As DUCK Expeditions open to applicants for the 2012 trips, questions are always asked about the sustainability of projects, which dispatch ‘foreigners’ into places thousands of miles away in an attempt to generically ‘improve’ the conditions faced in these regions. From Kenya to Jordan and Nepal to (not so distant) Romania, volunteers are keen to improve the living conditions, raise the standard education or – and there are clichés shattering round me as I write – contribute to that allusive, yet all encompassing, ‘make a difference’ factor. One must ask, and ask each year, are these trips sustainable and most importantly, are they benefitting the local communities in which we work? As each group returns from their summer adventures, there can be no doubt that as individuals, they have furthered their own personal development. They return with stories of exploits and hair-raising journeys, a group of newfound friends (mostly from Durham of course), having graduated from the crash course in confidence boosting and team building. But have the communities they have left behind after their five week journey gained as much, or anything from their time there?
As we sat down at the end of summer to evaluate each expedition in readiness for the coming year, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to ask all the questions that, midway through preparations for a trip, one doesn’t feel able to raise. Why were DUCK trips being sent to these particular regions? Where exactly were the donations participants had put so much effort into fundraising being sent? Was each trip cost effective? It was an immensely satisfying process, during which I gained a remarkable insight into the way not only DUCK but the partners with whom we have forged relations, work. The true extent to which each trip is evaluated based on prior participants and leaders feedback was brought home to me as I compiled documents to take forwards to trustee meetings regarding sustainability and improvements.
Each expedition was accountable, not only to the participants but also to DSU, a fact which reminded me of the level professionalism to which DUCK now works. The partners with whom DUCK works are required to work within the community, responding acutely to the needs of local people rather than imposing upon them projects which would be of minimal use. My frustrations of previous years expeditions’ lack of clarity regarding what project volunteers would be sent to became blindingly obvious; projects are finalized, not months but only days and weeks in advance of participants arrival in order to ensure the projects they are working on are responding as acutely as possible to local requirements.
Organisations such as FutureSense Foundation, a charity with whom DUCK works closely with over a number of expeditions, take huge care to ensure that participants on their programmes benefit the area where they work rather than becoming the stereotypical ‘gap yah’ type volunteers. Donations made by DUCK trips are carefully allocated to the country and area in which they are most needed and care is taken to build on foundations already in place within the community.
Within DUCK, expenses for each trip are scrutinized and every effort made to maximize the total donation made within each expeditions budget. Participants are carefully vetted by application and interview before being accepted onto a trip in order to ensure they are culturally (and socially) aware of the issues faced ‘in country’. DUCK endeavors to distance itself as far as possible from the worrying stereotype of volunteers.
Perhaps such a level of care should not be something to aspire to be, but a compulsory aspect of expedition management however, at the National RAG Conference, hosted by Durham this year, it was clear how unusual DUCK’s attitude in this respect was. Rife were projects run by companies designed to profit from volunteers enthusiasm and – occasionally naïve – desire to ‘see change’. The checks put in place by DUCK were often non-existent and ‘all inclusive’ packages run by outside companies in other RAG’s remain the norm. I am certainly proud of DUCK’s achievements in this area, but surely these crucial questions should be asked across all projects involving volunteering abroad. Every individual who embarks on a DUCK trip will certainly have a life changing experience however, they can also be safe in the knowledge that DUCK strives for the most sustainable and accountable projects possible.
DUCK Expeditions are now open for applications for 2012, closing at 5pm on Thursday 3rd of November.