The Changing Face of International Volunteering
Responsible Volunteering Abroad is the
|Assisting local teachers with English lessons. Photo courtesy of GVI.
Not too long ago international volunteer
opportunities were largely limited to humanitarian aid projects
by churches, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international
government aid projects such as the Peace
Corps, and large private sending organizations. Subsequently,
there was a considerable change, as a
growing number of people worldwide became interested in short-term
volunteering, often in response to natural disasters around
the world, but also as a way to combine travel with volunteer
service. To meet the increasing demand, there have arrived an
ever-growing number of volunteer organizations offering
short-term volunteer vacations. Also
known as "voluntourism," these programs are
attractive packages to many idealistic people of all ages, combining
service work with adventure travel, language study, safaris, ecotourism,
and more. However, ethical issues relating to this form of volunteering
are being debated by some critics who have long worked in the
field and question the effectiveness of certain volunteer vacations
for the local community. In response, many volunteer sending organizations
are taking into greater account the ever-evolving ideals of responsible
volunteering. Some critics are so strongly motivated by their
ethical values and critiques that they see even the contributions
of professional aid workers as an insertion of Western values
in local communities with unintenional consquences. In our view,
we are experiencing the growing pains of the enormous surge in
energy and activity going into volunteering abroad,
while at the same time gaining greater consciousness of a need
to examine the true motives, nature, and impact of our contributions.
The Popularity of Short-Term Volunteer
Generally, short-term volunteers are well
taken care of during their vacations and are often assured of
all the creature comforts demanded by many travelers. Activities
are often, but not always, relatively pleasant and easy. No special
language or job skills are required, and volunteers are assisted
by local coordinators. In contrast to ordinary vacation packages,
volunteer vacations give participants the opportunity to interact
with the locals and gain insight into their culture and way of
life, while performing light work for several days or weeks at
Of course, the contributions
as part of a well-managed program may be important in a some
significant way to the local community. The money brought by voluntourists
is often quite welcome in itself, and the intercultural relations
and good often results in mutually beneficial relationships
for all involved. Many short-term volunteers become so immersed
in their contributions that they seek out other longer-term volunteer
and the more skills they develop over time, the more valuable
their help, even in training locals to continue the process
on their own in a manner the local population deems most appropriate.
For example, volunteers who build houses and infrustructure
for those in need may develop skills allowing new homes to be
built in a very short amount of time, turning a
make-shift shanty into a life with the dignity, hygiene, and
basic comforts of a proper
abode. Likewise, schools can be built in short order with all
the attendant desks and even basic technologies to enable
children hungry to learn where they could not learn before. Often
the help of those with the patience to teach or offer assistance
teaching may also contribute to the local community.
Issues to Consider if you Wish to be
a Responsible Volunteer
While it is a very positive development
that a growing number of travelers are seeking meaningful ways
to spend their vacation time and money, it is important to be
realistic about the benefits of short-term volunteer work. Most
aid projects are longer-term programs by NGOs and depend upon
a long-term commitment from core volunteers. Many well-established
and reputable referral organizations require a minimum commitment
of at least three weeks, simply because it takes at least that
long to become familiar with and be integrated into an aid project
in order to contribute substantially. In short, training takes
valuable time and resources, much of which may be available in the
local community already, with merely funds lacking.
Well-managed short-term help from volunteer
vacationers certainly provides some very legitimate benefits to
local communities, but participation is often limited to simple
tasks. Not long ago in Guatemala I talked to an American expatriate,
who is part of a small organization providing support and supplies
for special education needs in the Guatemalan highlands. There
were several international volunteers at his restaurant one evening,
and we were discussing volunteer work and its benefits. He pointed
out that short-term volunteers are little more than unskilled
workers, doing simple tasks easily performed by the locals. “What
we don’t have here
is a shortage of labor, especially unskilled labor,” he
told me. “We don’t really need foreign volunteers
to come down here to lay bricks.” His argument brings up
the question of how much aid projects actually benefit from short-term,
foreign participants, who come for a week to lay bricks, plant
trees, or visit an orphanage for a few days.
The purpose of this article is not to take
sides in this complex and important debate, as there are documented
advantages and disadvantages to this form of volunteering depending
upon how rigorous the evaluation criteria and all the very specific
and unique situations, but rather to explore the trends, provide
tips and advice on questions volunteers should ask, and offer
up resources to the reader who is a prospective volunteer in order
to make an informed decision. Clearly we have a strong editorial
bias towards responsible and ethical volunteering, but that is
balanced by the need we see for citizens around the world to engage in
volunteer projects abroad by organizations that have done their
due diligence and actually help locals.
