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Volunteer Placements Abroad

Coping With Potential Problems

Many potential volunteers aspire to serve humanity or are motivated by some similarly grand ambition. Many past volunteers have discovered that the world is wider and their role smaller than they previously thought.

While most volunteers return from a project abroad buzzing with excitement and their lives enriched, others have experienced disillusionment. Either way, they have gained. The process of shedding illusions, though sometimes uncomfortable, is enlightening and ultimately positive.

When starting your research for a stint abroad as a volunteer, it is important to maintain realistic expectations. Think about potential problems and how you would cope.

Begin with the Best Web Sites on volunteering abroad, which introduce you to the range of possibilities. Then go to the list of volunteer programs for details on the ethos and what the work involves, along with dates and costs. Ideally, your research should begin at least a year in advance of your intended departure so that applications can be lodged, sponsorship money raised, language courses and other preparatory courses attended, and so on.

When you receive a placement organization’s literature, consider the tone as well as the content. For example, the glossy brochure of a U.K.-based agency that arranges short stints of volunteer English teaching reads almost like a tour operator’s hard sell: “Choose your destination—colorful Ghana, exhilarating Mexico, the grandeur of Ukraine or Siberia, mystic India, lively Brazil or magical China.” Sure enough, volunteers must pay from $1,350 for arrangements in the Ukraine to more than $2,000 for short placements in Ghana or Mexico, not including travel to the destination country. These contrast sharply with the cheaply produced directories sent by the main U.S. workcamps coordinators like Volunteers for Peace. For a modest contribution of $350 (plus travel costs), VFP volunteers can join anything from an environmental project in rural Italy to a community center for Aboriginal people in the center of Sydney.

To illustrate further the diversity of cost, even among projects working towards broadly similar ends, the book Green Volunteers edited by Fabio Ausenda includes many conservation organizations looking for volunteers ( Of the three operating exclusively in Peru, one runs eco-safaris and charges volunteer naturalists nothing at all; another collects data on marine wildlife and charges volunteers $5 a day for food and a mattress in a shared house; and the last, which monitors the macaw population, charges $50 per day (for a minimum of four weeks). Predictably, the ones charging very little expect their volunteers to have an appropriate background or degree, previous fieldwork experience, and computer skills (in the case of the marine wildlife project). The expensive program requires nothing apart from good health.

For pre-arranged placements, much depends upon the efficiency and commitment of the representative or project coordinator on the ground. Promises of expert back-up are easier to make than to keep if the sending organization’s local agent is more interested in his or her own prestige than in attending to the day-to-day problems of foreign volunteers. Few steps can be taken to guard against clashes with other individuals. The archaeologist for whom you are cleaning shards of pottery may turn out to be an egomaniacal monster. Fellow participants may not always be your cup of tea either. Voluntary projects attract a diverse range of people of all nationalities and ages, from the wealthy and pampered who complain about every little discomfort to the downright maladjusted. Assuming you fall outside both categories, you may have to call on every ounce of tolerance.

Anticipate the Unexpected

Even when good will predominates, things can go wrong. One young volunteer who arranged a stay with a small grassroots development organization in Sri Lanka felt isolated and miserable when she was billeted with a village family who knew no English. She was given very little to do apart from menial office tasks. When she asked for something more to do, she was told to visit nursery schools, but had to refuse on the grounds that her embassy had advised foreigners not to leave the main roads. Perhaps someone with a little more travel experience might not have felt so daunted by these circumstances, difficult as they were.

A more mainstream example of differing expectations comes from Israel where every year thousands of young people continue to work as volunteers on kibbutzim. In exchange for doing primarily manual work, volunteers are given free room and board, quite a bit of time off, and the chance to make a set of new international friends—all of which are sufficient rewards for most foreign volunteers. But others question the arrangement. In an era when the ideals behind the original communal societies of Israel have been replaced by a more hard-nosed business approach, some young people can’t justify working for eight hours a day picking fruit or working on a factory production line for no pay.

In many cases, the longer a volunteer stays, the more useful he or she becomes, and the more interesting the jobs assigned. Of those organizations that charge volunteers by the week, some have introduced a progressively decreasing scale of charges. In some cases, long-stay volunteers who have proved their usefulness do not have to contribute toward expenses. However, red tape sometimes gets in the way of this arrangement. Most countries of the world impose a maximum period of stay for foreigners, and it can be very difficult to renew visas in countries like Nepal and Uganda after the original tourist visa has expired. In other cases, there may be a hefty fee for visa renewals and a lot of tiresome form filling by both volunteer and sponsor.

Volunteer vacations are very different from normal vacations, though the difference in cost may be negligible. Restoring historic buildings or teaching classes is just as much work as it would be if you were still at home. Jobs are jobs wherever you do them, and there may be little chance to see the sights or sample the nightlife. Provided you are prepared for such eventualities, you will in all likelihood have a thoroughly interesting and rewarding experience.

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