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astrid-kitchen
26th October 2015

A thought on the selfish selflessness of the gap year volunteer

Is volunteering in the third world a life changing experience for both parties, or just the one?
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I am another who can raise their hand as someone who trooped to the other side of the world to scrawl my signature on ‘genuine’ poverty in the third world. Returning with stories of ‘how these people really live’ I too felt I’d experienced a rare insight into the lives of the receivers of volunteer work, for those who really need it and, more importantly, from those who really need it.

And, indeed, for months afterwards I was an endorphin buzzing mess, gliding around with a half-smile on my face, safe in the knowledge that I had experienced something wholly unique and profound, a secret which kept me warm at night amidst the blunder that is life as a lonely Fallowfield fresher. Setting me apart from my fellow students, I was embarking as an undergraduate in Social anthropology and I was ahead of the game!

Unfortunately, unbeknown to me was the fact that all gap yah kids, impressionable and eager to experience real life, leave voluntourism with the same smug entitlement. Indeed, one of my first tutorials was spent sulking when the guy with long hair and piercings (probably a style inspired by the same trip) had beaten me to it, shoe-horning stories of the ease with which Cambodian children smile, into a discussion about the cultural significance of the burqa… Even now, almost two years on, the predominant feeling I associate with those pivotal four weeks in Tamil Nadu (I’ve been to rural India!!!!!) is guilt.

On a course obsessed with cultural relativism, this is not an easy thing to admit and yet, having spoken to my fellow do-gooders, the lingering flavour left behind from ‘volunteer’ work is a bitter one. This is not to denounce all volunteer work because of course there are life-changing projects which can bring about unquestionable positive change, but for those of us popping over to distant parts of Asia to embed ‘the volunteer experience’ into a four month trip prioritising various forms of cultural enlightenment, the hangover of guilt is not welcome nor appropriate.

To ground this rant in the specific, recalling my time spent at Kings Matriculation Secondary School often leaves my conscience begging for mercy from fearmongering chants scolding my failure to return, poor efforts to stay in regular contact with those with whom I formed close relationships, or, perhaps worst of all, the thought that I returned from holiday sun kissed and rested while my welfare receivers remain enmeshed in their cage of third world hardship.

Am I being harsh? Such remorse is of course well-intentioned, springing from a place of altruism and gratitude, but affording our work such significance is not only immodest but it also elevates us to a higher status socially, economically and morally on the premise that ‘our’ life is better than ‘theirs’ and it is for this reason we ought to ‘do our bit’ to ‘give back’ (in the native tongue of the colonial aid worker).

My gripe is with us European jet setters who, cradling our privilege, render aid receivers vulnerable and dependant peoples sat in the window awaiting our return. Sadly, speaking from experience, it is highly likely they have forgotten your name if they ever learnt it, they have forgotten the English words for household pets (which they never fully understood anyway, because why would you intentionally ensure a feral cat remained in your house when it was only eating your food and weeing on the floor) or have otherwise forgotten that is was you who taught it them and, for the most part, are going about their day to day life in the same happy fashion you left them in.

Only yes, they still don’t have an iPhone 6, and continue to eat their meals with their left hand, because, yes, they also still don’t see the use in killing the rainforest for toilet roll when God equipped us with fine functioning hands.


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