Mind the gap year

Image of Gillian Tett

Twenty-five years ago, I embarked on an intense journey in Pakistan. I had just finished school in Britain, and decided to take a gap year before university, volunteering on an aid project. So I travelled to a remote corner of the Sindh desert, where I worked with a church-linked medical group, before spending time in the north-west of Pakistan, working with children.

It was – unsurprisingly – a transforming experience, which taught me much about the fragility and value of life. But when I look back now, one thing that strikes me is just how little training I had before my trip. To be sure, before arriving in the Sindh I was told about the local customs, and how to keep healthy in a hot climate. I also studied Urdu, which, as it happened, was surprisingly easy to do in England at the time, because the British government was introducing its teachers and police force to the language to cope with immigrants.

But back in 1985 student volunteers were expected simply to cope with whatever awaited them. That partly reflected a hardy, frugal, no-nonsense attitude in this particular charity; but it was taken for granted then that “charity” was essentially about rich westerners providing benefits to poor people. Thus, there was relatively little reflection about the power relations involved in the idea that a naive 18-year-old, such as myself, assumed she could help people in an alien land.

How times change. Last week I had a chance to visit the Blum Center for Developing Economies at Berkeley, University of California, which was established a few years ago by Richard Blum, an American private equity grandee. This centre spends part of its time trying to work out how to help impoverished people around the world, by bringing together academics and entrepreneurs to develop technological innovations, such as low-cost cooking stoves for Sudan. However, it also dispatches students overseas to help on aid projects, with a view to training a new generation of people for non-governmental organisations.

But unlike my experience, these missions today do not occur in a training vacuum; on the contrary, groups such as the Blum Center are grappling, in a highly self-conscious way, with a cultural minefield around the contradictions of modern aid. That is partly because the power relationship between emerging market countries and the west is far more complex today than it was 25 years ago; many emerging market countries are now booming – some are arguably better run than the west.

But the other issue, as Clare Talwalker, an Indian-born anthropologist attached to the centre explained, is that it is increasingly misguided for students to view aid as a unidirectional gift. Instead, she argues, students should see aid as a two-way exchange, which does almost as much – if not more – to help the wealthy as the poor, by changing their mindset. “Students come in with one idea – their own power to enact change – but what is far more transformative for them and for the work of poverty alleviation is what comes with a different mindset that has to do with listening and learning.”

At best, Talwalker adds, these encounters force western students to rethink their addiction to consumer goods – but also teach Americans the oft-ignored importance of interdependent relationships. “Because of our relative affluence and ease, the world’s middle classes are removed from the conditions and experience of interdependence. We value our self-sufficiency and autonomy and individual liberty and our society tends not to nurture or ritualise the values and practices of interdependency.”

And, of course, volunteering can enable students to become more concerned citizens in the west – and potentially push for policy change. In the last resort, this may actually be the biggest benefit of aid – never mind what any idealistic volunteer might actually do on the ground to help the poor.

That is probably uncomfortable for would-be volunteers to hear. After all, it sounds pretty distasteful that poor communities can sometimes end up functioning as quasi education camps for wealthy western students. But based on my own experience, what Talwalker says is correct: the experience of aid can produce valuable outcomes, but rarely for the reason that volunteers expect. Irrespective of the babies I injected in Pakistan, in other words, I probably benefited from the experience as much, if not more, than anyone else.

Nevertheless, there is another twist to this “dual exchange”. As student volunteers fan out – and there are currently some 9,000 US Peace Corp workers alone volunteering around the world – policy officials and anthropologists now realise that there is also an opportunity to bring home the lessons and technology. Ideas that work in developing countries are increasingly relevant to poor neighbourhoods in California, say, particularly as America’s income gaps widen and structural problems loom. To be sure, this type of “reverse innovation” is not how I imagined aid 25 years ago; but it is a sign of shifting times. And, perhaps, a reason for cheer for the next group of 21st-century volunteers now heading to unfamiliar climes.


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