A scheme to offer socially excluded young people from the UK
experience of life in this poverty-stricken country gave them a
fresh perspective on their lives, writes Gavin Barker.
Working for 10 years with socially excluded young people in the UK
had left me demoralised and frustrated. Chronic low pay,
questionable distribution of the few available resources and a
rigid management and regulatory structure all gave me, I felt,
little scope to effect real and positive change in the lives of
young people with severe problems.
In Central America, I am dealing with a group of young people
similar to those I worked with in the UK and achieving significant
youth development through overseas project work.
Raleigh International (formerly Operation Raleigh) has cast off its
old-school-tie, middle-class image. It now provides cutting-edge
self-esteem and confidence-building programmes for young people
aged 17 to 25 from all ethnic and social backgrounds.
Raleigh takes more than 800 young people from the UK on expeditions
overseas every year. More than 20 per cent of these are socially
excluded young people referred to us from probation, social, youth
and employment services. These young people join Raleigh’s
youth-at-risk project, a year-long programme of personal
development in the UK culminating in the three-month overseas
This takes young people far away from possible disruptive and
destabilising influences in their home environment and gives them
space to reflect and make future plans. As one young person put it:
“Having been involved in crime since I was 14, the best thing for
me about Raleigh was getting away from all the crime at
Socially excluded young people work alongside those taking “gap
years”, and young Nicaraguans, and all are treated in the same way.
Staff support the young people in exploring their prejudices and
Young people join a community project, an environmental project and
an adventure project, each lasting three weeks. They could end up
working alongside the local community to build a school or clinic,
tracking endangered species in the rainforest or trekking up
Nicaragua has areas of extreme poverty. Projects in such areas are
a great chance for disadvantaged young people from the UK to feel
they are giving something back to a community, as opposed to always
being the recipients of others’ aid. This empowering experience can
change a young person’s defeatist attitude into a more positive
One young person said: “Living with a local family in a poor,
remote area of Nicaragua has made me realise how lucky we are back
home and how we take so many things for granted, such as a wide
choice of food, electricity, and running – let alone hot –
“I have decided, since coming out here, that when I go home I am
going to do the necessary training to allow me to help
underprivileged kids, as I want to give something back to my own
As for myself, Raleigh International has enabled me to take a new
approach to working with socially excluded young people. I feel
that it also promotes an excellent model for working overseas – a
partnership approach in which local people and communities are
fully involved and have ownership of projects.
Gavin Barker is country director in Costa Rica and
Nicaragua for Raleigh International.
– The Republic of Nicaragua covers 129,494 sq km – just over half
the size of the UK – and has a population of 4.9 million.
– Ethnic groups: Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 69 per cent;
white 17 per cent; black 9 per cent; Amerindian 5 per cent.
– Nicaragua is one of the northern hemisphere’s poorest countries,
with 50 per cent of the population living below the poverty