(note : The above is the general spiel given to people when someone wants to sell AIESEC to someone else. It's somewhat inaccurate and, like most AIESEC propaganda, unnecessarily obfuscatory. I will attempt to present, in a slightly clearer fashion, what AIESEC is for.)
AIESEC is a French acronym for ‘Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales’ - or International Association of Students of Economics and Commerce. It came into existence in 1949 in order to improve trade between somewhat mutually hostile European nations, as trade was seen as the key to rebuilding the shattered continent. And a new generation of national leaders was also seen to be required, as many leaders and potential leaders lay slain on the battlefields of Europe, Africa and Asia. The idea was that, by exchanging young (under 28 year-old) graduates with commercial specialisations, they would gain a cultural understanding of their neighbours and therefore stop hating them enough to trade with them. This process would be run entirely by university student volunteers.
This apparently worked to some extent - enough for the organisation to begin a slow spread into all the other continents, beginning in the early 50s with a move into Turkey and finishing in the mid-70s with Australia.
Today, the main end-goal of AIESEC is a world of "peace and fulfillment of human potential", and it still goes above moving towards this goal using roughly the same concept that it started with - international exchange of university graduates. However, trade is no longer seen by AIESEC as the solution to all the problems of the world, and there are students from a wide range of disciplines involved in the exchange process, from arranging jobs for graduates to sending them overseas. There is a strong emphasis on cultural understanding, with members responsible for the cultural learning of graduates who travel overseas through the AIESEC programme.
Now back to that spiel. It's inaccurate. AIESEC is big, but it's not 50,000 big. The actual number of active members involved reportedly varies between 35,000 and 14,000, depending on the time of year and on general conditions in the consitituent nations. SARS, national and international economic crises, government instabilities and fears of terrorism have at various times affected membership (or extinguished AIESEC presence in universities or even whole countries). At the time of this write-up, AIESEC exists in 83 countries and an unknown number of universities (the generally given figure is 750, although this is unverifiable and is supposed to be overstated somewhat). In a number of nations, AIESEC is illegal or heavily scrutinised by the government(in places such as Egypt, China and Malaysia, to name a few). The programme is relatively successful - three thousand exchanges were realised last year.
AIESEC faces other problems not generally mentioned to the prospective member. First and foremost is rapid member turnover - in most places members leave when their university degrees are over, taking their organisational knowledge with them. In a large semi-professional organisation, this is a serious problem because it means that there are few leaders left to run for the higher administrative positions, which means they often have to take what they can get. Also, vast amounts of knowledge on how to run the whole show gets lost from year to year, and much time is spent catching up on this lost information.
AIESEC struggles under a bureaucracy that rivals the most convoluted socialist state. For every member that actually works on the exchange process, there seems to be a leader, a leader for that leader, a leader for that one, and so on. It is estimated that in AIESEC Australia, six months after the recruitment period, that there is around 60 workers, 60 team leaders, 15 branch presidents, 5 regional coordinators and 8 national staff - more than four Chiefs for every three Indians!
The exchange programme is also a little flawed. It's supposed to work as follows : Person becomes an exchange participant, receives some personal vision setting and is sent to work overseas for a year or so. While overseas, some AIESEC members ensure the participant gets to see plenty of their culture. The person then returns to their home country, enriched by their experience and with a fresh perspective on how to achieve their goals for some specific societal improvement.
Unfortunately, it usually stops before they return to their home nations. If they work well for their employers overseas, they are generally offered contracts there, and never make it back. Even if they do, they often feel drawn back to the country they went to and lose interest in their home country.
However, when it works, it works well. And despite these problems, there are many good reasons to be a member of AIESEC (reasons which are not included in the general spiel). The organisation has a strong focus on the development of members, and holds a staggering number of conferences every year designed to improve marketable skills and build networks between members, nationally and internationally. Because of the nature of the exchange process, the members also get to interact extensively with people who come from overseas and people from their own country who have returned. AIESEC also provides something of a corporate work environment for the volunteers, and gives them skills useful for that sort of work such as the ability to plan, manage time, do public speaking, lead and manage teams, write minutes and jockey for promotion. Members also generally get to build networks with companies in their home cities, allowing them a slightly easier time getting a job when they leave university.
I agree that it's something worth doing, if only to see what happens, although in some places it's difficult to get into. In places such as India and Turkey AIESEC has rather stringent entry requirements - in the United States of America and Australia it's somewhat easier. AIESEC is an interesting phenomenon, especially from the inside, and it's a fascinating thing to see how a large volunteer organisation holds itself together internationally, if you're into that kind of thing.
Sources : www.aiesec.org, various AIESEC online forums (accessed through www.aiesec.net). For a some case studies of successful exchange results, have a look at http://www.aiesec.org/partners/casestudies.html. There are others on the various national homepages for AIESEC, links for which are found on aiesec.org .