A few years back while working in Ghana, I came across a number of people who were spending their gap year volunteering in Africa. I remember being quite impressed by the fact that these young high school graduates had put their academic lives on hold in favour of altruistic pursuits. I was curious and wanted to learn more about what it was they were doing and the organizations they were working with. What I learned didn’t fill me with any warm or fuzzy feelings — in fact, it was rather unsettling.
There was a time when volunteering was just that, people travelled somewhere and volunteered their time or skills or whatever it was they wanted to give — for free — to someone who needed it. I think that’s pretty much the cornerstone of what volunteering means, at least to me.
On the other end of the spectrum you have this new group of well-intentioned people who seem only too happy to part with thousands of dollars for the privilege of volunteering in the developing world. No, I don’t mean spend the money on airfares to travel to a destination, I’m referring to individuals who pay good money to volunteering ‘brokers’ who then place them with host families at ridiculously high profit margins.
I can understand that there are administrative and operating costs associated with allocating and coordinating volunteers, but I can’t get my head around the exorbitant rates that puts volunteering (voluntourism) in the same price bracket as a two-week all-inclusive luxury island holiday.
I’m going to single out one of the biggest offenders that I’ve come across: Projects Abroad.
According to their website, for $2253 you can buy yourself a two-week volunteering gig in Tanzania where you get the privilege to build stuff.
If that’s rather nondescript, by stuff I mean: paint a wall, place sheet metal on top of a shack or mix cement with a shovel. The type of work that locals are more than qualified to perform without any foreign intervention or supervision. After all, unlike medicine or even civil engineering, mixing cement and using a paintbrush are hardly skills that require any formal training.
On their website, Projects Abroad state that they must “charge a fee to each volunteer to cover the cost of your experience on our programmes overseas,” and the fee includes the following:
For the life of me I can’t understand how the $2253 gets consumed. With that much cash I could comfortably lodge myself in five-star comfort while sipping cocktails in my private infinity pool on some tropical island. Nevertheless, I’m going to try and break down the total for the sake of my own curiosity based on real-life costs in Tanzania.
There’s some administration (1) your volunteer project: I’m giving it a generous $100; (2) comprehensive travel insurance: median price from various online searches gave an average of $18; (3) all your food and accommodation: at a very generous $20 per day given to the host family; (4) transfers to and from the airport: no more than $80 considering that Projects Abroad only offers Arusha and Dar es Salaam as volunteering locations in Tanzania; (5) support guidance and 24 hour emergency backup: $0 in the form of a phone number; (6) all information before and during your time abroad: $0 in the form of a website, PDF and/or email.
I don’t know of too many legal businesses that enjoy a 78% profit margin.
All this comes together to a grand total of $478, earning Projects Abroad a whopping $1775 per candidate per fortnight. I don’t know of too many legal businesses that enjoy a 78% profit margin.
These funds would do more good if spent to create jobs for the 20% of Tanzania’s unemployed youth rather than creating an artificial pay-to-holiday destination for a bunch of ignorant Mzungu city slickers.
I am shocked but also appalled that this ‘organization’ is nothing more then making money over the backs of poor people. Shame on you…the name of Herman was mentioned several times as it seems this character works for these greedy people in Arusha.
— Projects Abroad volunteer from South Africa
Projects Abroad is just one example from a far more diverse fabric of self-serving organizations that do little to improve the lives of the underprivileged. Many ex-staffers have openly criticized the organization’s lack of transparency and shady practices that rarely improve the communities in which they operate.
I find it difficult to understand how so many people can be misinformed about the real state of affairs in Africa given our unprecedented access to information. Just goes to show that access to information is one thing, comprehension is an entirely different story. For all you pay-to-volunteer volunteers, wake up. Africa doesn’t have a labour shortage – it has a shortage of employment opportunities for which you’re now competing. If you want a good starting point for your research, check out: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.
So, unless you have a skill or profession that the continent desperately needs, stay at home or seek out an organization that actually invests in these communities. Alternatively, come as a tourist, you’ll have greater impact on the local economy. As an added benefit, your parents might be happier too — the holiday is likely to cost less than your volunteering gig.