It may seem- and undoubtedly is- hypocritical of me to agree with this piece whilst sitting in a guesthouse in Kigali, displaying the profile picture that I do but I do think there is room for recognising many- if not all- of the harms identified in this piece without being against the whole concept of the gap year. I am currently in Kigali working with a local charity called Moucecore through the International Citizen Service (a partnership with DfID and several charities, among them Tearfund who support Moucecore). Throughout the process of application, preparation and my time here I have been acutely aware and often sympathetic to the criticisms leveled at these kind of experiences. I was grateful to be sent some papers that helped inform my thoughts on the issue(one of which can be found here- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00436.x/abstract;jsessionid=724058A699B00DD4DC6006096508F640.d02t02?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false).
First of all, two things need clarifying-
1. I am under no illusion that I will benefit a hell of a lot more from these few months than the people that I meet here. Hopefully I can do something useful but I will learn infinitely more. Hopefully I can put that learning to do something more useful in the long term. However I do think that even at this stage, there are particular skills that volunteers can offer, for instance someone on my team is coaching cricket with someone from the Rwandan national team and helping them in that capacity. I did a lot of competitive debating whilst at school and hope to be able to do some coaching with a charity called Never Again Rwanda (for those interested they aim to have a Rwandan team at WSDC 2014, very cool).
2. In this case it is a mischaracterisation to say that I and the others on the ICS program are taking someone’s job. Regrettably it is a form of tied aid, the British govt support this project primarily for the benefits that it brings to Britain, one of which will be an enhanced cosmopolitanism amongst those that go through the program. If DfID aren’t paying for me then they wouldn’t be paying for a Rwandan (incidentally the ICS program recruits national volunteers alongside international volunteers). Therefore even the very marginal increase in capacity I will provide to Moucecore is better than the lack of increase that takes place in this comparative.
A lot of the problems with the way a lot of these things are constructed is based on the desire of individuals to justify their time by being able to point to a hole or a mural or a whatever that they made. Of course, this doesn’t help in the long term and just satisfies the guilt of that individual. Problematic aid is very similar. But there are ways to mitigate the harms in both cases by making sure that there is something useful to be done. Lastly, that particular narratives surrounding poverty- particularly ‘African’ poverty- has been fetishised and that they are perpetuated through mediums like facebook is of course harmful. But again, there are ways to construct gap years that focus on sustainable development and turn the gap yearee into an agent for dispelling those harmful narratives. Again, this is one of the reasons why I chose ICS, it requires further action of volunteers when they return in communicating the reality of the context they visited to those that they know. I realise that in this context, the profile picture that shall appear before you could be seen as deeply problematic. I’d like to think I’d have put it up there regardless of race, clothes etc, just because I like the photo. I can’t know that for sure and there might be some white saviour-industrial complex mixed in there, I don’t know, I hope not. But that is something I need to think about.
Anyway, I realise this comes across as some guilt-ridden apologia, probably because it is. I took it as an opportunity for catharsis in articulating to myself how my thoughts on the matter are currently progressing. They will continue to. But for now, I see a space for gap year cosmopolitanism, if done constructively and tailored to the needs to the community rather than the gap yearee (or should that be gap yeared).