feeding my own misguided insanity

Pay-to-Volunteers: A Sad State of Affairs in Africa

October 1, 2013 Shem Radzikowski 8 Comments

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.

Pay to Volunteer — Are they Serious?

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.

Projects Abroad – A Scam of Continental Proportions

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.[1]

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:

  1. your volunteer project
  2. comprehensive travel and health insurance
  3. all your food and accommodation
  4. transfers to and from the airport
  5. support and guidance as well as 24 hour emergency back-up from our local office in your destination
  6. all information before and during your time with us overseas

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;[2] (3) all your food and accommodation: at a very generous $20 per day given to the host family;[3] (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;[4] (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.[5]

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.

  1. Projects Abroad offers a wide variety of projects in Tanzania, based in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam and around the town of Arusha in the north of Tanzania. Arusha sits at the foot of Mount Meru volcano, which forms an impressive silhouette above the low rise skyline of the town. Arusha is a popular place for tourists to arrange their safari trips and tourism plays a large role in the town’s economy. ^
  2. Insurance prices ranged between $11 and $38 per fortnight. Some exclusive insurance schemes hovered around $85. http://www.moneysupermarket.com/travel-insurance/ ^
  3. Keeping in mind that many people live on just $2 per day means that $20 for food and accommodation is a very generous amount that translates into a comfortable income for the host family. ^
  4. I’ve made that trip numerous times and at the exclusive end of what’s on offer, even with a personal driver with a modern air-conditioned car will only set you back around $35. ^
  5. The World Bank blog claims that youth unemployment in Tanzania is low on average, employed youth usually hold precarious jobs in the agricultural sector, without any formal contracts or benefits. They are also more prone to unemployment in urban areas, and paradoxically, when they are more educated. About 75 per cent of employed youths are active in the agriculture sector, and only 6.7 per cent hold public sector wage jobs. A youth in Dar es Salaam is more than 6 times (13 per cent) more likely to be unemployed than a rural youth (2 per cent). More than 20 per cent youths with secondary education in Dar es Salaam are unemployed and a staggering 56 per cent of secondary educated youths in Zanzibar are unemployed ^


Gregory S. Time Out: Gauging the Value of a Gap Year Before College [Online]. Time 2010. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2015783,00.html [30 Aug. 2013].
Projects Abroad – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [Online]. [date unknown]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Projects_Abroad [30 Aug. 2013].
Projects Abroad Complaints, Reviews – Abusing poverty to gain income [Online]. [date unknown]. http://www.complaintsboard.com/complaints/projects-abroad-c462706.html [30 Aug. 2013].
Projects Abroad gives teens a chance to lend a hand – latimes.com [Online]. [date unknown]. http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-trb-projects-abroad-students-help-20130415,0,3618311.story [30 Aug. 2013].
Travel Insurance | Annual & Single Trip | Travel Insurance Web [Online]. [date unknown]. http://www.travelinsuranceweb.com/ [19 Aug. 2013].
Travel Insurance | Compare Cheap Holiday Insurance – MoneySupermarket [Online]. [date unknown]. http://www.moneysupermarket.com/travel-insurance/ [19 Aug. 2013].
Tuition – Thinking Beyond Borders Gap Year Programs Abroad [Online]. [date unknown]. http://thinkingbeyondborders.org/apply-now/tuition/ [30 Aug. 2013].
Volunteer in Tanzania | Volunteering Work & Gap Years [Online]. [date unknown]. http://www.projects-abroad.co.uk/volunteer-destinations/tanzania/#prices [19 Aug. 2013].
Volunteer travel – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [Online]. [date unknown]. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volunteer_travel [19 Aug. 2013].
Volunteering overseas: don’t get scammed – The Travelling Editor [Online]. [date unknown]. http://www.thetravellingeditor.com/volunteering-overseas-dont-get-scammed/ [30 Aug. 2013].
Youth in Tanzania: a growing uneducated labor force | AfricaCan End Poverty [Online]. [date unknown]. http://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/youth-in-tanzania-a-growing-uneducated-labor-force [19 Aug. 2013].

, , , , , , , , , , , Africa, Thoughts, Travel

8 Comments → “Pay-to-Volunteers: A Sad State of Affairs in Africa”

  1. Emma B 10 years ago   Reply


  2. Mar K 10 years ago   Reply

    Yes, as a volunteer in Ghana at the same time (the REAL sort of volunteer – not the pay for a warm fuzzy experience “voli-tourism” kind)…. I was really saddened to see so many gap year kids doing this. No one benefits – except the organisers. Certainly not helping the disadvantaged groups they were targeting! :(

  3. Benedykt K 10 years ago   Reply

    hehe…widzialem ten “projekt” na sieci, przeczytalem ich strone, obÅ›miaÅ‚em sie, ale nie sadziÅ‚em, że na Å›wiecie sa tak durni ludzie aby za wolontariat placic..hehe

  4. ina 10 years ago   Reply

    Going as a tourist would certainly help any community more since tourism boosts the local economy and creates jobs. People would much rather be employed and in a position to provide for their families than rely on handouts and volunteers.

    It’s really sad that in some countries volunteers fill entire sectors when the locals are more than capable – with some training – and desperate for jobs.

    But there is no need to call well intentioned people who are genuinely just trying to help “a bunch of ignorant Mzungu city slickers.” Remember they may not have the same resources and information as someone who has travelled the world, seen it all, has had access to inside information on how things work and is therefore able to form a well rounded opinion.

    I mean the individual volunteers, the organizations are of course just in it for the profits. Yes, it is appalling, especially in such a sensitive sector. But it’s not much different to other profit driven companies who will literally poison consumers to make more money or cause complete environmental destruction, without concern for how the local population is harmed.

    The aid and development corruption issue starts at the top, with government aid (from Western nations) funding mansions and private jets, and continues at every stage.

    Economic development is really the only way out of poverty. Instead of raising the standard of life, handouts and volunteers can trap people in a vicious cycle of helplessness.

    • Dr.Shem 10 years ago   Reply

      Maybe I was a bit harsh by calling people ignorant Mzungus, after all, they had genuine intentions to help but were completely uninformed. Despite their obvious lack of research, I still maintain that people should conduct exhaustive research before departing. Study the organization and know how it spends ‘your’ money in the country you’re planning to volunteer. Just like with anything in life, there are good choices and bad ones. Ultimately, however, ignorance isn’t an excuse irrespective on how well-intentioned people may be.

  5. Ben R 10 years ago   Reply

    same shit in SE asia, JJ hack did a thing on it about a year ago.

  6. ina 10 years ago   Reply

    It’s not about ignorance being an excuse, not everything can be researched on the internet. I know, I can’t believe I said that either. You have a different perspective because you’ve traveled and been exposed to all this. It’s different when you’re 21 and you’ve never been to Africa. Yes, paying to volunteer is stupid, but why focus negativity on people who are at least trying to make a difference? Unless you’re going to be funny, which you weren’t, so there.

Leave a Reply