Where Does Your Money Go?
Note the following before you lay your money out for a volunteer vacation abroad:
- Before signing up for a volunteer vacation,
get background information about the organization and its history,
whether the programs are small or large.
- Keep in mind that some referral organizations are non-profit, while others are for-profit.
- Find out what percentage of your fees
supports the project and how much goes toward company profit.
Short-term volunteer vacations abroad are often more expensive
than comparable long-term volunteer projects simply because
a higher percentage of your fees goes toward the support infrastructure:
orientations, volunteer coordinators, supervisors, translators,
transportation, room and board, insurance, security, excursions,
sightseeing, etc. Some short-term programs provide adequate
but simple room and board, assuring that most of the fees go
to the aid project. A few organizations devote more of the fees
to creature comforts and may even go so far as to offer luxury
packages that include first-class hotel rooms.
- Ask yourself how much money you are willing
to spend and find out if the organization’s goals meet
your own expectations and values. Do remember that bare-bones
organizations may be cheaper but do not handle some key aspects
relating to your and adaptation to life abroad while volunteering,
often in very difficult conditions.
- Read the organization’s mission statement and find out about the project’s short and long-term goals. You will find that some aid projects and NGOs charge very high fees, while others are practically free. Volunteering for nature and animal preservation projects, or assisting with scientific and archeological projects is often very expensive, because the most important contribution are your fees and not your unskilled labor.
What Type of Work is Available for Short-Term Volunteers?
There are a variety of activities in which short-term volunteers can be involved.
Types of work include:
- teaching English to children
- teaching job skills such as computer literacy
- working with handicapped children
- building homes or schools
- working with environmental conservation projects
- and much more...
Some programs may be in remote locations,
while others are based in cities or towns that provide certain
Disaster relief is another field where short-term volunteers are always in high demand. Duties may include working at a relief shelter or delivering clothing and food to affected communities. In many cases volunteers are encouraged to bring clothing, essential supplies, and other items with them to donate to the volunteer project where they will be working.
If you volunteer in a country where you speak the local language, you will have a lot more choices about the type of work you perform. During my recent trip to Guatemala, I had a conversation with the director of Entremundos, an NGO in the Guatemalan city of Qutezaltenango that connects volunteers with a large number of aid projects. She pointed out that the types of activities are much more limited for short-term volunteers who don’t speak the local language. While Spanish-speakers might be teaching or working in the social service sector, participants without Spanish skills are more likely to help building schools or planting trees, where language skills are not essential. Your contribution will also be more fulfilling and more valuable to the project if you speak the local language, since you will be able to work more independently and communicate directly with the locals.
The Time Factor
How much time you are able to commit to a
placement is another important factor for the success of your
volunteer vacation. Most such vacations include some exploration
of local attractions, and the actual involvement in aid projects
can vary significantly, from just a few days to several weeks.
The longer you can commit yourself, the larger your contribution
to the local project, the more meaningful your experience and
more importantly, your impact. Find out how much you will actually
be involved in the project, and how many days you will actually
be working. Some volunteer vacations offer a balance between tourist
activities and volunteer work, while other travel packages only
include a day or two at a local aid project. I met a Dutch tourist
in Guatemala, who told me that his package tour included the option
of volunteering at a local school for a day. The obvious question
is how much a traveler can learn about a foreign culture during
one day at a school, and how much the children can benefit from
the presence of a stranger who doesn’t
speak the local language and will soon be gone?
Finding the Right Program
In order to find a suitable volunteer opportunity it is important to evaluate the projects that interest you and determine the quality of the programs. Find out the details about the aid organization. Make sure that the volunteer vacation you join is a part of a long-term project that benefits the local community and not just a program to entertain and satisfy volunteers. The longer the aid project has been in place and the more reputable the aid organization, the more likely your involvement and your fees will benefit the locals. Most successful aid organizations are committed to long-term projects that are deeply embedded in the local communities.
Other issues to explore before choosing a program include:
- Is the project is committed to eco-friendly policies and sustainable practices that respect the local environment?
- Is your work is a valuable contribution to the project, or does it merely consist of menial tasks that could be carried out better and more efficiently by the locals themselves?
- Is this the type of work that you actually enjoy, even if it is only for a few weeks?
- Is there a level of in-country support for volunteers, such as transportation, room and board, etc.?
- Does the organization offer an adequate orientation with an in-depth introduction to the aid project, local culture and way of life?
