In a field, in a Derbyshire village called Hope, a pale wintry sun dips below the horizon. As if on cue, the rain starts to fall and a biting wind whips it this way and that. It is the time of year for sitting in front of a log fire and gazing at holiday brochures.
The 40 or so young people huddled together in groups in the field are a long way from anything as comforting as a holiday, although they do have the materials to make a log fire. The trouble is that they have been on the move all day, hiking, caving and labouring. They are cold, tired and miserable and, if they did but know it, things are going to get worse. If they want anything to eat, they will have to detach a freshly-shot rabbit from its fur then barbeque it, and the rain will soon turn to snow.
These youngsters, aged 17 to 25, are on a selection weekend for a Raleigh International expedition. Nearly every one is wishing he or she was anywhere but Hope. If they pass, they will end up somewhere in Africa.
Raleigh International (formerly Operation Raleigh) is the youth development charity which last year celebrated its tenth anniversary. In its decade of derring-do, it has despatched around 12,000 people to far-flung places where the worthiness of the community projects it undertakes is matched only by the inhospitability of terrain and climate. From Mauritius to Siberia, bridges have been built, clinics and schools have risen from scorched earth and eco-friendly pathways have been gouged through virgin rainforest. The selection weekends are deliberately awful to discourage the faint-hearted or mean-spirited.
Standard Raleigh "venturers" (as its young volunteers are known) are predominantly middle class. They are often on gap years between school and university, or Duke of Edinburgh Award candidates, and each will raise nearly Pounds 3,000 in sponsorship. A number will be sponsored by their employers (British Rail, for instance, has been using Raleigh as a form of management training for years).
The difference with the disaffected crew at Hope is that until recently, few would have known about the organisation that kept them up all night to yomp up a snowy mountain to rescue a mythical casualty. From the proliferation of faint hearts and mean spirits, it is a safe bet that they wish they never had.
These candidates, who were persuaded to attend by youth workers, probation officers or local training centres, are part of Raleigh's youth development programme (YDP). It is designed to meet the needs of young people perceived to be at risk, either socially or economically, by developing skills, self-esteem and a sense of responsibility.
The theory is that by sending them on expedition (at no cost to themselves, although they do have to raise between Pounds 500 and Pounds 700 to buy their own kit), Raleigh hopes the experience will motivate them to take up education or employment opportunities, or to make their own, thereby finding a physical route to self-development.
Unlike private establishments like the Hartsdene Trust, which took a young man convicted of burglary to Center Parcs for a character-building holiday, only to find he looted other chalets while he was there, a Raleigh expedition pitches individuals from a wide range of backgrounds together, forcing them to work as a team. It is no quick fix. Each expedition lasts for three months, during which time every venturer, of whatever background, can expect to experience a profound change in the way he or she looks at the world and interacts with others.
The YDP selectors are chosen for their special experience of working with young people who may come from difficult backgrounds but the selection activities are broadly the same for all prospective venturers. Their performance is judged by observation and not by psychological tests. How are they working as members of a team? Do they have leadership skills and can they cope without the creature comforts of home? Selfishness or lack of interest may rule them out and roughly 30 per cent don't make the grade. Some, but not many, de-select themselves. The bottom line is whether the assessors think they would benefit from an expedition - if not, travelling halfway across the world would be a pointless and expensive gesture.
Several months after the selection weekend at Hope, in a dustbowl near the Zimbabwean border with Mozambique John Robinson lies shivering in his sleeping bag. Things haven't changed that much from Hope - except this time the chill is due to malaria. He has no regrets about spending his last Giro to come on this expedition in spite of being ill this far from the comforts of home. As the African sun sets, hordes of mice charge fearlessly around his campbed, and the ground ripples with constant waves of furry bodies.
"The mice are a bit of a shock," he admits (they have been known to bite the venturers while they sleep and one girl woke to find one urinating in her eye). "But I don't take things for granted any more. When you have to use a pump for your water, you realise how easy it is at home. It is probably more worthwhile to bring someone out here than to lecture them."
