Volunteer work: Who gets the cookies?

As part of my MSc I studied this type of thing a lot, and years on it is still something that both interests, and annoys me.

Two summers ago in 2010 I decided to undertake some volunteer work and began to research it. There are hundreds of organisations offering this type of thing, but most of them appear to charge very high rates! Straight away I thought, why would you have to pay to volunteer? How could it cost to offer your services to help others? This seemed rather absurd to me!

It was quite clear that many organisations have cottoned on to the fact that it is now a popular activity to partake in, particularly for young people wanting to enhance their CV and for people in search of an altruistic and gratifying experience. As a result many companies seem to have created an almost ‘package’ experience, whereby the volunteer will be collected from the airport, provided with local transport and a volunteer project, meals and accommodation. However this seems to come at a high cost!

Many of these destinations are less developed and have far lower living costs than we are used to in the UK (or the US or Australia or wherever the volunteers will generally be coming from), therefore providing little justification for such high costs for the volunteer! It seemed to me that companies are exploiting the volunteers and taking advantage of their naivety of the actual costs within the destination they will be based.

I looked through many websites looking for a project that I could get involved with for a reasonable price. I really wanted to do something good and to spend my summer feeling that I have made a difference to communities less fortunate than me but I wasn’t prepared to do it at any price!

In the end I did find an organisation that offered far more reasonable prices, named Original Volunteers. They advertised many volunteer experiences and I decided to book one based in Argentina. However when I arrived in Argentina I was informed that I was volunteering through an organisation named LIFE Argentina, and not Original Volunteers at all! So although they were not charging such high rates, they were simply a go between and therefore they were too taking the volunteers money unnecessarily!

I was unfortunate in that all of the schools were closed at the time due to Swine Flu, however we were still able to undertake the volunteering, just with a slightly different schedule. It was not as full on as I might have expected, but again perhaps this was due to the schools being closed.

Each day we would get on a bus that would take us into the vishas of Buenos Aires. These are the very poor areas, here the houses had no windows, many had no bathrooms, people slept on the streets and in derelict buildings. The roads were dirt tracks and many of the buildings were quite literally falling apart. It was another world entirely.

Vishas of Buenos Aires
Vishas of Buenos Aires
Kids in the vishas, Buenos Aires

Having the opportunity to see these parts was incredible, as a tourist would neither be able to locate, nor be safe entering such parts of the city. It was really insightful and in complete contrast to the city I had just left. People had torn clothes, they played in the streets and were involved in a lot of crime. I felt safe with my volunteer group, however I would not have wanted to wander there alone!

We did a number of different activities as part of the volunteering project, activities included; cooking, face painting, drawing, playing games and sports.

Dance practice
Playing with the kids
Face painting
Skipping with the Argentinian kids

There was one particularly memorable day for me that made me really question the supposedly altruistic nature of these volunteers. There were a number of things that made me wonder how much the other volunteers actually cared about the people they were volunteering with; they constantly talked about going out and getting drunk, messed about with each other and I rarely heard them discuss the actual projects! One day we had bought a few large bags of cookies to hand out to the children, and they loved them! However a few minutes later I saw a group of the volunteers all eating the cookies that had been bought for the children!

I thought this was terrible! We had bought these cookies for the children, for kids who we are actually there to help, who are deprived of such luxuries that we take for granted. I thought it was absolutely atrocious that the volunteers, the ones there to help others, would be so incredibly selfish! This made me seriously question- are they just here for a good time? Are they here to make their CV look better? Are they just here to make themselves feel good? I wasn’t so sure, but what I did suspect was that they did not have entirely altruistic motivations like they made out.

Although I did enjoy getting to work with the communities and go into the vishas, I did myself question the value of what I was doing. How much is playing with the kids helping them really? So I decided not to stay any longer and cut my volunteering short by a week to allow me to travel the continent some more.

Although it was relatively short lived, I did feel that it was an incredible experience; I learnt a lot about the culture, the history and the general way of life of the poorer people of Buenos Aires that I would never have been able to do without taking part in the volunteering project. However, it was also really insightful in terms of both volunteer and organisation motivation. Who are they really doing it for, themselves (whether this be for personal satisfaction, CV building, to make profit or any other reason)? Or the community they are working with? At the end of the day, who really does get the cookies?  I know what my opinion is.

This post first appeared on Lifeasabutterfly.com

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