I have just finished reading an article in the Guardian that lays out the financial arguments for limiting overseas trips for young people, with the headline grabbing line, “£3000 for a school trip - You must be joking?”. It certainly gets your attention and ignites the kind of expected uproar from those of us wanting to increase accessibility to opportunities for all young people. On the surface, this does not seem like the way to do it.
I am an overseas expedition leader and have worked with young people from all walks of life overseas. For the trips I work on, young people are encouraged to earn the money themselves, which, if they are old enough, predominantly comes from their own part-time jobs. Support and advice is provided and the build-up is often 18 months or more, which means to pay off £3000 they will need to work 10 hours a week but that isn’t including group ideas like quizzes, curry nights and ceilidh’s. One of the arguments in the article is that even with earning it themselves this money will come from parents who are already stretched and this is the worrying reality for a lot of families. However, why is it that for a lot of us, we are happy to pay to buy the latest branded fad, or hundreds of pounds to see our favourite musician but we suck our teeth at attending a quiz or buying a christmas craft when the money is going towards an overseas trip for a young person? Investing in people not things is surely positive?
My main frustration with the article does not come from the financial constraints laid out. These are real and damaging for many families and the UK’s poverty levels are an absolute disgrace. Philip Alston’s report as UN envoy on poverty in Britain highlights the major impacts of austerity, the failings of universal credit and the impact of Brexit on the most vulnerable in our society. But instead of a race to the bottom and trying to fight for these trips to be removed, we should be looking at how we can increase accessibility. I want to lay out the positive impact that can be sparked by overseas adventures with young people.
If these trips are planned far enough in advance and young people are supported through the process of earning the money to attend then this can be an extremely positive experience for them. By earning the money individually and as a team young people are given full ownership of their experience and they invest a lot of themselves in the trip before they get anywhere near an airport.
I understand this is still out of reach for many, but this opens up discussion points. Are grants, scholarships and other forms of finance possible, in partnership with focused advice and support? Explorers Connect has published a list of grants for young people seeking adventure.
Furthermore, once they are in country, on the best trips, young people are given control over the budget. They are responsible for holding the money, paying for food, booking hotels and transport and arranging activities for rest and relaxation. Often these teams have never had so much financial responsibility in their lives before and by having control of a real budget with real consequences they create genuine opportunities for learning and development.
It is also important to note that almost all of the providers of youth focused trips in this market are businesses and are not voluntary run organisations or charities. This means you are paying for a service, run by professionals, who are backed up with high quality planning and support. The focus of this article is on this type of trip, and I am speaking from my own perspective leading for World Challenge.
The second argument in the article is that because of the financial barriers, these trips feed division. I would argue that they have the potential to do the exact opposite and create social cohesion. On most of the trips I have worked on the young people barely know each other when they start out and will openly tell you how they don’t socialise with one-another at school, coming from different years and friendship groups. By creating such a large shared goal, working together to achieve it and then spending intense periods of time together in environments and situations well out of their current frames of experience, these groups become extremely close and also start to learn to look beyond what they think they know about others and themselves. They build their own community, support each other and work together in a way they do not experience at school.
Global Problems, Global Response
The big issues of our time are not confined behind borders and if our only experiences stem from learning in a classroom in our countries of origin then we run the risk of only ever approaching these issues from a limited perspective. I am not talking about voluntourism here, but simply learning about other people’s lives and other environments around the world. Yes, you could just watch a documentary, but that will not have the same, lasting change that can be sparked by simply making human connections with other people. Habitat loss, Chemicals and Climate Change are the biggest threats to nature and us. I firmly believe that in order for change to happen, individuals need to feel a connection to the places we are talking about and also to recognise the connection between the different parts of our lives. For example in the UK, the products we buy are full of materials and ingredients that are being unsustainably and unethically sourced from different countries around the world.
Signing up to initiatives such as Travellers Against Plastic and using that as a starting point for learning can also help to teach the importance of global and individual response. These issues are extremely difficult to comprehend, but when you see firsthand the damage that plastic has around the world you become an ambassador for change. In the UK we are made to feel like we are doing our bit by recycling, but the harsh reality of that is, that even if we recycle, much of it is sent overseas, some of it lost in the ocean, some of it ending up in landfill and some of it burnt. Looking at alternatives and how other communities approach the problem and refusing single use plastic is something we can all do as individuals that will eventually have a global impact.
Yes, flying to these places has a carbon footprint, and it is not perfect, but it is a start and I have seen the sparks that these experiences have created for young people on overseas trips and it does stimulate meaningful and long-lasting change.
