DUCK expeditions are a load of quack


When I was 15, I flew to Nepal. Hiking through the Himalayas, while teaching school children English and helping out at an orphanage? Could I have been a more selfless teenager? I was off to save the world.

There are few things more cringeworthy than watching 20 British schoolgirls trying to build a well under the scalding Nepalese heat. This is what I imagine a group of local men were thinking as they politely stood back while we puzzled our way through this contraption. The orphans peered through the windows, somewhat accustomed to this strange set-up. An unnecessary number of hours later, a ceremony took place thanking us for our hard work. We had singlehandedly brought clean water to this poor, desperate orphanage. We could fly home better people.

I am not trying to argue that every DUCK project is entirely of the same essence. I am trying to tell you, however, that their expeditions are a clear demonstration of how little understanding we have of structural global issues.

After building a well in Nepal, I could (apparently) fly home a better person

DUCK (Durham University Charities “Kommittee”) do some great fundraising initiatives. Though there are some holes to pick – often jailbreak donations end up being put towards flights to reach a destination and not the charities themselves – on the whole they are a creative way for students to challenge themselves and engage with fundraising opportunities. The purpose of this article is not to attack DUCK, but to shine a light on the expeditions that DUCK runs.

Voluntourism involves an individual travelling abroad to somehow assist a local community, group, or individuals less privileged than themselves. Voluntourism ultimately merges conventional tourism with the altruistic motivations of volunteering. In effect, it is unskilled workers travelling to new communities on a temporary basis with little contextual understanding. Students are effectively amateur humanitarian workers, hoping to help people yet having few of the knowledge or skills required to do so.

Voluntourism strengthens patronising views about other countries

I have no doubt that these individuals care deeply and believe that they are doing a great thing. However, lack of global understanding has conditioned us to believe that, within the space of just 3 weeks, we can visit a brand new place and make a huge difference.

Voluntourism is the iceberg tip of a much wider issue. These trips subversively strengthen patronising views about the countries we visit. Take Africa, for example, a continent full of beautiful landscapes, diverse cultures, entrepreneurs and so much more, only to be depicted by UNICEF adverts as full of starving children and poverty – the perfect target for voluntourism.

I don’t doubt that these individuals believe they are doing a good thing

We need to stop believing that, if we want to, we can travel across the world and do good. That all it takes is money, good will and some enthusiasm. When I ask students about the DUCK expeditions, they get incredibly defensive. I am attacking thousands of pounds of fundraising, hours of hard work, and a holiday that creates a wealth of positive memories. I understand how difficult it can be to confront the nature of these trips, and recall coming to terms with what I remembered fondly as my volunteer expedition to Nepal. However, we should be constantly reflecting on and challenging what we do.

The way DUCK fanatics respond to my debate only further demonstrates my point. There is no critical thinking, or challenge to the structural issues that cause the very problems we are trying to improve through these expeditions. Do I hear people discussing the local history? The impact of colonialism? Of racism? These issues are far more complicated than playing drama games with some local Zambian schoolchildren.

And elephants. Don’t get me started on the elephants.

I know how difficult it can be to confront the nature of these trips

The DUCK website advertises these expeditions as “a journey of cultural discovery and personal development, as well as contributing to DUCK’s charitable legacy in communities all over the globe”. Costing up to £3,000, these trips are inaccessible to many students. This money could have so much more impact if it wasn’t uneconomically spent sending one student across the globe. Why not take the £3,000 and invest it in local communities? This would provide long-term improvements through the training of local people, as opposed to patronising them by implying that we are providing something that they couldn’t do themselves.

If you are reading this and feeling angry or defensive, please step back. If you are thinking over memories of laughing with school children, helping animal conservation, or supporting local communities, also step back. If, however, you have recognised some uncomfortable truth in this article, please: step forwards. We need to understand that the small benefits used to defend these expeditions are not worth the long-term damage that they are doing.

We should instead invest the money in the local community

University has taught me to check my privilege. I’d like all DUCK expeditionists to do the same. It’s not easy to acknowledge that what you felt was an incredible opportunity for personal challenge, international insight, and support of different cultures and communities, was actually a symptom of a much wider, spreading cancer. We need to stop furthering this image that less economically developed countries, often an aftermath of colonialism, cannot challenge poverty without the help of western intervention.

We have a responsibility as individuals to acknowledge the influence we can have on wider society; sometimes, it is important to step back and realise that we are not best equipped to solve the issue.

Photograph: Chris Parker via Flickr and Creative Commons 

6 thoughts on “DUCK expeditions are a load of quack

  • Hello,

    I just wanted to point out that of the £3,000 overall expedition cost, up to £2,000 goes towards the cost of accommodation/travel etc and at least £1,000 per person goes towards the charity or local community that the group are working in. So for most groups, this constitutes a £10,000 donation or more. This is far and away more significant than the hours they spend volunteering – though of course I can’t speak for every expedition and every charity.

    I realise this is not your main point, but I wanted you to know a bit more about the money side as you seem to suggest exactly what is already done in your article. I am on the DUCK committee, and while I have no involvement with expeditions, I still want to make sure you are fully informed on what DUCK Expeds constitute.

    Happy to pass you on to someone who is involved with expeditions if you want to discuss your issues further.

    Many thanks.

  • Hi – I just want to add that a number of features on this article are incredibly misleading.

    Firstly, the picture used is not from one of our expeditions. DUCK does not condone this kind of volunteering at ALL and in fact all of our expeditions, which work with animals include an educative element about the dangers of volunteering and how to avoid being involved in something as evidently negative as pictured in this photo.

