Who benefits from volunteering abroad? 

Niko Winkel visited Arusha, Tanzania, between December 2013 and March 2014, and took part in a microfinance project. Experiencing a “life-changing event” was his main goal. And he succeeded. Niko had a wonderful time and lived it to the fullest. During and after this experience, Niko developed a new perspective on the world of organized volunteering. 

It is October 2013. The project I have been working on as a government official suddenly comes to an end, due to strategic policy alterations. The desire to see the world from a different angle, through different glasses, has been present in my mind for many years already. But also the other way around: I wanted a new “me,” a new life. For a while. This seemed the exact right moment to do it.

There is one very practical and popular option that could offer me what I looked for: volunteering. I did not really see it at the beginning, but in hindsight it is absolutely clear: volunteering is a great way to achieve what I hoped for, since the concept of volunteering in practice exists for the volunteer him/herself, rather than that the volunteer is a means to achieve or improve something in respect to a “goal” that is much more important. Therefore, my experiences on the one hand provide the perfect answer to my initial needs and desires, and on the other present a ridiculous story that very sadly tells the truth behind the adventure oriented charade.That is what this text is about.

The search
These past years, the decision to sign up for volunteering in the Third World during a so-called “gapyear” has become increasingly obvious. The average age of a volunteer has gone down extremely. While it used to be expertise and experience in life that accounted for a search to such an adventure, nowadays volunteering is a very popular alternative to the backpacking trip that students often undertook prior to going to college or university.

I looked around the internet to investigate which project and what place would be interesting to me, a fifty-year-old. Using the obvious terms, I continued ending up on the website of Projects Abroad: an international organization that sends volunteers to around thirty countries. The company’s main office is based in London, but there also is a Dutch office in Dordrecht where enthusiastic, young people are employed. The website shows photos of joyous blonde girls and laughing dark-colored faces in front of schools covered with corrugated metal.
For people like me, with more than twenty-five years of professional work experience, the company offers a different program: Projects Abroad PRO.

“Same as with the regular volunteer projects, the PRO-projects are subdivided into categories in order for you to be able to easily find a project that suits you. Are you having trouble figuring it out, or aren’t you able to find something that matches your knowledge and skills, feel free to contact us. We are more than willing to discuss your CV and possibilities in the countries of your preference.”

This appealed to me! I, of course, was looking forward to having fun and looking for an adventure, but my primary focus lay on working hard on a project that demanded my life- and professional experience.
An informational day in Utrecht in the end of October caused some doubts: the project very much seemed to be appealing to young girls to whom this “life-changing event” was supposed to contribute to their own lives, rather than to that of the children in the orphanage. A mother of a future volunteer asked a young woman who just came back from her project in Malawi, whether she has the feeling that she really contributed to something while working there. The lady fell silent: she was not prepared for such a question. The kids were cute, the host-family was sweet and welcoming, and she had seen elephants and lions and had a wonderful time with the other volunteers. That was what her presentation was focused on.
Anyway, I was an exception to the rule during this informational day, too. The presentations were largely meant for young people and their moms and dads, who were curious to know what their children threw themselves into. I signed up for Projects Abroad PRO, and surely, that would be different. Making a decision quickly was important, since I had to make some arrangements with my employer: I wanted to leave on December 1st. On April 1st, four months later, I would start working again.

I did not see myself working in a hospital or orphanage. “Microfinance” seemed interesting to me: supporting the daily business of people by offering individual loans and helping them to invest that money properly. So I wrote a thought-out CV and the next day, I received the message from Dordrecht: they were very pleased and had sent my CV to Cambodia and Tanzania.
Three days later, I received another message from them: I was able to choose and pick! They wanted me both in Phnom Penh and in Arusha. I chose Arusha. The fact that the Kilimanjaro and the big wildlife parks were close, also contributed to this decision.


