DUCK expeditions: money better spent elsewhere?

Originally published in Palatinate (Comment) in November 2014.

The application process for this year’s DUCK charity expeditions has begun and many students are currently waiting to find out if they will be spending part of their summer helping the less fortunate in countries as diverse as Romania and Nepal. Despite the good work that they will be doing there, their time and effort might be better spent in other ways…

While Durham is a predominantly middle class university, efforts must be made to ensure that activities are inclusive to all. Fundraising targets as high as an eye-watering approximate figure of £3900 for the Kilimanjaro trip were enough to preclude me from taking part, in the fear that I might have to fork out the difference if there was a shortfall. The idea of committing to raise such a figure was daunting, especially as I know that currently my family and friends would be unable to donate a substantial amount even to the causes closest to their hearts.

Regardless of the practicalities of fundraising, the most unsettling aspect of the costing was that the reminder, tucked away at the bottom of a page, that living expenses for the ‘tourism’ element of the trip are not covered. Just like the tales of gap years spent helping the less fortunate in far away and exotic lands, such events as these strengthen the existing disconnect between the experiences of affluent and less affluent students, both groups whom should be able to play a full part in university life.

The DUCK Commitment to Best Practice policy of 2010 states that the target is for 50% of the funds raised to go to charity; meaning that a large proportion of the money raised goes to funding costs such as flights, visas and accomodation for participants. If instead of running these expeditions all of the money could be given to worthwhile causes, the effect could be astronomical. It costs around £1 for a child in Uganda to be tested for malaria. Surely this is more important than what is, in part, a holiday? Charitable giving should be focused on benevolence and aiding the less fortunate, rather than on the promise of an exciting safari or a trip to see the Taj Mahal.

While this one is an argument that endlessly gets dusted off and used as an argument by many different groups, I can’t help but think that sometimes ‘charity should begin at home’. The recession and the austerity measures of this government have led to an increase in food bank users in Durham, with the percentage of food bank users attending the Durham foodbank due to benefit changes rising from 6% in October 2011 to 27% in September 2014. When coupled with the fact that over 900,000 people needed emergency food in 2013-14 alone, it really is clear that we need to do more to help those suffering on our doorstep. While I hope I am not being presumptuous by guessing that poverty is far from the experience of the majority of Durham students, I personally know many young people who are living what is scarcely more than a subsistence lifestyle and struggle to afford enough to eat.

Helping these people in areas of Co. Durham or further afield may not be as glamorous or as exciting as visiting India or Nepal but it can be just as rewarding. I am by no means denying the needs of those who are helped by the DUCK charity expeditions but simply suggesting that when we are surrounded by such privilege we should help those around us who have so little.

I am lucky enough to be writing this article in a beautiful Georgian townhouse but just a few minutes away is a community centre and the Salvation Army. This disconnection between our lives and the lives of many of the permanent residents of Durham is of real concern to me.

DUCK charity expeditions are a worthwhile endeavour and undoubtedly rewarding for those who take part but I can’t help question whether there is a better way of supporting the poor and vulnerable abroad — as well as at home.

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