Best Volunteer Projects Abroad
It is fully understandable why volunteers want some reasonable assurance that both their time and money are going toward a good cause. The big question is how can you make sure your own goodwill translates into doing good? Fortunately, there some organisations that promote ethical volunteering within the sector, such as Volunteer Latin America, which was launched in 2004. This site allows users to find legitimate grassroots volunteer opportunities without astronomical fees. Volunteer Latin America aims to connect prospective volunteers to some of the best volunteer projects in Central or South America, which can be contacted directly via email or the web.
The best volunteer projects abroad can be contacted directly, without the need to go through a volunteer agency (e.g. gap year, career break or volunteer placement companies). Not only is this considerably cheaper - or free in many cases - but you avoid many of the potential pitfalls associated with going through a volunteer agency. The cynicism that exists in the overseas volunteering sector is largely a result of volunteer agencies putting their growth and profit margin before the need to “do good”. Some volunteer agencies offer little more than glorified holidays and have ignored the long-term effects of volunteering on host communities or the environment. There are also reports of aggressive business practices such as forcing local organisations and charities to sign exclusivity agreements. So that international volunteers can only work through a particular volunteer agency. This cripples and severely limits how local organisations and charities can function. Ultimately, this is damaging to children, animals or whatever the grassroots project was set up to accomplish. Independent volunteering is the most ethical form of volunteering as 100% of any money paid goes to the project, rather than generating a profit for the volunteer agency. People are often surprised to learn that some volunteer agencies give none of their placement fee to the host organisation, or invest in the projects they send volunteers to in Latin America, Africa, or elsewhere in the world.
The best volunteer projects abroad maximise the positive impact of volunteer travel. This includes ensuring as much money as possible trickles down through society and benefits local people. I remember reading about a young lady from the UK who paid a volunteer agency £2000 for the privilege of helping to dig a well for a few weeks. She flew to Africa, dug out a well with other volunteers, and then returned to the UK after two weeks. There are many aspects of this volunteer experience that are abhorrent but want I want to focus is "who benefits." Can you imagine what could have been achieved if all this money had been invested directly in the local community? How many wells could have been dug if the young lady had hired her own local workers? Of course, the young lady probably didn't have the confidence to organise an independent trip and consequently opted to go through a volunteer agency. However, I would argue that some volunteer agencies exploit young people and are more concerned with profit than with the interests of their volunteers or the impact of the work. A better option would have been to contact a local organisation or charity; thus ensuring any money paid stays in Africa and a more authentic volunteer experience. The money the young lady would have saved through independent volunteering could have been used to explore the country and have some fun, which benefits local people, businesses and services.
The best volunteer projects abroad are sensitive to the needs of the people and places they serve. They are legitimate and are actually helping out communities in need, protecting and preserving the natural environment or wildlife. Beware of volunteer projects that are essentially holidays in disguise, and those that are harmful scams, as highlighted in the current orphanage scandals in Africa and South East Asia. Also, projects that been in existence for a relatively short space of time with little or no track record of hosting volunteers. Transparency is another indicator of a good project, including a breakdown of how the volunteer fee (if any) is used. The status and affiliations of a local organisation or charity provide some credibility but beware of marketing tactics. For example, some organisations portray themselves as ethical because of the strong marketing potential; however, it cannot be assumed they actually are what they claim. One of the most interesting facts to emerge when putting together this article came from the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. It states that many foreign companies involved with overseas volunteering are misrepresenting their projects, and that those offering the most expensive volunteer experiences are likely to be the least responsible. Something to bear in mind if you prefer to go through a volunteer agency rather than choose a locally run project. The best projects have friendly and helpful staff and provide support whenever you need it, including pre-departure. Last but not least are volunteer testimonials. Honest and positive reviews from former volunteers are a good pointer to the quality of a program.