Aidwork: Should you pay to volunteer?

Jose Ramirez in Nepal
I often get questions and feedback from people who want to get started as an aidworker. Recently, I got in contact with Jose Ramirez, 30, from Barcelona, Spain. He worked for several years as an architect in several offices across Europe, before he decided to call it quits. He wanted to take his life in a different direction, doing more fulfilling work in the humanitarian sector.

As many people, he was struggling to find his way in. Where does one start? He decided to work as a volunteer, and was prepared to pay for the experience. An experience which turned out not to be what he had hoped for. I interviewed him.

Q: After your initial years in the commercial sector you wanted to work in the humanitarian world. What triggered that?
Jose: It was nothing in particular. Not "a documentary" I saw or "a terrible image in the news" which made me take that decision. It was more the lust to travel and discover. I wanted to travel through Asia, but I knew from the very beginning that I wouldn't go as yet another backpacker. I had to leave with 'a mission'. I wanted to make a difference.

Q: When you started to look for a job in the humanitarian world, what did you try, on whose doors did you knock?
Jose: I didn't try. I didn't know anything at all. It would have been very pretentious to do that since I had never been in Asia before and I didn't know if I would like it there or not. So I thought that a great introduction into the humanitarian world would be perhaps to volunteer.

Q: How did you choose the organisation you volunteered for?
Jose: I was quite lost. On the Internet, I found lots of information related to volunteering. I had something in mind: I wanted to go to Nepal. After some research and a lot of reading through load of websites I decided finally for a kiwi based recognised NGO. They work all over the world. They seemed very professional and reliable and had a programme going on in Nepal. You could pick among several kind of volunteering there: children's homes, teaching English, etc... I signed up for the community maintenance programme, although the description about the programme was very vague. I thought I could use some of my skills as an architect in that task.

Volunteer fees were involved in all the programmes/countries. As most almost all volunteering sites asked for fees, I assumed it was a normal and indispensable practice when it comes to volunteering.

Q: What was the procedure to register, to get started with that organisation?
Jose: It was way pretty sophisticated. You fill your application on-line and submit it. After they receive it and give you the 'ok', you have to pay a US$350 'volunteer fee' immediately. Once they receive your fee, they contact you again giving you 'the volunteer package': a massive amount of information in the form of emails and pdf-file, which you have to read through. If you have some doubts you can contact the programme coordinator via telephone or email. Eight weeks before departure you have to follow up with the rest of the volunteer programme payment that varies depending on the amount of weeks you stay. I signed up for 4 months and I paid US$1,722. In total, I paid them US$2.072.

Q: Plus your ticket?
Jose: Yes.

Q: What were the promises the NGO made, what were your expectations before you took up the job?
Jose: The NGO promises emergency assistance during your stay. They covered placement with Nepalese families, which included accommodation and food. They would also provide a briefing and formation once I got there. I was very excited about it although I couldn't have any real expectations since it was still unclear which specific job I would be doing.

Q: So, you arrived in Nepal. What were your immediate first impressions. How were you welcomed, briefed, set to work?
Jose: Every placement starts the 1st of every month. You are welcomed by the local branch of the NGO right on arrival. During one week you receive information about the country, basic local language classes, explanation of the programmes. You get to spend 3 days with a Nepalese family to have a first "taste" of the basic life you will be leading in the coming weeks or months. After the briefing week you are sent to your placement, and you start to work.

Q: What were your tasks?
Jose: During the briefing, we, the community maintenance volunteers, learnt we would be helping in the construction of a brand new orphanage that was about to start right after we arrived. After knowing what we would be doing I couldn't be more excited, after all, I was an architect. It looked very challenging work. Even though I knew that I would be mainly doing "labor" work, I hoped to bring some input in the tasks. Local and experience workers were doing all the 'real' construction work supervised by a foreman and a local architect. Our tasks were merely to assist with some 'extra' work, work not budgeted and 'easy' to do by non-experience Westerners. That work included clearing off a bamboo "forest", building a bamboo hut for storage and the construction of a boundary fence. These were "crumbles" in my opinion.

This was the most ambitious project that this NGO had ever done, so they were quite focused with the fundraising, and unfortunately not really with the volunteers on site. We were left sometimes for a week without feedback from the NGO. We were working with broken tools. The jobs we did, were needed for sure and I believe we achieved a very good result. But i wondered many times if that work couldn't have been done faster and better by local people.