In the UK Hate Crimes increased by 29% between 2016 and 2017 and the hateful rhetoric around migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is disturbing. The idea of ‘taking back control’ and ‘strengthening our borders’ feeds these ideas and we need to offer an alternative. Experiential learning through carefully thought-out trips overseas offers the chance for groups to immerse themselves in other cultures and communities. They talk to people and participate in every day exchanges with those they meet. In some instances the lives they encounter are very different to their own, and in others not so different at all. But fundamental to all these exchanges is approaching everyone from an initial position of respect, tolerance and a willingness to understand. If these three characteristics are taken away, embedded and shared then we are presented with the opportunity to accept and embrace difference and challenge hate from a position of understanding when we encounter it.
First of all, we should encourage discussion and be open to criticism. The white saviour complex is real and can be immensely damaging. We have all heard stories of walls being built by one group, knocked down by the community and then being rebuilt by the next group. Our young people are not builders, they are not teachers, they are not social workers and they are not conservation experts. The countries and communities that we are guests in have their own goals and the skilled tradespeople, educators and experts to achieve them. The well-meaning approach of many groups is often misplaced and comes from a position of limited understanding.
However, to simply cut all ties with communities is also not acknowledging the positive outcomes that can be achieved if we focus on community led goals, learning and making human connections. In order to create meaningful change to the damaging history of voluntourism, we need to be part of the discussion.
And change is happening. A number of companies are engaging with the discussion and have committed to long-term change. For example, I lead for World Challenge, one of the most established overseas trip providers for young people. World Challenge have acknowledged that their community engagement in the past has been unhelpful and at times damaging. Since then and over the past few years, they have made meaningful commitments, based on sound research and evidence.
World Challenge no longer have any groups volunteering in orphanages after developing a plan for responsible withdrawal with Rethink Orphanages. Research into volunteering in residential care settings shows that this is extremely harmful both in the short and long term. The children in these care settings often end up building strong bonds with the groups volunteering, who then leave, breaking these bonds, and then a new group arrives, perpetuating the cycle. In many instances they also have complex needs that can only be met with professional, expert support and care that we cannot provide. Secondly, many of the children in residential care settings around the world have living relatives, who with the right support could still care for them. But a lot of these orphanages are propped up with donations and volunteering and are seen to be a way of providing for children that cannot be looked after at home, due to the lack of resources and poverty. Alongside perpetuating family separation, orphanages can also endanger the child, leading to trafficking and exploitation. The vision for Rethink Orphanages is “A world where no child is needlessly separated from their family, and the institutionalization of children is a thing of the past.”
We are also working on withdrawing from education settings where young people are asked to teach in schools. Our groups are not teachers and we are harming the education of others by acting as if they are. This does not mean that interacting with schools is negative, it can be hugely positive if approached from a position of shared learning, but that means visiting on their terms and respecting education in all its forms.
Finally, voluntourism is often based around conservation projects and animals. World Challenge are signed up to the World Animal Protection scheme. This commitment means that our young people will not take part in any activities that could perpetuate harm towards animals. This includes elephant washing and riding or any situation where animals are trained to interact with humans in an unnatural way. We do engage with conservation projects that meet the ethical standards laid out by World Animal Protection and it is always through working with experts and helping with unskilled tasks.
Failing to Fail
In our schools young people are tested, measured and turned into data throughout their educational lives. This has the knock-on effect that they are afraid to fail. More young people than ever before are experiencing mental health issues in the UK and this can sometimes be due to educational pressure. Overseas trips can create a space where real failure happens, not contrived in a situation where failure is the goal. When this is combined with facilitators who are effectively trained and passionate about learning outside the classroom then powerful learning can be drawn from this failure. Overseas trips can encourage groups to think differently about their lives and learning and can open up new opportunities to stretch themselves. By mapping out the lives of our young people and micro-managing their experiences we are failing them. Overseas expeditions can work with schools to help create a more balanced education that addresses the whole person and not just their ability to sit exams.
Yes, these trips are expensive, but I have never met a young person who felt it wasn’t worth it. They are not perfect and there is still learning and development to be done for us as leaders and providers. But rather than asking whether we are running too many, we should be asking how can we increase accessibility? And rather than halting all voluntourism, we should be asking how we can work together towards shared goals?
World Challenge’s aim is “To create powerful life experiences that spark greater possiblity.” As a leader I think this is something worth investing in.