By Alice Evans
Volunteering abroad has long had to run the gauntlet of mixed opinions. DUCK (Durham University Charities Kommittee, for those of you who were on another planet during the Freshers’ Fair and missed the humungous blow-up duck that descended on New Elvet) sends over a hundred people a year across eight destinations worldwide to volunteer for charitable projects, as well as requiring each participant donate £1000 directly to those projects. Whilst fundraising for my DUCK Expedition to Peru last summer, my housemates were full of cynicism. There has been many a debate about the sustainability and transparency of international volunteering, and I feel the time has come to set things straight.
One argument against DUCK volunteering abroad is that it might do a charity more good if we just sent money (and not people) to the projects, because local builders could be employed instead of amateur Durham students. It’s a fair point, but I take the standpoint of realism on this one. Is someone really going to work their sorry little overdrawn butt off for a year to raise £1000 for a charity if there isn’t something in it for them, too? Yes, there are some people this selfless and kind; but not everyone who did a DUCK Expedition last year would have donated this much to charity if they were not going away. By the end of this summer £99,000 had been given to international projects. No matter the motive, this is surely a good thing.
Another oft-made complaint is that the exotic locations of DUCK trips allow people to forget the problems in the UK. One housemate claimed that travelling thousands of miles is just a selfish need for exoticism, as there’s plenty of less glamorous voluntary work available in England. My answer to this is: have you ever voluntarily tutored maths in underprivileged schools in the UK, then? No, says he. Didn’t think so. Since we are lucky enough to be offered the opportunity of international volunteering, we should do it in addition to looking after our own country. People on DUCK Expeditions are doing some good in the world; whether that’s because they want an exotic summer, an embellished LinkedIn profile, or because they really care about improving the lives of impoverished people.
However, one aspect of the trips that does make me uneasy is the environmental impact of flying. Kayaking to South America may not quite be feasible, so if DUCK wants to continue to help the poorest countries in the world, it has to use air travel. Perhaps something DUCK Expeditions could look into is flying carbon neutral. For example, investing just £11 in a CO2 compensation scheme covers the 666 litres of fuel required to transport one person the 22,000 kilometres from London to Lima and back. This isn’t a lot to ask.
A 2012 article criticising DUCK Expeditions stated that the trips simply ‘pamper’ the impoverished rather than sustainably solving problems. Unfortunately, this is a misinformed opinion. DUCK Expeditions do not simply pamper the people they reach out to, but have positive and sustainable impacts on their lives. In fact, DUCK works tirelessly every single year to ensure that the projects they support are fully sustainable. For example, the 2013 Borneo Expedition team travelled to an orang-utan centre and worked 9am-5pm in temperatures reaching over 30°C, and hugely high humidity. The centre had recently had its food budget for the animals (around £20,000 a year) taken away from them by the logging-happy government. The DUCK team worked indefatigably to hand plough a farm, so that by the end of the 3 weeks, papaya seedlings had already begun to rear their heads. If DUCK had not been there, this farm would not be there, or at least not as soon as it was. Two weeks ago, the first papaya and pumpkin were harvested. If that’s not sustainable, I don’t know what is.
People need to rear their heads from the stagnant pools of scepticism that they’ve sunken into, and get up and just volunteer. Do it at home, and do it abroad. You won’t regret it.
Keep checking the DUCK website this week for information on the 2015 DUCK Expedition Applications.
Photograph: Alice Evans