- Is there a bilingual coordinator on site to assist volunteers?
Going Alone or Booking a Volunteer Vacation Package?
It is not easy for short-term volunteers
to find work on their own, but if you don’t mind doing some
research before going abroad, you might be able to find an NGO
on your own. Thanks to the web it is easy even for small, low-budget
aid projects to have a presence on the web. There are a number
of organizations who place international volunteers for a fee,
but there are also several online portals for international volunteer
opportunities where you can contact NGOs directly without a referral
fee. Indeed, there are now dedicated sites offering reviews from
participants in volunteer programs, though such reviews must be
carefully scrutinized, as many such brief testimonials are anonymous
and may be full of unedited bias either way.
Keep in mind that many small aid projects are not set up to work with short-term volunteers, but if you have at least a few weeks and are willing to find lodging on your own or share lodging with others you might be able to work with a small local NGO that can really use your help. To volunteer at a small local aid project on your own, it is very important to speak the local language reasonably well, since you most likely won’t have a bilingual coordinator or the support infrastructure provided by tour companies and referral organizations. Another way to find a position on your own is to contact a church or charity in your home community and find out if they sponsor any development projects abroad where your help might be needed.
Volunteering and Study Abroad
In addition to short-term volunteer vacations
there are several other new options growing in popularity. A growing
number of language schools and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign
Language) programs abroad offer volunteer opportunities for their
students in conjunction with their programs. If you travel abroad
to study at a language school, university, or to get a TEFL certificate,
volunteer work is a great way to practice your language skills
and immerse yourself in the local culture. Global Vision International
(GVI), for example, is an international volunteer organization,
and offers TEFL internships together with volunteer teaching in
several countries. If your school abroad does not offer any such
opportunities, you might want to try and find work on your own,
either while you attend school, during the summer, or after you
complete your studies abroad.
While the benefits of short-term volunteer
work for local communities may be modest in some cases, there
are nonetheless often many positive long-term effects. The
best organizations have track records of avoiding unintentional
damage to the local community through what is often
termed a conscious attempt to follow "best practices." Volunteer
vacations provide travelers with the opportunity to get off the
beaten path, meet local people, and learn about their daily lives
and rituals. Volunteers learn from their experience, and bring
back such knowledge to their home communities. Knowledge helps
participants to contribute to a better understanding and respect
for foreign cultures and people, allows them to share their experiences
and inspire others interested in volunteering, and most importantly
continue to carry on and expand such new skills and learning at
As more people find the time and income, and
have the motivation to become involved in international volunteer
work, even for a short period, their views of the world and of
other cultures change. When people from different cultures meet,
communicate, and work together in a manner beneficial to local
communities, understanding and respect is enhanced,
and world views are broadened. In sum, never have there been such
wide and thoughtful discussions on the nature and issues relating
to all forms of volunteering abroad, never have there been more
programs, never have there been more documented needs, and never
have there been more willing participants.
Volunteering Abroad Resources
General Information about Volunteering, its Impact and Implications
a fine new website that explore issues relating to volunteering,
offer background videos, and is currently writing what
promises to be the finest
book on volunteering yet written given the fine team
of experience and accomplished writers who are experts
in the field.
Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good is a free,
inspiring, and brilliant new ebook edited by Ethan Gelber.
Experts and thought-leaders in volunteering discuss
responsible and creative ways to make a huge difference
in the lives of those in need worldwide.
Tourism Concern, a British non-profit organization that works to ensure that tourism benefits local communities, provides information about the impact of volunteering: www.tourismconcern.org.uk.
United Nations Regional Information Centre, State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, provides a very detailed and useful evaluation of trends and issues.
The Planeta Wiki Volunteer entry provides links to important blogs, social media and articles on the subject.
Journeys for Good is a blog which provides information and inspiration for volunteers and volunteer organizations. Posts review programs and websites while promoting a responsible form of voluntourism and a community of volunteers.
Ethical Volunteering offers advice & information for people who are interested in international volunteering and want to make sure that what they do is of value to themselves and the people they work with. The website has an ethical volunteering guide available for download (.pdf).
International Volunteer Programs
Association (IVPA), www.volunteerinternational.org,
is an alliance of non-governmental organizations involved
in international volunteer work and internship exchanges.
Finding a Volunteer Opportunity
To find volunteer opportunities, check out the extensive volunteering abroad section of TransitionsAbroad.com, with our Best Volunteer Abroad Websites.
Note that sites such as www.Idealist.org and www.volunteersouthamerica.net offer many low-cost volunteer opportunities abroad.