Working
The team that I work with, consists out of a seventy-year-old lady from Canada and an Australian couple of sixty-eight and sixty-nine years old. Yes, I am by far the youngest one. Back then, I did not see what kind of an exception that was.
The project’s coordinator is a woman of about thirty years old, who is born and raised in Arusha and comes from a wealthy family. I will call her Amy. Her English is sufficient, but it is clear that it is not her mother tongue. The introduction day is not very interesting. Amy talks us through the project’s guidelines, but I already read it twice: back home and in the plane.
The Australian couple had just arrived in Arusha, too. The Canadian woman has a lot of experience in finance and is the person who teaches us the facts about the project. Amy is of little use to us: already after just a few visits to the women that the project supports, she asks us: “so, what training are you gonna give next week?”

 

The system works as follows. There are six groups that consist out of about six to ten women. A total of forty-six women are supported by our project. These groups either came to Projects Abroad themselves, or are approached by Projects Abroad. So the groups already existed, yet they have different backgrounds. One group, for instance, consisted out of “trainers” who themselves have a supportive function within their own community, and two other groups consisted out of HIV-infected widows. Some of them clearly were very poor and lived in primitive circumstances, while others own a neat-looking house with a dish on the roof. (Yes, later we asked ourselves whether those women really needed help.)

 

The groupsystem makes sure that the women always pay back their loans: if one woman is not able to pay back, then the rest of the group is held responsible. In the full program, women receive a loan five times: starting from 100.00 TSH (50 euros) to an amount of 500.000 TSH (250 euros) as the fifth loan. The loans are paid back to Projects Abroad in about fifteen to twenty weeks, so the cooperation with a supported woman lasts about two years. At the moment I arrived in Arusha, the project had existed for a year.


The Canadian woman acknowledges that she feels quite frustrated. She does not understand everything yet, as she has only been here for two weeks now. She has two weeks of volunteering left. She finds herself in a state that she has come to understand things, yet that she also sees that in order to really contribute something, more time is needed. During her first weeks she worked together with two young volunteers whom she could not share her observations sufficiently with: people in their twenties who kept telling the same marketing story and lived day by day.


And that is how we soon found out that there was barely any information regarding the actual contributions to the women’s economic autonomy: the primary goal of the project.
Amy is very busy translating between the volunteers and the women. Sometimes her translations from Swahili to English last longer than the time it took the women to speak, sometimes they are shorter. What is she really translating? Also, every five minutes one of her mobile phones rings, which results in that we have to wait for a couple of minutes. Half of the time that we have with the women goes to Amy who has to administrate the instalments of that week. It is a huge stack of money (the bill with the highest amount of TSH is the same as five euros).


Increasing confusion
Our Canadian co-worker says: “this project just doesn’t work!” We need to make the women justify their finances on a weekly basis, since if they do not, we will never be able to show any improvements on their situation.
That genuinely was the case: the project had existed for a year now, and the women have never had to validate any of their businesses. Of course, there were weekly “business visits.” And of course, the women had been given the advise to do this (better) or that (better). Yet the project was never based on conditions. During the business visits, Amy stresses: “you should have seen this shop six months ago! It really looks better now!” And that is what we have to deal with.
A few weeks later, the Canadian woman has left and it is only me and Malcolm, the Australian man. His wife is a wonderful person, but she is only here so she can be with her husband, and she does not take any part in the project.
That was the first observation that made me think about my own reasons for being here: I had send in a CV. Was I not hired for this project based on my CV?


Malcolm and I are composing a new bookkeeping training. We found a lot of resources on the project’s online Dropbox, yet none of them were based on the women’s weekly justifications of their businesses. Our model demanded the women to show their weekly income, their business- and personal expenses and savings, and the balance (what amount is in your wallet).
Oh, how it seemed so simple to us, when we carried out this training in December. We genuinely thought that we were about to make a positive change now. Amy let us know that she was thrilled with our initiatives.


