Past Post: Volunteering abroad (published on Guardian Online, 2007)

Another Monday morning in the office and you’re distractedly staring out of the window, thinking that there must be more to life and wondering how you can feasibly escape the daily grind, if only for a while. And then it comes to you: why not spend a few months volunteering abroad? A great idea, you think, as you sneakily open up an internet browser window and begin to do some research. Within minutes, however, you are staring dumbfounded at the website of a well-known ‘ethical travel organisation’ and thinking your only chance of affording to do a placement would be to take out a second mortgage on your flat – and possibly sell your car to boot.

It would be naïve to assume that living and working in a developing world community for any length of time would be without its costs, but in my own experience the vast majority of companies that come up on a basic ‘volunteering abroad’ Google search charge extortionate prices for what amounts to several weeks or months of living in the most basic conditions imaginable, and furthermore give you very little idea as to exactly where your money is going.

Before my own African adventure I obtained quotes from several of the largest and best-known volunteer placement agencies and was stunned to find, at the top end of the spectrum, programme fees in excess of £1,000 for a two-week placement! Admittedly the more expensive options are touted as ‘all-inclusive’ packages offering such extras as in-country support, transport to and from your place of work and possibly language training, criminal bureau checks and medical insurance for the duration of your trip, but the question is: are these things you could arrange yourself for a little more effort and at a fraction of the cost?

Don’t be fooled by the phrasing when it comes to money – whether you are asked for a programme fee outright or a ‘donation’ towards the cause, it amounts to the same thing. You have to pay for your placement. End of. And if you feel the company you have chosen is worthy and honourable, go for it. I did with Volunteer Africa and I don’t regret my decision. Of my £1,950 programme fee (for a twelve week placement) I was assured that nearly half would go directly to the project itself – in this case two orphanages in Mwanza, northern Tanzania – with the remainder covering my accommodation, language training week in Dar es Salaam and the company’s own costs to keep the programme running. During my stay VA sent a health advisor to talk to us about avoiding malaria as well as two trustees to purchase essential items for the volunteer compound, so I felt my money was in responsible hands. And, importantly, as a lone female traveller with worried parents sitting at home biting their nails down to the stubs over my safety, it certainly seemed wise to go with a reputable company who could provide such a service.

But after spending a few months in Africa I have come to realise you don’t have to pay the earth for your placement. If money is no issue and you are happy to use a reputable company that charges a fortune but promises a first-rate service then that is, of course, up to you. But if money is a real sticking point and you are prepared to put in a little more effort and take a chance, waiting until you are in your country of choice before searching for a placement may well mean you spend significantly less and find something just as rewarding.

On my travels through both Tanzania and Kenya I have heard, through word-of-mouth, of many small institutions – both schools and orphanages – that are desperate for volunteers but lack the means to advertise for them. Often, they are more than happy to offer free accommodation in exchange for whatever service can be offered, meaning volunteers don’t need to spend a penny other than to cover their own living costs. Admittedly they cannot provide the ‘support’ that is offered by the larger agencies (though if you have fully comprehensive travel and health insurance you shouldn’t really need it) but you do get to hang on to your money and spend it when you see an urgent need, at the source and on your own terms.

Beware those companies who charge a fee to find you a placement but don’t actually give any of your money to the projects in question. Rarely do they throw up anything that you couldn’t have found yourself through more extensive research, so whilst for cash-rich, time poor people they can offer a viable solution, they can also make those less financially blessed souls feel frustrated and, to some extent, conned out of their money. When I reached the Imani Agape orphanage in Kisii, western Kenya – a placement found for me by 2Way Development which charges a fee of £850 – I was sad to realise just how much difference my £850 would have made to the project itself, but after paying the fee to the organisation I had comparitively little to spare. Had I contacted the orphanage directly, I later found out, I would have been offered accommodation entirely free of charge.

The bottom line is this. Everyone is different, with different requirements and expectations of volunteering abroad. But before you commit yourself to a volunteer placement make sure you do two things. Firstly, read the small print to see exactly where your money is going, and secondly, set your budget and stick to it. Don’t be shoe-horned into paying more than you can afford as you will only regret it later. The important thing to remember is that whether your budget is big or small, there is an option out there to suit you.

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This photo was taken on my first volunteering placement in Mwanza, Tanzania, in 2007. I have such happy memories of these children and their happy, smiling faces. I often wonder where they are now, and hope that they’re happy.

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