It is nothing new, nothing new at all for rich parents to send their kids away. My favourite one is James Boswell, who in return for agreeing to go to Law School in Utrecht for a year, got his dad to pay for him to spend a year whoring around Europe. This was in 1761, perhaps. Even before this, there was the Grand Tour. And later Americans in Paris. So there is nothing unusual in the apparently educative values of travel being bought by the privileged for their spawn.

Current situation
Things have changed. And, yet they haven’t changed at all. Travel is cheap, the world has shrunk, etc etc. As the old privileged classes used to travel abroad to Europe, now the proportionately less wealthy are able to go far further. What used to be adventure – The Orient – is now quotidian fare. The growth industry here is what is called charity tourism. Once they have their 17 A-grade A levels in their pockets, rich teenagers hand over thousands to go abroad and ‘help out’.

Some personal disclosure
I should at this point, I suppose, make some confessions. I am from the middle of the middle of this demographic. I am a wealthy professional’s upper-middle class child. I went to a prep school, a public school, and then before going to Oxbridge I went to India (you can read some of my exploits here).

I didn’t just go to India and do tourism – worse, I barely provided any input to the tourist industry in India at all. I went and taught in a newly established school in Tamil Nadu. Now, the painful part of this exercise is this: can I say that I made a positive contribution to the area? And would any attempt to do so mark my acceptance of this paradigm that I’m in the middle of explaining and denouncing?

So: I had a choice apartment to share; I was fed and watered daily; I possibly caused disruption by my entry into the school and certainly by my brief entry into the community. On the other hand, there was the actual teaching, I ate out a lot, but I’m already clutching at straws. The strongest point in favour of my presence at the school was that the school incorporated my presence there into its prospectus – me and people like me would be coming from England to teach the kids on a putatively permanent basis. This is plainly false, and builds up expectations that the school cannot possibly hope to fulfil in the long term. Beyond these simple conjectures I would enter into self-indulgent poor little rich boy false chastisement. So enough.

Finally, all this is to say nothing of the supremely arrogant and dismissive attitudes developed by me and many other volunteer workers. I know I became racist and disrespectful. Not to the people housing me, or to the friends I made. But to the undifferentiated ‘them’. Staff. Strangers. Acquaintances. And I know that I’ve really worked to slough these acquired behaviours off. I don’t know whether I’ve wholly succeeded.

A couple general things
Despite the general undesirability of long haul flights and of tourism in general, and despite the new-found trendiness of trying not to get too drunk at the planet’s funeral that we are all attending, more and more kids and adults on career breaks are jetting off to Burundi to make a bridge out of spittle and middle-class guilt. Ironically, it is precisely the people whose parents use Ecover products and recycle faithfully that are the most likely to salve their consciousnesses in this way.

I should also admit that this has come to mind because of an article I read recently. A bunch of twonks just like me, many with similar experiences, were interviewed and none of them, not one, expressed any ambivalence at all about their time abroad. Not a drop. One guy whom I’m ashamed to admit I know said he thought that his impact had been ‘universally a good thing’.

A point I just thought of
Forgive me if I’ve telegraphed this a mile off. Isn’t it interesting, a word I used back there. I wonder if you spotted it? When we speak of a lad about town, rambunctiously getting up to no good, or when we speak of tales of derring-do abroad, or even of exciting and unusual adventures in exotic places? That’s right: exploits. Fucking exploits, people! I mean, Christ! This is almost as bad as holiday resort (yeah, I know – nuts, isn’t it?). What exploits did I get up to? Fucking Neo-Imperialism, mate! That’s fucking right.

A tentative conclusion
So, what to make of all this? What I’d like you to make of it, obviously, is that the habituation of swathes of the leisured classes to intervention instead of empowerment signals the dawn of a new imperialist era in which an acceptable engagement with the serious issues of globalized social injustice is to give three months to an ego-massage and fly home with a tan, a rug and some stories. It’s not acceptable. Whole cohorts of well-intentioned post-adolescents crossing the world to ‘help out’ would not solve these problems. And the only way out of the problem is to stop accessorizing the second and third worlds, and to start engaging with them.

11-Mar-07 Some tyops fixed and some bombast removed.

17-May-08 More tyops fixed.

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