service which, in the words of PM David Cameron, is designed to “give thousands of our young people, those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, the chance to see the world and serve others”. The pilot of the scheme will involve 1,080 young people visiting 27 different countries.
The scheme is means tested, giving those who come from families with a joint income of less than £25,000 ($US41,000) the chance of a gap year for free. The report found that 64% of 3,000 parents surveyed want their children to take part in the ICS scheme. However, Demos’s research indicated that there were key factors which make a gap year successful and the report recommends the ICS should incorporate them. There should be post-placement support, which allows the young person to continue the work they started abroad once back home, it claims.
The report found that the typical UK overseas volunteer tended to be young, affluent, white and female, although those with few qualifications and those from low-income backgrounds reported the most positive experiences.
Birdwell said he hoped the ICS would grow to help around 3,000 young people a year and that these would be the least well-off in society. He said: “The new International Citizen Service is an exciting opportunity for young British people to experience the world and gain invaluable experience and skills while helping to contribute to the UK’s international development goals.
“However, the ICS is competing with an already crowded gap-year market. In order to be successful, it must ensure that activities benefit communities abroad and it must target recruitment to young people who couldn’t afford commercial gap year programmes.”