Jose and his Nepalese host family

Q: What did the NGO cater for?
Jose: The NGO works with some Nepalese families. These families are used to have foreigners and can speak some English. They provide accommodation and food under basic conditions. I learned after, they were paid US$60 per a month per volunteer by the NGO. Some of the families had up to 4 volunteers.
They provided as well the tools, gloves, etc...

Q: what work was the NGO actually doing. What projects did they have, who did they partner with?
Jose: The NGO was involved in several projects besides the construction of the new orphanage. They were sending volunteers to several children homes in different areas of Kathmandu run by local management. They helped help with teaching English and supervisory tasks. There were some health programme going on as well, which were carried out by volunteers with some medical training.

Q: You worked with colleague volunteers. What was your impression of them: "well willing", "adventurers", "lost souls"?
Jose: Another thing I was very excited about was to meet different people from different countries coming with the same purpose. The reality was way different from that. I was so disappointed to realize most of them were kids in their twenties. They were not focused on the job, at all. Most had come there because their parents paid the volunteering fees. I realized that those kids were probably attracted to volunteering because they didn't have to pay the expenses, themselves, which is quite sad. I met some good apples amongst the rotten ones. I still keep keep in touch with them.

Q: Even if the work itself were you able to use your presence there,"in the field" to network, to make contacts with other organisations, with other aid workers?
Jose: The aid workers network is very big in Nepal. Maybe too big and too corporated. I met some interesting people though and made some contacts I hope to use in the future.

Q: Your experience was rather negative. In how far is this a generalization?
Jose: I would rather say "not absolutely satisfying". I was unable to share my negative impressions with most of the volunteers since they didn't pay the fees themselves. I met some other people and volunteers on the way and I did share this with them, we all agreed that is not certainly the way to go when it comes to volunteering.

It would be naive if I would say that money is not necessary her. It is if you want your aid project to reach somewhere. But there are different ways. If you accept money from volunteers willing to help, people that have crossed half the world in a very expensive flight, but don't put them to good use, you are a soulless NGO. No matter if you are using the money for a good cause.

Q: How did you end your assignment with them. What did you do after that?
Jose: Construction takes some time. I worked in several tasks on the building site during my stay. When I left, the construction was still going on. After that I spent some months in Nepal, did some trekking and thought of my next move. In the end, I did another volunteering task in Thailand. But this time with there was no money involved whatsoever.

In those months in Nepal, I had the chance to meet some amazing Nepalese people. They were completely astonished when they learnt we had paid US$2.000 to 'do labor work'. That really enhances the idea we are spoiled Westerners, willing to give up so much money to end up dirty with mud and with blisters in their hands. They thought nobody should pay to do that kind of job, volunteering ot not.

Q: What is your advice for those trying to enter the aidworld or who want to volunteer?
Jose: Volunteering, is a job or task that should be done honestly. It is understood you are not getting paid for it. It is very sad nowadays you HAVE TO PAY for it. No way. We have to stop the way this is working. What happens is that NGOs are relying more and more on volunteers. Not to do the work, but to fundraise for their projects. The goal is honest but the way this is done, is not.

My advice is simple: "Don't pay to volunteer". When money is involved, the word loses its meaning. Instead, I would advise people to travel to the country were aid is needed and once on site do some research. My second volunteering experience in Thailand showed me this is still possible.

The Road: Jose, thank you for your blunt answers. I wish you the very best.

If you think of starting as an aidworker, here is my advise to you.

Read more interviews on The Road


Lama Khatieb,  22 November, 2009 23:25  

Thank you that was very useful..
I am a dentist and have been trying to get involved in voulenteering for a long time, but it didnt work out fine, Im trying to do a "local" voulenteering and I still have to pay ... its difficult unfortunately, and I agree its totally a twisted logic to ask voulenteers for fees!!!

Jose followed what he wanted to do, and Im sure that fed a satisfaction not the best architecture office can feed!

Job 16 December, 2009 20:01  

Hello, your article is mentioned on our website I am curious to know how people have accessed this blog through our site. Good article.

Peter 16 December, 2009 20:33  

@Lama: wishing you the best in your efforts.

@Job: Yes, I saw kiliweb mentioned this article. But I do not understand your question "how people have accessed this blog through our site"...
I can see a link on kiliweb, so if the visitors click on it, they get onto my blog. (was that your question?)...


Job 17 December, 2009 05:59  

oops. I meant how MANY ... Maybe you can see that in your statistics? Was late at night when I wrote it. sorry

Peter 17 December, 2009 06:52  

@Job: ah... ;-) 12 referral visits so far from kiliweb.


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