It is also cheaper. Although each YDP place costs Pounds 3,950, "it is nothing compared to keeping a young offender in an institution", says Anna Rawlinson, Raleigh's YDP manager. It is her job to secure funding for the growing number of YDP venturers the numbers have risen steadily since 1990 when there were nine YDP volunteers; this year 135 are being planned for. There are a variety of sources for this funding, but the largest donors are 10 local training and enterprise councils.
The TECs have recently had to duck and dive in the face of allegations about misspent government funds and inappropriate training schemes. The 25 YDP candidates who passed the Hope selection weekend were all sponsored by North Derbyshire TEC at a total cost of Pounds 40,000. Bernard Noble, its customer development adviser, defends its choice: "Raleigh is good value for money, " he says. "Compared to other training projects the 'hourly' rate has been lower than many other forms of training." Now the majority of TECs fund individuals to participate in Raleigh expeditions, although there is no job or recognised certificate at the end of it.
So does it work? Three months in Africa are all very well, but what are the tangible benefits and do the YDP venturers get anything out of the experience?
In Godzi, a particularly remote area of Zimbabwe where the horizon dissolves in the intense heat and the sparse scrub offers no shade, venturers are constructing a clinic to cater to a scattered rural population which doesn't possess so much as a plaster or a paracetamol.
"I suppose at the time you just hate it," says Sonia Lees, busy plastering a half-finished wall. "I cracked at the first stage. I thought 'they are mad, they cannot make me do this'. But it comes home to you at the end of the day that you are doing it because people really need it."
As if to prove her point, the clinic had just treated its first patient. There is no roof and no medical supplies, but word of the new facility had spread. A young woman is brought in on a wheelbarrow suffering from 80 per cent burns. Her family had walked with her all day and half the previous night after she spilled cooking fat over herself. All the venturer's medic could do was administer painkillers and send her on her way.
The unique sociological and economic mix (there are also contingents of local and non-UK venturers) requires considerable group tolerance if any of the projects are to get done. Unlikely friendships are often formed. Monty - between Radley public school and university - plans on his return to the UK to visit his new-found friend Gary from Sheffield, who had a particular penchant for stealing cars.
"I am fascinated by him," says Monty. "By his criminal record and the things he has done. He asked me what my dad's car was and I told him it was a Jag. He found that amazing. We're the kind of people he would steal from. He is a natural leader but I don't think he will get much of a chance to do that when he gets back."
For one YDP venturer the expedition was not the answer to self development. She was sent home from Zimbabwe after trying to buy drugs from a local - a fall from grace which made the purgatory of Hope and the months of fundraising a waste of effort.
On their full return from expedition, YDP venturers used to be left somewhat in the lurch as Raleigh had neither the money or infrastructure to support an after-care programme. Anna Rawlinson has now secured large, though unspecified, funds for post-expedition training weeks which, she says will offer "a structured review and debriefing to see what they think about what they learned, and how their personal effectiveness has been improved". The weeks will also cover areas like presentation skills, preparing for interviews and writing letters for jobs.
In order to make this training effective, Raleigh has employed a YDP development trainer. Steve Cooper runs selection weekends, pre- and post-expedition training weeks. "My job is their personal development," he says. "It is about making them aware of the choices they can make in their lives. Expeditions are a catalyst for their development, to fire their imaginations and broaden their horizons."
The YDP scheme is constantly reviewed and refined in order to provide a worthwhile development training programme and Raleigh is currently looking at the feasibility of harnessing the expedition experience to GNVQs.
North Derbyshire TEC is a happy customer. "Raleigh has been a success, " says Bernard Noble, "because of the positive outcomes - that is, gaining employment, going into further education and confidence building."
For John Robinson, three months in Africa had a simple, but nonetheless profound effect. "The expedition makes you realise that there is more to life than your own little patch back home. It is so easy to get stuck in your own inertia, especially when you are on the dole."
Raleigh International is at Raleigh House, 27 Parsons Green Lane, London SW6 4HS. Tel: 0171 371 8585.