    Secondly, as to money from Jailbreak being used for flights rather than fundraising this would actually be illegal if it were being done. Any money that students use to buy flights as part of Jailbreak has to be FULLY ADVERTISED and communicated to anyone donating to them, which is explained to participants before and during the event itself. To be clear – if you have ever given money to a doing Jailbreak it will be donated to their charity unless expressly communicated to you otherwise.

    Thirdly, DUCK takes very seriously the image that expeditions have and the potential accusations of neo-colonialism; although I may be accused of being a ‘DUCK fanatic’ we think very carefully about the ethics and suitability of our expeditions. During the expedition itself participants are encouraged to talk widely about the implications of their work; however, I do not accept all of your claims. Out of the (up to) £3000 cost of each expedition over £1000 of this will go to the charity participants work with, helping to sustain causes around the world. We assess the type of volunteering work undertaken by participants carefully and try to ensure they feel they have productively contributed. Although I accept that giving £3000 directly to the charities may have more impact, DUCK tries to take a realistic outlook and accept that this is not probable for most of our participants.

    Instead, we try and offer Durham students the chance to use their summers productively, fundraise for fantastic causes and genuinely learn and develop themselves. It is not perfect but then nothing ever is and I personally think that doing nothing at all is not the solution either.

    Although clearly stated that this article didn’t intend to take away from the work that DUCK does having these kind of statements and insinuations obviously does have an impact. Whilst we honestly do welcome discussion about the ethicality of our work, including statements which misguide potential fundraisers and supporters can be really damaging to our work. For example, this year we have been holding a campaign against volunteering in orphanages to help raise awareness for the potentially damaging sides of voluntourism.

    This year our expeditions will send out nearly 130 participants, raising in the region of £130,000 for small grassroots charities. I personally seriously question whether we can accuse these fundraisers as merely being blinded by their own privilege.

    DUCK will be releasing some official statements about voluntourism and our expeditions soon and we’d definitely invite you to get in touch if you have any more concerns because we are always keen to improve the quality of our work.

  • As a previous section editor of palatinate as well as a previous deputy expedition leader I have respect for both bodies. However, I would honestly defend the DUCK expeditions. Many points have been covered, but one I would like to add is that actually yes there was discussion of the impact of colonialism. I myself travelled to Peru, and not only did I have insightful conversation with my trek guides (one of which was an Andean native, and the other part-Spanish) but we also visited national museums and sites of native importance. I learnt a lot about Peruvian history, both native and colonial. Furthermore, many hours were spent making sure our time and money were used advantageously to the community. We donated money to an orphanage, but did not volunteer there for any period because this wouldn’t necessarily positively impact the children. We did however organise them an activities day, which gave them a fun and exciting experience (much like a school trip would in the U.K.). But moreso, this allowed us to meet with permanent volunteers and locals who run the orphanage, to become better educated and discover how our money would be positively utilised. I feel angry at this article for not understanding the true nature of DUCK expeditions, nor placing enough value in the education of Durham students in other cultures, and contributing to negative publicity of DUCK which depends on community support. This does not mean I should “step back”, that’s exactly how nothing gets solved. Rather we should all step forward and all being at the discussion table.

  • Enjoyed the article and felt the point was well made by a couple of the responses. In effect, the case for the defence seems to be that £1,000 per volunteer is raised for local charities. What this actually tells us is that £2,000 per volunteer is spent on the volunteers. If I give £1 to Oxfam and they told me that they had spent £0.66 on themselves, I’d be none too happy. There really is no way to cut this, but if you wish to help communities in faraway countries, just give them £3,000, let them employ their own low skilled labour and boost the local economy far more effectively, while managing to complete way more good works that you can manage on these volunteer experiences.

    Then, if an individual really wants to gain the life experience from doing good works, they could get on a bus to Sunderland, Middlesbrough, or even many parts of Durham City, and get stuck into trying to help mitigate some of the severe social problems on their own doorstep. This is nowhere near as exciting, doesn’t look half as good on social media profiles, and doesn’t get you a sun tan, but it might teach just as much about inequality, social deprivation and how many people have to scratch and scrape to get by. Because this is their own country, I suspect that in many ways the experience would actually be much better for the volunteers as it ensures that in their future lives they can’t hide away from issues of poverty by mentally assuming it only happens in poor and ‘undeveloped’ countries. Like every citizen, middle class students carry a responsibility for the gross inequalities we witness all around us, but it is all too easy to block out what is on our own doorstep and instead head off on the trip of a lifetime to change someone else’s world.

    I appreciate that DUCK, other DU societies and indeed many individual students will be engaged in great charitable activities while at Durham, and believe me, the local community does appreciate this, but Catriona has a very strong point. Voluntourism is now an industry, and like so many industries it presents a well crafted marketing image that often doesn’t live up to the hype.

  • Brilliantly written article. I came across this because it was linked from the Guardian this week, you raise some extremely valid points about the damaging effects of voluntourism. I spent three months volunteering at a shelter for refugees in Athens last year and realised that a lot of what Western people are doing there is actually very damaging and by trying to encourage children to integrate with “European Culture” the organisation I was with was actually ripping the childrens’ real heritage away from them and feeding them a colonial lie. But what can we do about this problem? This article is a great start and I think these negative experiences need as much publicity as positive ones do. I, personally, feel reluctant to talk negatively charity work because I worry people will be angry and tale it as an insult towards those who are trying to “help” however it’s time that we start talking about this problematic and exploitative industry


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