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Narrowing the gap
03 March 2008
by Sally Brown

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander is proposing to fund 2,500 hard-up young people to take part in overseas volunteering programmes.

The aim of the £10m project is to bring the opportunity of taking a gap year to those who would not otherwise be able to afford such an experience, long-believed to be the preserve of middle-class school kids pre-university. Over the next three years, people aged 18 to 25 will undertake 10 weeks' work in developing countries including Ghana and South Africa, Malawi, India and Peru. The work will range from environmental conservation to AIDS awareness with a focus on the participants sharing their learning when they return home. The first volunteers will travel to South Africa and Ghana in May.

Alexander claims the programme will encourage the young participants to be better "global citizens", and will go some way to addressing the question of whether young volunteers are more of a hindrance than a help overseas.

The debate raged last year over gap year projects doing little more than entertaining the volunteers who pay thousands of pounds to join them, and often creating more problems for the communities involved. There is now a clear drive by some to ensure projects are well-managed and locally-owned in order to avoid the problems created by poorly organised, money-spinning schemes. Two of these organisations are People and Places and Social Treks.

Sallie Grayson, co-founder of People and Places believes "if volunteers are inadequately prepared and screened they are likely to do more harm than good, whoever sends them. We welcome any initiative that drives forward responsible volunteering and draws attention that responsible volunteering should not be simply an alternative to a holiday in the sun."

Many would argue that the trips we now think of as gap years are little more than parties in hot locations with cheap booze.

However Alexander sees the benefits of this programme being the personal development of the young, who will have the chance to overcome challenges while working with local communities "blighted by poverty".

It is clear the government does not intend to fund jollies abroad as they stipulate these are working trips and there must also be a commitment to volunteering after they return home to put into practice what they have learned abroad. The latter point is something too few volunteering organisations enforce but something my own organisation, Your Safe Planet, stipulates. If a person wishes to volunteer abroad it is important to ask why. Do they volunteer at home and is it this that leads to a desire to be active in another part of the world? Or is it that they see this as a way of having the "holiday in the sun" but with a little added philanthropy?

Raj Gyawali, founder of award-winning Social Treks, says: "My only concern with projects in villages are whether the project addresses the need of the villagers or are we imposing development on them, in which case, it never will be taken in earnest, and there will be no ownership."

Volunteers will be expected to put into practice on their return what they have learned abroad.

Justin Davis Smith, chief executive of Volunteering England, said: "We are particularly pleased that the scheme will encourage the young people to volunteer in the UK on their return and bring some of the positive learning to home-based projects. However, we would want to ensure that this passion for volunteering is properly harnessed, so young people can be supported in their volunteering throughout their adult lives."

Sally Broom is the founder of Your Safe Planet