Young Australian aid volunteers, like JANA principal Michael O’Dea, are undertaking and themselves funding domestic and overseas community-development projects beyond the remit of governments, writes SIMON MUMME.

Qualifying for the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship ethics and leadership program required Michael O’Dea to trek through Katherine Gorge in 40 degree heat while carrying a 20 kilogram pack. While “cooling off in a brown muddy swamp,” another hiker told him about an organisation running community-development projects for young volunteers in Australia and overseas.

The name stuck with him. Later in the year, O’Dea, principal of alternative investment solutions at JANA Investment Advisers, joined the organisation – a non-religious, non-profit group called Youth Challenges Australia (YCA) – as a director. His responsibilities include assessing and, where possible, minimising the risks to volunteers in YCA projects, and to help govern the non-profit. “Joining as a director was about wanting to contribute to an organisation that facilitates amazing experiences for young people to get out there and do something positive for the world,” O’Dea says.

“I take my hat off those young people for wanting to make a difference and for actually doing something about it.” In Australia, YCA runs projects in the Yuendumu, Kintore and Alice Springs communities in the Northern Territory. Offshore, its volunteers work in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, rural and urban India, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Guyana.

The infrastructure and environmental conservation assignments – between five and 12 weeks in duration – are usually financed by volunteers through blends of personal contributions and fundraisings. O’Dea believes that it would benefit companies if they sponsored projects, enabling volunteers with plenty of enthusiasm but no ready means of raising money to participate.

YCA directors are also looking at whether short-term projects could be linked with corporate graduate programs. This would demonstrate company values and could appeal to ‘Gen Y’ graduates, he says. It would also offer “a collection of interested young graduates a chance to develop their leadership abilities outside the office”. YCA began running the projects in 1992. O’Dea has not participated in one, but through the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship he worked in the Pilbara as an intermediary between BHP Billiton and the Jiagalong community, to review the relationship between the miner and the traditional owners of the land.

“My experience there opened my eyes to the enormity of the problems that remote aboriginal communities, like Jigalong, face, and the impact of mining operations in the region.” O’Dea recently used his annual leave from JANA to research microfinance projects in India, and to meet Janaagraha, one of YCA’s international partners, an organisation that promotes democracy – at all levels of government. “In the world’s largest democracy, with seemingly systemic corruption, that is no small task.”

He says YCA does not depend on the government for funding (although some of its projects, such as those run in the Pacific and central Australia, are aligned with federal Government projects). But it does receive support from other organisations. It recently piloted a program, which has since gained the support of Oxfam, to send young indigenous people from Sydney to participate in community-development projects. “Unlike many other organisations that are totally reliant on external funding, YCA is a much more ‘market driven model’. We develop partnerships and offer niche programs that appeal to our targeted youth market, and balance this with the needs of the communities in which we operate.”

An example of this balance is a new partnership that YCA has made to assist an orphanage in Mexico. The needs of this orphanage “may not be the highest priority for other development organisations or federal governments”. One of YCA’s subsidiaries, Youth Challenge Vanuatu, combats youth unemployment in the Pacific nation. “When 60 per cent of Vanuatu’s population is under 25 year’s of age, a disenchanted youth could prove very destabilising for the country.”

Such projects are driven by perceived need and not the opportunity to tap into available funding. “As an organisation, we concern ourselves with the merits of the project itself before we worry about whether or not we will be able to attract external funding. That, I believe, is one of the key reasons YCA has prospered over the last 15 years.”

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