I’m gonna be a volunteer!
17-year-old Sandra proudly announces, that she will go abroad. She will, selfless as she is, invest her time and energy in projects that make the world a better place. She will nurse tortured animals. Replant the rainforest and make sandwiches for hungry children. There will be many thanks. Recognition and bliss. Make others happy and you will be happy, she once read. She already walks dogs in the shelter and rescues stranded snails from the cold asphalt in the rain. So she has gained experience. But she wants to go out into the world and work on the really big projects. How does she find these? Maybe there is information on the Internet? Said and done. There it is!
Apparently, quite a few agencies with the auspicious names like Studentsgoabroad, Stepin, Travelworks, Internships or Statravel have decided to do good. They selflessly mediate people who want to help with projects that need helpers. How convenient. The whole thing is even easy to book and from 2 weeks stay to have. A very different kind of vacation. There are hundreds of projects in all countries and the colorful pictures invite you to click through them all. The journey goes into the shopping bag and you only have to click on “buy”. But then the little Sandra becomes skeptical. She has to pay 2799.99 € for her voluntary help. Even though she only wants to stay for two weeks. She will be accommodated in a shared room with a shared bathroom and work 8 hours a day. Also, nobody has asked for her experiences so far. She was already looking forward to proudly report on her experiences at the animal shelter. Is this agency not trustworthy? Sandra looks at several websites but the offers are all similar. Is it normal that anyone may help after paying a fee? Completely indifferent whether in the rain forest, with animals or in the orphanage? And who gets the money she is supposed to pay? Not even the flight is included. With all the clientele, the projects would have to be able to carry themselves. On the websites, Sandra finds no answers and disappointedly decides to give up on the project volunteer work due to the high fees they want her to pay for her work.
Today, Sandra is 10 years older and has decided to write this article. Because the situation is exactly the same as it was 10 years ago. Only today, Sandra is a little more informed. Young people who want to do good are ripped off by ruthless agencies. The projects that carry names like: “Take care of homeless children in Africa”, “Save the rainforest” or “Give love to orphaned lion cubs” are indeed real, but far away from doing good. On the contrary. These weekend workers aggravate the situation on the ground considerably. You should keep your distance from agencies offering volunteer work for everyone. But why?
Volunteering with children
Especially in developing countries, children’s lives in orphanages are anything but easy. They no longer have a family, live in crumbling buildings, enjoy little education and medical care is anything but Western standard. In addition to that, the facilities are often crowded to bursting. They can only hold on to the relationship with their caregivers. However, if these caregivers consist essentially of indiscriminate tourists who are replaced every 14 days by new tourists, any normal-minded person can imagine what that will do to the children. They always have to part with their caregivers. Again and again. Partially for 18 years. In addition, the short-term educators in most cases did not have to prove their educational qualities, nor were they tested for their psychological fitness. The recruitment criterion is money and nothing else. Would we allow work like that with kids in our home countries? I think most people would speak up about that pretty fast. Why do we allow it for children in other countries? Because they are poor? Because nobody protects them? Because we were blinded by colorful pictures and promises?
Add to this the fact that orphanages in Third World countries are now mushrooming.
One in more miserable condition than the other. Why is that? Are the parents dying away these days? No! Children have become a business in the meantime. A life is worth nothing. Many houses are built out of nothing and sometimes even equipped with purchased children of poor families. And what’s this all about? Because well-heeled tourists like to donate. They donate and donate and feel great about it. Unfortunately, only a few check where their donations actually go. Thus, the business with the orphanages grows immensely and the operators live their luxury lives under palm trees. An inhumane business with the poorest of the poor. Brutal and freezing cold.
Volunteering with animals
Two young and pretty girls are posing in front of a dreamy African scenery with a lion cub under their right arm and a bottle of milk in their left hand. “Care for orphaned lion and cheetah babies,” the ad says. These offers have existed for years and apparently there are more and more cubs. Where do hundreds of orphaned cats come from each year? And why are there always enough for each volunteer to be able to feed up his own kitten, for two to four weeks? What sounds like a dream of many animal lovers and is advertised by countless pages in the most beautiful words, usually has a bad background. The baby animals are not orphans and later released into the wild. They are factory breeds for the African hunting industry. When they get big enough, they are sold to hunting farms and released for frequent trophy collectors. Theirs moms live in tight cages as birthing machines. Ignorant tourists pay ridiculously large sums for a few weeks to look after a wild animal. Most do not ask questions.
It is similar with the elephant camps in Asia. Volunteers are wanted. To feed, bath, clean and of course stroke and stroke again. 2000€ is the price tag on that, including a hammock as a night camp for the nature-loving backpacker. Meals must be provided by yourself. Donations are welcome! Most of the animals live in tiny stables and go swimming with tourists in the house’s duckpond for a fee or are being ridden around the block. They are broken in the most brutal way. Baby elephants are snatched from their mothers. Often hunted in the wild. They barely build relationships with humans. Too often the inexperienced bipeds change around them. They get sedative injections so that nothing tragic ever happens.
Just like in so-called tiger temples. Of course, the abused creatures were also raised by hand. As adults, they oversleep the entire day on cold concrete and endure the grabbing tourist hands without batting an eye. You no longer recognize life in them. Like subdued prostitutes, they lie around feeling nothing anymore.
