Unspoken realities of volunteering abroad

Voluneering can be fun and rewarding but there are some disadvantages as well...

Sarah Castledine
24th April 2023

A popular travelling route for many young people now is volunteering with organisations across the globe. It eliminates many difficult or off-putting factors about travelling, such as finding a place to stay as well as food and drink. Most of the time, you’re volunteering with other people, so you’re not completely alone in a new country, and they organise many excursions and different opportunities throughout your time there. It’s a good option for people who want that stability and reassurance while travelling, however, volunteering does have a few downsides and unspoken problems.

The company I travelled with had many different opportunities and courses across the world, and it allowed you to pick what speciality you were looking for. They let people who were staying for more than four weeks to undergo an internship, so they would return home with a qualification in their respective work. The company also allowed to specialise in a range of programmes, which would focus on conservation throughout different climates and animals, as well as community work.

I went to Costa Rica for four weeks in June/July of 2022, with the programme ‘Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica’. Throughout my time there I conducted research on sea turtle hatching, most specifically looking at their tracks to identify the species and identifying any nests to protect from poachers. We also helped with bird and small animal research - we would go on multiple surveys in different locations, like the beach, the town or down the canals, identified and recorded what bird and animals we saw.
All this data was collected and given to conservation workers within the Costa Rican government, so that they could track the biodiversity within the country.

This part of the project was what I went for, since I absolutely love animals and I wanted to research and look at animals that I didn’t know existed before seeing them! The animals I encountered were beautiful, and daily occurrences were sea turtles, varieties of heron, caimans (these were my absolute favourite), and so many hawks and kingfishers. I really turned into a bird nerd whilst I was there and it was really beautiful.

But let me tell you, it wasn’t all fun and games. For any programme your flights, insurance, any medical necessities for that area (for example, vaccines), and any equipment you need, were all an extra cost you had to pay yourself. For me, this was understandable, I guess they simply couldn’t provide infer red headtorches and knee high wellies for all volunteers who wanted to go. However, it was a significant cost, and I'm extremely grafetul to my family and friends who donated so much to me. My 20th birthday present that year was a 80L rucksack from my parents, not what many people get, however without their help there's no way I would’ve been able to go!

Image credit: Sarah Castledine

I only volunteered there, so I don’t hold any qualification for my time there and I didn’t have to do much studying and work, unlike the interns.
Interns were made to do research and come up with a research plan before coming out, and then conduct their own research whilst out there, and write up all their findings before they leave. All interns had to pay to do this, however it was discounted as their research would ultimately help the company with their conversation and their findings would be reported to the conservation officials. The interns having to pay makes sense, as they will return home with a qualification which will be incredibly useful, especially if they want to go into a conservation job. However, I found it odd that interns pay less than volunteers, even though they’re getting a qualification from their work.

Based on this experience, and just looking at how popular volunteering is around the world with many young adults, I don’t think charging a small fee is completely unethical. I do think research into the organisation is essential, because you want to make sure that the money you pay is going towards good things, like expanding the company and going to the workers out there. However, as there are so many volunteering companies across the globe, I don’t think companies should be charging you as much as they do. For me, around four weeks of volunteering was just under £2,000, which was completely awful, until I realised that the workers for the company hardly get paid – a lot of them are volunteer workers and even if they do get paid it's hardly minimum wage. So it’s a mixed bag really, I think a small fee is fair, especially if it's going to make a difference for the cause. However, large sums of money to then work for free is something that is becoming more common and something that needs to be changed.

Nevertheless, that's been a great experience and these are the best reasons to do it if you're considering it:

  • If you want a job in conservation or community. It's obviously a great thing to put on you CV and it's great hands on experience that not many people will be able to say they’ve done. It teaches you crucial skills that you can't get in a classroom.
  • Life skills - if you don’t want a job in that area, then you learn a lot of soft skills from volunteering in an environment completely different to your usual place, like different languages, new food, new animals.
  • Meeting people. The highlight of my trip were the people I met along the way. It was insane to be around people from all over the world, learning about not only the new culture I was living in but also all their cultures too. Even after leaving and coming home, I’m still in touch with all these people and I know I will be for a long time.
  • Seeing new parts of the world. Volunteering is a great way to really get in touch with a country, you learn about their culture by truly immersing yourself into it and you get to see beautiful areas of the world, whilst helping their country.

If you're considering volunteering, these are my desination recommendations:

Costa Rica
This was a place I've always wanted to go to. The biodiversity, the wildlife, the food, the people are all so incredible and there’s so much to see. Whether you want to do conservation or community work, tourists and volunteers are so welcome there and they’re so proud of their culture you will just fall in love with the Pura Vida lifestyle.

This one has become extremely popular over the last few years and I have a few friend who have volunteered for community work out there. You're able to do conservation or community work, but I think teaching is an extremely popular one. Thailand is a beautiful country with a lot of natural beauty so travelling there and getting to meet lots of different people would be beautiful.

South Africa
South Africia is somewhere I would love to travel to and volunteer, as it's such a diverse area of the world. They have a lot of community projects there, in schools or villages, and the experience you gain from meeting so many different people would be beautiful.

Image credit: Unsplash

Overall, it is an incomparable experience just make sure to do the research before you go!

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