Monday, 14 June 2004

Gap Year Students, internships and volunteers

Over the past four years, the World Land Trust has developed a highly successful intern programme. Unlike many other organisations our intern programme is designed to give real benefits to the intern – they are not a form of cheap labour, as is usually the case. All WLT interns get a formal training programme, travel allowances, and are sent on training courses, often in London. So successful has this programme been that the WLT has now become accredited as part of a Diploma course, in Conservation & Project Administration – – this is a graduate course, resulting in a formal qualification – probably the first of its kind in the UK. Deatils are now on the web site of Norwich University (University of East Anglia).

While the World Land Trust was developing these courses we were often asked why we don’t take on gap year students for our projects. The answers are complex, but in a nutshell, I don’t think they [gap year students] are particularly useful, or cost effective. Additionally there are a number of companies organising expeditions and facilities for volunteers of this type, and it would be a diversion of our activities away from the main objectives of the WLT. Furthermore, we believe that it is a much higher priority to facilitate students from the areas around our projects, rather than import teenagers from Britain. And, as an aside, I believe that many of the British run expeditionary services exploit the students, and the public. Many appear to be charitable – but even when they are not for profit it does not always mean they are charitable.

Unlike Registered Charities, companies do not always make their accounts public, or disclose salaries overheads etc. Thousands and thousands of pounds are spent every year on ‘expeditions’, which are in reality little more than holidays, which provide very little real research data, but do make a large profit for the organisers.

Before students go rushing off and book air flights all over the world to carry out two or three weeks ‘scientific research’ into the rainforests or coral reefs, they should think very carefully about the real value of what they are doing and the real costs. What costs £2000 and an international airfare for a British student, can often be done by a perfectly competent local student for a couple of hundred pounds or less, with no travel costs.

Have a holiday, do some good works, by all means, but do think carefully and do check out the organisations very carefully indeed. And if you want to volunteer, why not go direct, it’s usually cheaper, and provides greater benefit to the local organisations. There are plenty of non-government organisations that would welcome volunteers, even gap-year students, but the students must be prepared to put in real hard work, or have some real expertise as birdwatchers, botanists etc. And they should also be able to demonstrate that they have done similar things in Britain or wherever their home country is. Otherwise they will be perceived as little more than tourists, out for a cheap holiday.

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