Volunteering in environmental protection
Plant trees in the rainforest for two weeks or build homes for the homeless in one. This raises the serious question of sustainability. It takes time to work effectively and to understand work processes. Usually, however, the tourists have left before they have recovered from their jet lag. How effective can this short-time work be? Over and over again, new tourists have to be trained to help under supervision for a short period of time. They do not even get halfway through the daily workflow of an experienced worker. Add to that the incredible sums that are paid to the agency before the vacation in the jungle. Only a fraction of this goes to the projects themselves. Most of it is invested in the agencies own salaries and in advertising. Wouldn’t it make more sense to donate these sums directly to the chosen project and refrain from giving valuable workers time to supervise unskilled Westerners like on an assembly line? Should the funds perhaps be invested in proper local staff?
Who is to blame for these conditions?
I don’t think most of the people who buy themselves into these projects have bad intentions. On the contrary. Many really want to help. The first 30 results on Google, are just the pages of these dubious agencies. It quickly seems that volunteering is like that. I do not blame those who register there. Usually these are young, adventurous people who want to try things out and fall for the colorful pictures and the pretty layout. Like Sandra, 18, who stayed home for lack of money rather than for thinking about what’s going on out there. My indictment goes to the money-hungry agencies, who don’t worry about anything but their own account balance. If there is demand, these parasites crawl out of their holes and create beautiful websites. That’s how it is everywhere. We encounter this world daily in the supermarket or in fashion magazines. If we want to change something, then the machinery of the money tap has to be turned off. The most important thing is to educate interested people. Above all, interested people should be encouraged to know how voluntary work can be fruitful and that this has nothing to do with a weekend trip during the summer holidays. Because it is important to help. And it is also possible to help.
How can sustainable help be provided?
First and foremost, everyone should understand that no serious project will hire people on a weekly basis. As a rule, volunteers are required to work for at least half a year, often longer. This has the very simple reason, that it takes at least 4 weeks until the new helper is trained and can work independently. Serious projects are not interested in entertaining tourists during their adventure trips. They want to work. They want to help. Above all, they want to move forward. Anyone who wants to work for NGOs in environmental protection, animal welfare or even in the humanitarian field must first of all bring time to be a real help.
You want to work with children?
What qualifies you and in which area do you want to work in? Are you a trained educator? Are you a psychologist? Are you a pediatrician? Would you like to do an internship in certain areas? Are you a teacher or do you have special language skills? Do you have a spotless police certificate? Do you have experience working with children? These criteria or questions should not scare you, because they are only for the protection of children. If you want to work in developing countries, then you should contact NGOs. But of course there are also those black sheep that do not work transparently. The Unesco provides a proper list. Choose the organizations of the respective countries and look closely at the projects. Apply, ask questions, get quotes and be skeptical as soon as you are asked to pay without any reference to your credentials.
If you are more interested in travel than development aid, Au Pair might be right for you. But please stop your eyes and do not sign up at the first agency. Check out the International Au Pair Association.
You want to work with animals?
Then you should realize that working with wildlife is not an exotic petting zoo. There is not cuddling or petting in reputable wildlife rescue stations. And certainly for 100 different people per month. The work takes place around the animals. Only the most experienced staff can interact with the animals. If you want to pet or even ride wild animals, you should change your attitude! Also, you should expect to do more auxiliary tasks such as cleaning the terrain if you are untrained. Unless you are doing a special internship. But such places are rare. Well trained professionals such as veterinarians, Ranger specialized scientists are usually desperately wanted. A good alternative for pet lovers may be working with pets. Animal shelters are also looking for volunteers worldwide. Helpers are usually not accepted for a week or two.
If you want to get actively involved, joining an animal protection organization can make sense.
Sea Shepherd, for example, volunteers are hired on ships every year to prevent poachers from hunting rare marine mammals. “The hardest job you will ever love”. Again, professionals are preferred. Mariners, cooks, photographers, etc.
You want to work in environmental protection?
Then start today at your home. Avoid plastic waste, do not buy cheap goods from exploiting companies and get by without the products of the mass industry. If you want to actively help, then get ready for a lot of work. Above all, take at least half a year off and apply directly to reputable environmental protection organizations. A good place to start can also be Workaway. It connects private organizations or private households with volunteers. The jobs listed there are very diverse. I had very good experiences with Workaway and have been active there for several years. But of course, the offers there must be carefully scrutinized as well.
What will this cost ?
That varies a lot and depends on the work you are aiming for.
As a rule, there are no costs. And not thousands of Euros. Often you are offered to either look for your own accommodation or to stay in a local accommodation for a small fee. Voluntary work for individuals is usually compensated with food and accommodation. You only pay for your travels and contribute a little bit to the food costs. If someone wants to collect several hundred euros in advance, I would immediately let go of it. Au pairs often get some money from their host family. Only professionals such as doctors, paramedics or permanent staff are paid properly.
I would like to do something but not travel so long!
You can not have everything. If you do not have the time and / or desire to spend a long time abroad, get involved in your hometown. There are also animal welfare projects there. They also need volunteers in environmental protection. There are internships in children’s homes. Under no circumstances should you put your money in lousy rip-off agencies. Donate it instead. To a carefully chosen organization of your choice. Get involved in demonstrations, collect used blankets for animal shelters and enlighten the people around you. But above all, lead by example. Change the world by changing yourself. Every single day, for the rest of your life.