This blog article has been widely reposted and caused a great deal of discussion on responsible volunteering. I’m sure Rachel didn’t expect this kind of exposure when she wrote it but I really respect the fact she was honest about her experience and has taken the time to respond to all the comments. I agree with her view on not naming and shaming the organisation she volunteered with. Perhaps if she had paid thousands of pounds for the experience, this would be more appropriate, but this is a government funded scheme being operated by charities and I think is a bit different as they are not charging huge fees for projects that aren’t worthwhile. And I also agree that one person’s experience does not reflect the whole organisation and all of their placements.
I also know, from my own experience working in this sector, that not all volunteer placements are well-thought out and things aren’t always as volunteers hope and expect. Unfortunately this can be the reality of working in developing countries, in a world where there are lots of agencies,NGOs, charities offering funds to set up projects. Sometimes things aren’t strategic and well-planned. Volunteers need to be prepared for this and be able to be resourceful and flexible and sometimes even develop their own placement. The type of volunteers I was sending overseas in my previous job were quite a bit older than Rachel, experienced in their profession and able to do this. They were also going for much longer periods. I heard many volunteers say that the first 3 months of their placement was hell, they hated the country, had culture shock, couldn’t adapt to the food, and most of all, weren’t sure why they were there and what they should be doing. They couldn’t communicate in another language and met resistance from local people who they were supposed to be working with and projects lacked any infrastructure. However usually after the first few months things would improve and they would have learnt enough of the language to get by and they had started to build relationships and find a role for themselves. Now in Rachel’s case, this wasn’t possible due to the length of the placement, raising a real issue about the scheme she did. Short placements can only work well when they are very structured and clear objectives and tasks are established for volunteers before they arrive.They also may be better suited to volunteers with skills to share and professional experience.
So thank you to Rachel for being so open and frank about her experience and keeping the debate on volunteering alive!