During my time backpacking, and later assisting with BoliviaBella.com, I have come into contact with many volunteers and volunteer projects. There are some brilliant opportunities to give something back to a country which offers its visitors so much exposure to culture and history yet where the population has little in material terms. A stint spent volunteering could literally change YOUR life too, perhaps being the impetus for a career change, or a move to the other side of the world.
Now comes the “but”. Some projects I have come across have left me unsure what the real motivations are.
Many of BoliviaBella.com's readers are potential or former volunteers. Thinking of you, I would not want someone to give up a couple of months of their life and spend many thousands of dollars on a well-meaning trip to volunteer and find out that what they were doing may not be all what they hoped for, and even worse, may be counterproductive. From the point of view of someone living in Bolivia, I would not want Bolivian communities or individuals to be damaged by volunteering, no matter how well meaning.
I will try pose this article as a list of questions, to ask your own conscience initially, and then factors to consider when you think you may have found a suitable place to volunteer.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America and undoubtedly there is scope to “help out” in a variety of ways, including volunteering your time.
But why not volunteer in your own community or an area in your own country? In virtually all countries (including the most developed) there are people in need of help and projects who do not receive the funding they maybe should. If you have never even considered volunteering close to home before, what are your motivations for volunteering in another country?
What are you hoping to gain from this? If in all honesty it is to extend your time abroad (by living cheaply or for free), you are very unlikely to find what you are looking for.
Volunteer positions which provide bed and board are very, very rare and probably only available to those who can give an extended commitment. So in effect, you will be paying to volunteer in that you will need to meet your own living costs. If you are staying longer than 3 months in Bolivia, you will need to apply for temporary residency, a process that will cost YOU between approx US$500 and US$1000 all in.
What do you have to offer? Do you speak Spanish with reasonable proficiency? Do you have professional experience and knowledge that might translate to Bolivia? Is there an NGO in your home country that could refer you to an organisation in Bolivia?
Are there other ways you could assist a worthwhile organisation? Eg. donations of cash or goods?
Could you assist this project from your home country (eg build them a website, translate their documents into another language, network for them, fundraise for them)?
Google your prospective placement or agency. If you can’t find anything, consider placing a notice on a website such as BoliviaBella.com, Couchsurfing or Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet) to solicit people’s honest opinions.
If the volunteer organisation is asking you for money to volunteer (except for room and board), what is this being spent on? It is an unpleasant thought, but ask yourself if the reason they might be seeking foreign volunteers (rather than sourcing locals) is that volunteers may be able to give them a few hundred dollars each month.
Could receiving donations from volunteers become a form of dependency whereby they are only continuing with the project to receive these donations?
Are they making a “profit” on the money they are charging? A single room should cost around US$40-50 per week. How much of the difference is being absorbed by costs and overheads, and how much is going back into the community?
Does the organisation have a religious leaning, and if so, is this in keeping with your own? Is the organisation happy to accept volunteers of other faiths (or none)?
You may be volunteering alongside people who are being paid. Are you happy with this?
Could a local do what you are doing, and if so, why aren’t they?
Bolivia is an overwhelmingly poor country, however like in every country there are some wealthy people. If they aren’t a not for profit, then what is the motivation of the organisation you will be working with? There is a difference between volunteering for a charitable organisation which provides a good or service at a low cost (or free) and working for free for an organisation that doesn’t want to pay people.
Strictly speaking, any organisation in Bolivia that calls itself not for profit (in Spanish, sin fines de lucro) should have be registered by having completing paperwork to that effect. If they haven’t, then why haven’t they?
Be honest with yourself and any potential placement: If you don’t speak Spanish well, then you may be limited in the tasks you can undertake for them.
Consider whether there would be another way to achieve your aims eg if you took a Spanish course you would be contributing to the economy (by paying your Spanish teacher and your room and board) and learning Spanish. With the advent of Couchsurfing and other meetup groups, you could get in touch with local people, make local friends and perhaps undertake a language exchange.
Agencies or organisations that place volunteers with suitable organisations for a fee are in a difficult position. Whose wishes are they more likely to follow – those of their client (the volunteer, who is paying them a fee, and may refer them to their friends) or those of the charitable organisations that are providing the volunteer opportunities?
Was the volunteering opportunity created out of a local need which just happened to evolve into a place to volunteer, or was it created as such?
Is the agency more concerned with trying to find you a placement that you want to do, or directing volunteers to a place where they are needed and your skills are most appropriate?
Is there a danger that what you are doing could be counterproductive in the long run? Eg if people are working on a short-term basis with children or vulnerable people who don’t have a stable home environment, might they be confused, hurt and ultimately damaged by so many volunteers passing through their lives?
What is the organisation or agency asking you? Are they interested in your motivations and skills? Especially if you might be volunteering with children or vulnerable people, are they asking you for references?
From the people I have spoken to, almost all said that one of the best (yet sobering) things about volunteering is the opportunity to interact with local people and find out how they really live their lives. Most people have very little in material terms and may have to work long hours just to get by, yet they do not complain about this, and try their best to make each day count. It isn’t necessary to volunteer to have contact with local people (obviously) and it is a shame that there are so few meaningful cultural exchanges which could also benefit local communities.