Gap year colonialism?

Miranda-HallVolunteer job at Lha: Teacher and contributing writer.
A lot of things have been said recently about volunteering abroad and not many of them are nice.

A google search of “voluntourism” brings up multiple articles asserting that volunteer programmes perpetuate negative stereotypes of Western “colonialism”: a new way for the West to assert its power. Voluntourists are depicted as self-congratulatory, disingenuous hedonists looking to boost their ego, or misplaced idealists inadvertently doing more harm than good.
But can all volunteer work today really be compared with the “white man’s burden” of the past?

It is important for people to be critically conscious when choosing who to volunteer with. UK-based specialist Gap Year organisations charge volunteers up to £4,500 for a two-month experience, and are arguably built to maximise profits without investing in the local community.

Having worked at Lha for almost two months now I would argue that none of these charges can be levelled against Lha. Firstly and fundamentally, Lha is not run by a foreign NGO but by Tibetans. The Lha staff: both Ngawangs, Rabsel, Tenzin, Yangzom, Palden and Tapsang are part of that local community so they know what it needs.

I will miss sitting in the Library while too-cool Tenzin makes fun of me and talks about his escapades, and I will miss being greeted at Common Ground by Rabsel’s infectious chuckle and Ginger, the fattest dog in Dharamshala. And most of all I will miss my students and the Tibetan people who I would call my good friends.

But am I still a self-congratulatory, disingenuous hedonist looking to boost my ego? I’d like to think not, but I do feel looking back on my time in Mcleod that I learnt more from it than any of my students, and not just because I had to re-teach myself all the rules of the unfathomable English grammar system.

All the Tibetans I’ve met have a story to tell, for the most part involving repression by the Chinese authorities, months-long journeys over the Himalayas and leaving behind their entire families. But they tell their stories so willingly and as soon as they finish they are laughing and joking again. I have never met a group of people who laugh so much. It’s a cliché but it makes me question what we spend all our time worrying and complaining about back home.