Do you need to have a long period of time available in order to volunteer overseas? That is one of the big questions around volunteer tourism. There are opportunities out there to volunteer from just one day to two or more years. But how worthwhile is it to volunteer for a short period of time and who really benefits?
During my time working for VSO, this was often discussed. The VSO model was traditionally based around the idea of a 2 year placement. The first year was spent settling in, adapting to a new culture and learning the language, while beginning to work towards the placement objectives. Many volunteers found that it was in their second year that they managed to achieve more and have an impact. However, in 2005 VSO merged with another volunteering organisation called BESO who specialised in short term, “consultancy” placements, sending very experienced professionals overseas for 2 weeks – 3 month. There were pros and cons to both models and the merger led to an interesting clash of organisational beliefs. The ultimate product of this was a compromise, with some 3-6 month placements but still the original model of the 2 year placement dominating the VSO landscape.
However, there was some experimenting with much shorter placements, for example VSO’s 2-week “Polvol” placements – MPs volunteering with VSO partners during their summer recess. There was some extremely positive feedback from overseas partners on what could be achieved in a such a short period. These were carefully planned placements with existing partners who had worked with VSO volunteers and staff. MPs worked with local organisations to develop strategies or policies and run workshops as well as advocating for local issues at government level in the countries where they were placed.
Adapting to a different culture and integrating into a community is the main benefit of spending a longer period volunteering. Visiting any new country can be overwhelming with so many new images and experiences to absorb. Making that place your home is a huge learning curve and most volunteers find they experience a rollercoaster of emotions as they undergo a process of adjusting to their new environment. Volunteers need to learn about both the practical, day to day things as well as the more subtle cultural and behavioural rules of their new local community. In addition, learning the local language or dialect and being able to communicate with local people adds to a volunteer’s experience but will also build bonds with the host community and help a great deal whatever the nature of the placement activities.
There is also the argument that spending a long time volunteering will gain the trust of the local community, and bring consistency which could lead to more local support for the project. Having a steady stream of new volunteers arriving every few months could be disruptive and result in unwillingness to interact with the volunteers.
Long term placements are generally going to have greater development impacts, with volunteers being able to achieve change and offer an organisation or group of individuals a long period of support. For placements involving mentoring, training and skills transfer, having a long time to work with people, build relationships and provide ongoing support is invaluable.
However, there are short term placements out there that can be worthwhile and effective. Carefully planned placements such as VSO’s PolVol scheme, where the volunteer’s specific area of expertise is matched to the needs of a local organisation, can have a high impact. These kind of placements have to be highly structured and a lot of preparation needs to go into planning the placement and setting clear objectives and activities. Volunteers with a lot of professional experience can contribute a great deal by running training sessions in these kind of short term placements. They could also return year after year to follow up on their work and consolidate.
And for volunteers who don’t have a specific area of expertise, some of the more manual, task based placements are extremely worthwhile. Acting as an extra pair of hands, helping to build or renovate something that can be utilised by local people, can be achieved in just a few weeks. Of course, for these kind of projects it is important to be certain what is being created is sustainable – consider the classrooms that have been built in developing countries where there are no trained teachers or equipment available, which go unused or are used for storage. I’m also wary of organisations who recruit volunteers to the same building project over and over -how many times can a school be repainted?
Another option for volunteers with short time-frames is doing a conservation project. Volunteers can spend a few days to a few weeks volunteering to collect data for scientific research into wildlife, habitats and ecosystems. No previous experience is required and volunteers can be trained in the techniques required on site. Also working as a team for a short period of volunteering can have a lot more impact than working alone.
The key questions volunteers should ask when they are considering a placement are: what can be achieved in the period of time planned; are the placement objectives realistic in that period of time; how satisfactory an experience of volunteering will this be; and how beneficial will the volunteer’s presence be for the local community in that period of time.
The long and the short of it is that short periods of volunteering overseas can be effective but not in all cases.