The Irish International Youth Corps


PLAN: An Irish International Youth Corps (Óige in Áirde) which will give young Irish people the opportunity to spend a year developing key skills and serving overseas, building on the long Irish tradition of international aid and support for the developing world.

The idea of an Irish youth corps is not new, but it has not been put into effect so far.  The time is now right for a programme which will give young Irish people the opportunity to grow in personal confidence, learn about leadership and teamwork, be ambassadors for Ireland abroad, and make a real difference in Ireland and disadvantaged parts of the world. Ireland has the youngest population in Europe, with a third under 25 years of age, and almost half the population under the age of 34.(1) These young people are Ireland’s future, our hope, and our ambition and they deserve to be supported and developed.

The Irish Government allocated €651 million to official development assistance in 2017. Expenditure of less than 1% of this on the Youth Corps would bring immense benefits – to young people and their morale and later job prospects, mental health and focus, and to Irish society and to host communities. Studies have shown that volunteering has considerable economic value. The Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, which studied voluntary activity in 36 countries between 1995 and 2000, found (2) that the number of volunteers working through voluntary organisations in those countries was equivalent to the world’s ninth biggest country in terms of population. Worldwide, volunteers contribute 44% of the workforce of non-profit organisations. In purely economic terms, volunteers contribute more value to these organisations than cash donations by individuals, corporations and foundations combined, by a factor of three to one.

To put the work in context, the immigration and displacement issues we see emerging all over the world are driven by a need for health, wealth and security. Our noted Irish missionary zeal has, over centuries, been expended on dealing with these three needs at source. And this is where the work programme of the Irish International Youth Corps should focus. Young people are already volunteering to spend time abroad doing this kind of work in an unstructured way. They find their own way out, fund their trips, volunteer in any way they can, and return home wiser, and perhaps better, but without having received any real recognition for what they have done. 

The Irish International Youth Corps will be open to all young Irish people aged between 18 and 25. The objective is the development of a recognised programme on the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) scale – to a level to be determined – which will appeal to those who want to find their direction and make a difference.  The programme will be structured so as to make it attractive and accessible to as wide a range of young Irish people as possible.  The selection process will ensure that those who achieve a place on the programme reflect the full diversity of young people in modern Ireland.

Participating in the Irish International Youth Corps for a year will give young people a chance to obtain a qualification, to make a really meaningful contribution to society, and to travel and live in the developing world for a time. Irrespective of what the participating young person has done beforehand, or plan on doing afterwards, giving a year of their young lives to the Corps will be a game changer and will set them up for future success.

Young people between the ages of 18 – 25 will apply to take part, and if accepted, join the scheme in September of each year. Selection for the programme will be made on the basis of a can-do attitude, a willingness to contribute, and a curiosity about our global village.  Their first term will be spent in Ireland, undergoing a structured training scheme which will include fitness, mental health, leadership, teamwork, communications and personal development.  They will also undertake a series of practical modules tailored to the overseas work programmes envisaged. The second and third terms will be spent in the field, working on projects in developing countries around the world, such as construction of housing and orphanages, educational programmes, irrigation schemes,  sustainable enterprise and so on – areas where there is a long tradition of Irish involvement.

The programme will be fully monitored and supervised, with goals to be met throughout. All participants will receive an allowance, healthcare, and travel costs. At the end of the programme participants will return home with a recognised qualification – ready to take up employment, an apprenticeship, or to commit to further education.

“There is something in the Irish gene that makes us wanderers, wonderers and workers”, says Gavin Duffy.  “Our young people are full of enthusiasm and drive.  They want to see the world and leave their mark. Yes, Ireland is a very changed place, but we haven’t lost our generosity and altruism. In these times you don’t have to wear a habit or a collar, or be a member of the Diplomatic Service or the Defense Forces, to travel abroad in order to do some good. Our young people in the Corps will have an opportunity to experience humanitarian life at a young age, in a structured way.  They will wear the green jersey with pride wherever they go, do some good, make the world a little better and return home skilled, confident and able to say to any potential employer or college – look what I did for my community, my country, my world.”

Óige in Áirde, as a concept, feeds into the Taoiseach’s Global Ireland 2025 initiative, which aims to double Ireland’s global footprint. (3) 

It also aligns well with Ireland’s bid for a place on the United Nations Security Council for 2021/22. (4)

And it supports the vision set out in the recent consultation process launched by the Government which is aimed at determining Ireland’s future International Development Policy. (5)

Finally, it builds on the established ethos and values of Gaisce, the President’s Award, offering young people a further opportunity to learn, develop and serve. (6)

How will it be set up?

A cross cutting Working Group will be established to determine the structure, statutory status, funding and running of Óige in Áirde. Potential participants will be the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Social Welfare, Gaisce, the Defense Forces, QQI, ETBI and so on.

How/who will run it?

Depending on the findings of the Working Group mentioned above, a vehicle to form and run the Youth Corps will be established, with a small professional team of staff to run the organisation, overseen by a voluntary board of directors, and a Chair. Synergy with the Gaisce Council governance mechanisms could be explored, which would avoid duplications of structures and minimise staff requirements.

How much will it cost?

The stipend payable to participants on the programme will equate with a basic social welfare payment. Additional training and development costs, and costs of flights and accommodation will be determined by the Working Group and a budget established. 

Who will pay for it?

The mechanisms in place to fund the Springboard programmes could be explored as could the funding behind Gaisce. A public/private partnership could also be suggested by the Working Group as an appropriate way of funding the programme. Sponsorship could also be explored under well established Corporate CSR schemes to offset some of the costs of the programme from businesses interested in supporting our young people and raising the profile of the Irish contribution overseas.

How will participants be selected?

Participants will be selected through an application/interview process and on the recommendation of teachers, lecturers, social and community workers.

Will they be paid? How much?

Participants will be paid a stipend, equivalent to basic social welfare allowance and will also be covered for healthcare while on the programme.

Will they duplicate the work of EU/UN agencies, Irish Aid or NGOs?

No. The Youth Corps will undertake specific projects with specific aims and goals.  Participants may work alongside other agencies, where the need arises, but they will work primarily within their own framework. The programme is unlike the EU Youth Volunteer Service (7) under which volunteers serve abroad for a period on an individual basis. Teamwork and belonging to the group is an essential part of the Youth Corps, although it is quite possible that the Working Group may wish to explore links with other organisations so as to avoid duplication.

Will there be a pilot programme? 

Following the publication of the findings of the Working Group, a pilot programme will be established with an initial group of young people taking part.