The desire to engage with the world is commendable, as is the desire to volunteer. But you need to be very careful when choosing a project in Africa or any other part of the world. This is the most important decision you need to make if you want to make a tangible difference to communities and environments in desperate need of support.
Volunteering abroad is your opportunity to give something back by contributing to a worthy cause, whether for the benefit of people, other animals, or the environment. Your contribution could help to improve the literacy rate in a deprived community or the conservation status of an endangered species, making volunteering an incredibly rewarding experience. Many people often state that their volunteer abroad experience was one of the most educational, inspiring, and exciting moments of their life, including the authors of this eBook.
The benefits of volunteering abroad should always be reciprocal – you help an organization achieve its goals in return for a wealth of personal and professional benefits. As overseas volunteering charity VSO correctly states: “Nothing compares with the satisfaction of translating generosity into practical, life-changing achievements.” Unfortunately, there are numerous reports on the internet about projects that don’t address real issues, disillusioned volunteers who felt their work was of no benefit to the local community or environment, and the horrible feeling of being ripped off.
The gap year and career break industry is booming but many vulnerable volunteers are being exploited by the companies that set up their trips. These companies are more concerned with profit than with the interests of their volunteers or the needs of host communities. The career or study break industry may conjure up images of working with impoverished people in underdeveloped parts of Africa, or with threatened species and ecosystems, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s a lucrative multinational industry.
If trying to avoid these unscrupulous operators wasn’t enough to think about there’s another problem that has emerged in recent years – fake volunteer organizations in Africa. Some unscrupulous individuals have realised that, since foreigners are willing to pay to volunteer, there are significant opportunities for scamming. This can range from creating a phony orphanage to capitalise on a volunteer’s concern for children to taking a large deposit or advance-fees and then offering little or nothing in return.
Living and working in another culture while donating your time and energy to a worthwhile cause should be one of the greatest moments of your life, not one of the most disappointing or expensive.
Independently organized (do-it-yourself) volunteer travel is growing at a faster rate than any other arm of the voluntary work sector. The main reasons for this relate to cost and flexibility, coupled with a greater amount of information available on the internet.
The benefits of independent volunteering are numerous but what usually brings most pleasure is the cost. Independent volunteers pay significantly less to volunteer abroad in comparison to those who book through large gap year companies or volunteer placement agencies. You also have the assurance that any money paid goes directly to the cause rather than a proportion of your fee being syphoned off to pay for the administration and marketing expenses of the sending organization or even worse simply to generate profit. The money you save by organizing your own volunteer experience could be used to volunteer abroad for a much longer period of time, cover your airfare, or extend your stay in the country you are visiting.
Independent volunteering gives you much more flexibility in almost all aspects of your experience. You are not confined to the time frame of an organized placement and can plan your start and end dates around important aspects of your life such as your job or important family events. You’re also free to volunteer in whatever capacity you like and can even split time between multiple organizations and/or travel plans.
Independent volunteering offers many other benefits to anyone willing to forego an organized placement and although the task of arranging an independent volunteer experience can be daunting for first timers, the process is infinitely less complex if you use this eBook to find relevant information.
Volunteering abroad should be a worthwhile experience that allows you to help a community or the environment. However, not all projects are created equal. While some are scams, others are legitimate but charge astronomical fees. Sadly, some placement agencies are more interested in making money than helping the environment or providing sustainable and well-targeted help for local communities. No one benefits from these placements apart from the companies that organize them.
Some of these companies are largely responsible for tarnishing the goodwill of volunteering abroad via unethical business practices. These include ignoring the effects of short/long term volunteering on host communities and forcing host organizations to sign exclusivity agreements (i.e. so that international volunteers can only work through the placement agency). All too common are tales of projects taking work away from local people, slapdash building work, or the effectiveness of grassroots organizations being compromised because of contractual agreements. There are also many accounts of organizations masquerading as NGOs (which are not legally allowed to make profit) but pocketing a large portion of the volunteer fees as personal income.
Thankfully, there is a way around unscrupulous and greedy placement agencies and fake NGOs – find a reputable volunteer organization.
Ethical volunteering is about ensuring the contribution you make is meaningful to the host community or local environmental, and has a lasting, positive impact.
Stephen Knight, Volunteer 4 Africa