Should I volunteer overseas? Things you should consider

The desire to travel and experience new cultures around the globe is commendable, as is the desire to volunteer.

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It is debatable whether many volunteering opportunities bring real benefits to host communities and often exploit the good intentions of well-meaning volunteers. UK student volunteers can pay thousands of pounds (most going to the tour operator) to undertake short volunteering placements overseas which, although well intentioned, can often do more harm than good.

Volunteers have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences, which can also prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home after a few weeks.

Although there are well respected development charities that arrange for professionals to spend one or two years overseas, many of the volunteering placements being offered by commercial operators are little more than expensive holidays. Finally many volunteers have misplaced idealism, misconceived attitudes and unrealistic expectations of what they can offer local communities.

There are many opportunities for people to undertake meaningful volunteering in their own community, where they will receive proper training, support and supervision – without the need to pay a tour operator for the privilege. In the majority of cases people would be far better (and have a more rewarding experience) volunteering at home and spending their money on travelling and staying in places listed in our Ethical Travel Guide. They would then experience the real community and the community would get real benefits as a result.

Of course there are some very good organisations sending volunteers overseas and we are currently putting together a group of Ethical Volunteering organisations. These organisations aim to promote best practice in international volunteering, to maximise the beneficial developmental impacts in the communities where volunteering takes place, minimise the negative impacts, and to ensure volunteers have a worthwhile experience.

Seven questions to help you pick an ethical international volunteering placement

Exactly what work will I be doing? Can the organisation provide a brief job description?

An organisation with a good volunteer programme should be  able to tell you exactly what you will be doing, including how many hours a day, how many days a week and what sort of work it will be. For example, if an organisation offers a placement in a school, this may or may not be teaching.

Likewise, a placement may involve 50 hours a week or — and this does happen — a mere four. The greatest  source of dissatisfaction for volunteers usually comes from not doing what they planned (and paid) to do.

Does the organisation work with a local partner organisation?

If a volunteer programme is to be of value to a local community it should work with, rather than be imposed on, that community. High value programmes will have been built in collaboration with a local partner organisation. Find out who that partner is and find out about the relationship.

Key things to look for are whether someone from the local organisation is involved in the day to day management  of your project, what sort of consultation went into building that project, and why the project is of value.

Does the organisation make any financial contribution to its volunteer programmes?  If so, exactly how much?
Many volunteer organisations charge a lot of money, but where does it go? Volunteer programmes need funds as well as people to do the work; indeed, in much of the world, unskilled labour is one thing of which there is little shortage.

The most important thing is that your organisation is up front about how your money is spent. So ask where your pennies are going, and be persistent about getting a clear figure, not a percentage of profits.

Also, be aware that payments for your own food and lodging often do not assist your volunteer programme.

Does the organisation have policies on eco and ethical tourism? If so, how are they implemented?

Running volunteer programmes is ethically complex. If you really want to make a valuable contribution to the community you work with, then you have a responsibility to ensure that the organisation with which you travel has proper eco and ethical policies. Look for organisations that have a long-term commitment to a community, employ local staff and have some mechanism for local consultation and decision-making. Otherwise, how do you know that the clinic you built is really needed? That an adult literacy programme is not more relevant than a new bridge? Or that when you have left, there will be the funds and commitment to maintain the project on which you have worked?

What time frame is the volunteer programme run on?
A well-structured volunteer programme should have a clear time frame, and organisations should know from one year to the next whether a programme will continue. Programmes, and especially placements, that occur just once can be problematic. For example, if you are acting as an English teaching assistant for a month or two, what happens the rest of the school year? Are other volunteers sent, or is the placement simply ended? It may be very disruptive for a class, a school or an orphanage to have a constantly changing staff. Establishing the level of commitment an organisation has to a given project or placement is vital in establishing the quality, and therefore value, of that volunteer programme.
Can the organisation give you precise contact details for your chosen programme?
Organisations tend to work in one of two ways. The better ones build a relationship with a host organisation, identify local needs they can meet, arrange placements and projects and then fill the vacancies.  A less positive aproach is to wait for travellers to sign up and pay up, and then find relevant placements.

A good organisation with well-run programmes should be able to let you know several months before you travel where you will be going and what exactly you will be doing. If they cannot, or will not, give you these details then be very wary of the quality of the programme. Hastily arranged programmes can be disorganised, leaving both volunteers and local hosts with unclear expectations.

What support & training  will you receive?
Organisations offer vastly different levels of training and support. Look for an organisation that offers not only pre-departure training, but also in-country training and support. As a volunteer you want to be as much use as possible, learn as much as possible and have as good a time as possible. Training in both the practicalities of your volunteer job and the culture of where you are travelling will help you get and give the most.

Local support is also important. The type of programme you are on affects the amount of support required, but make sure you know what to expect before you go. If there is a local representative, how ‘local’ are they — just down the road, or several hours away by bus? Make sure there is somebody in the country with direct responsibility for you. All projects require some problem solving at some point and you will need someone on hand to help you with this.

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