Why Pay to Volunteer Abroad?
Reflections from Nicargua on the Benefits
There was a time when I fully
shared the thinly veiled suspicion behind this frequently
asked question. At a time when many young people have
some of the most sought-after skills in a booming job
market, it is easy to understand a student's reluctance
to pay to volunteer. One of the most common requests
from my advisees is for assistance finding volunteer
opportunities in developing countries, so the issue of
why one should pay for placement in a volunteer internship
comes up again and again. It would be easy to simply
explain that the placement organizations have certain
overhead costs. But instead I try to educate them about
the realities of short-term volunteer work that I have
learned from experience.
Last summer I was a volunteer
in Nicaragua for six weeks. The year before that (after
Hurricane Mitch), I worked to send medical supplies and
other aid to the needy throughout Central America with
community groups and Central Americans in the San Francisco
Bay Area. I found my niche as an organizer, information
resource, and fundraiser, and I felt that I was making
the best contribution I could.
I lacked technical knowledge and
experience providing aid to victims of natural disasters
and feared I would be more a hindrance than a help if
I went to Central America then. I did, however, make
plans to spend the summer as a volunteer in Nicaragua,
after the worst of the crisis had passed. I wanted to
use a Spanish language school as a base so I could improve
my Spanish, benefit from a homestay, and also have an
established connection with the local community. I felt
I was experienced and resourceful enough to arrange a
volunteer internship on my own and imagined I could save
a lot of money with the extra effort. I also wanted to
be completely independent of any political or religious
affiliation that might influence my experience.
Using the Internet, I searched
for nongovernmental development organizations seeking
volunteers. Esteli, the third largest city in Nicaragua,
has two Spanish language schools, numerous nongovernmental
organizations associated with the women's movement, and
a long history of contributions by international volunteers.
The organization seemed to offer the potential to work
with a variety of community issues: domestic violence,
street children, and hurricane recovery efforts. After
one phone call and limited email correspondence with
the organization, I committed to spending the summer
working with them, hoping to learn and to contribute.
When I arrived in Nicaragua, the
organization I had planned to work with had fallen victim
to a lack of funding and interference from government
bureaucracy. However, determined to make good use of
my time in Esteli, I studied Spanish in the mornings
and in the afternoons worked with members of the community
in development projects and political and social action
The Importance of Continuity
Overall, it was a powerful learning
experience. But having learned the hard way that the
kind of relationship you envision cannot always be established
in a short period of time, I now encourage everyone I
talk to about volunteer internships to go through a well-established
placement organization. Organizations establish long-term
relationships with community groups and help compensate
them for the time they spend mentoring volunteers. This
is particularly important in poor, grass-roots settings.
In Nicaragua, I often heard the
comment that "volunteers come and go" without apparent
regard for the importance of long-term, sustainable development.
I also learned that volunteers are sometimes "more a
burden than an asset" to many organizations because of
their lack of technical knowledge, language skills, and
cultural sensitivity. Yet volunteer programs do benefit
the host country's economy, promote positive values,
enrich lives, and serve the important purpose of strengthening
the people-to-people ties that have proven such a powerful
instrument of international mutual understanding. Placement
organizations have invested the necessary time, patience,
and resources needed to build trust and ensure safe and
appropriate placements for volunteers.
The Benefits of Volunteer
While going through an organized
program can also have its pitfalls the benefits include:
usually includes important predeparture reading
material as well as on-site orientation on local
culture, history, and customs.
and technical training.
accommodations. A supportive and caring
homestay environment provides an important connection
to the culture and a first-hand view of social
and political events in country.
Safety Net. Staff are there to provide
logistical and emotional support.
Expectations. The volunteer's responsibilities
are clear and well-defined.
When you calculate the difference between traveling
to a country on your own and the cost of participating
in a program, you might be surprised by how little
the difference is. Of course, many people successfully
arrange their own volunteer internships. But in
virtually every case, those who come away with
a satisfying experience have strong ties in the
host country as well as technical experience or
specialized skills in areas such as medicine, teaching
English, construction, and agriculture. Even with
an organization, there is no guarantee that the
experience will be 100 percent trouble-free. Those
who want such guarantees should probably consider
a vacation on a cruise ship.
My advice to the would-be volunteer
with good intentions, great organizational skills,
and a real interest in international development and
cross-cultural education is to allow an experienced
organization to channel that energy, intelligence,
good intentions into an established internship program.
LE ANN JOY ADAM worked
as the Overseas Resource Coordinator at Stanford