After a couple of weeks, Daniel was added to our team. An American boy of 19 years old. Malcolm and I quickly concluded: this guy will make it. He is an eloquent speaker, wants to become a ‘congressman’, and will be going to a very expensive university in six months. Nevertheless, he falls asleep during our training. He is hardly interested in this micro-finance project. Also, he was supposed to join the project for two weeks, yet we have just been told that between December 20th and January 2nd, the project will shut down: vacation! Daniel is even going to try to get half of his money back: in one of the two weeks, there won’t even be a project to work on.
I paid almost €4000 for 12 weeks. It is a relatively pricey project. Were you to go to an orphanage with Projects Abroad, you would pay €3400 for 12 weeks. In these 12 weeks, you are even entitled to 2 weeks of free time. You will deal with (ex)scholars and students in particular, and Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro and Serengeti are close: such a holiday is much appreciated! But if you pay €800 for only 2 weeks, of which 1 is even cancelled, it becomes somewhat distressing. Malcolm’s wife paid €3000 for 2 months, while she does not even contribute anything.


That was the moment I decided to have a talk with the ‘country director’. “Please don’t let Projects Abroad bring over youngsters that don’t know anything about finance and please don’t let Projects Abroad fly in people for no more than 3 or 4 weeks! It’s no use!”.
I also wrote an extensive email to Projects Abroad’s global director who manages the micro-finance projects. She replied that she was very happy with a constructive contribution like this, yet she refuted my arguments with meaningless words. A typical example: it would be sad for the professional who is only allowed a few weeks off. We cannot deny such a professional – with all his or her experience – the right to work on a project.

It might have been then, that I started to think: this whole project does not make sense! No, even worse: this whole organization does not make sense! Moreover, the shorter the period you spend at the project, the more you will relatively pay. Therefore, the organization has a substantial interest in these short term volunteers. In the end I realized that this interest even goes beyond that: the longer you work at the project, the more you will try to change the organization and the more ‘second thoughts’ will arise. Obviously, they have no interest in that.


In January, things began to speed up. While back in December, I was able to change plans easily with Malcolm (who even lived with the same host family as I did), now our team was much more dynamic. A Danish nineteen-year-old girl joined the project for two weeks. One of her first questions was: “what is a loan?” An American boy, also 19 and very winsome, proved the importance of being involved for a longer time: during the first month he was solely impressed and never interfered with the project. During his second month, however, he took on a more progressive role.
Fortunately, several new project members who had finished their studies then joined our team. When I left the project at the end of February, it turned out that besides the Australian couple and the Canadian woman, I had been the oldest. In fact: with one exception (a 30-year-old), everyone had been younger than 25. The average age of the supported women: about 50.


The bookkeeping training composed by Malcomn and I changed a couple of times. However simple we deemed it, it remained too difficult for the women. However, precisely that was very interesting to us: it made us comprehend the many dimensions of cultural misunderstanding, both from them and from us. Fascinating! On the one hand there was the women’s slyness: they sometimes even lent the borrowed money to relatives, asking interest while they did not had to pay interest themselves. While that, of course, was not the money’s purpose, this woman was the true businesswoman. On the other hand it became clear that some women could not even write nor count. Even after many explanations from our side, some of them handed in expense forms that stated an amount ten times larger than what they actually possessed. Also, they often wrote the exact same financial report as they did the week before. Well.. Nevertheless, we could discuss these topics with them in person, and we got good insights into what exactly was going on.

Our team started to think about the use of a loan without interest, when (improved) economic independence was the project’s goal and when you know that the women are aware that they have to pay a 30% interest at the local bank. And that they had already done that many times. We slowly realized: we are nothing more than a free bank. They patiently listen to all of our trainings, which are only a small consideration for the loan that they receive: they are not actually interested.
So we decided to take the next step: we are going to demand interest and make the loans dependent on a concrete business plan that the women have to hand in.
Amy and ‘country director’ Gloria agreed and we started to incorporate our plan into the project and the process. This feels good!

The dropping penny
My story that encompasses my three months with this project is structured as a novel. The first phase: getting to know the situation. The second phase: expansion and urge, progress and pursuit. The third: a new perspective, contemplating and reality. A little bit of acceptance, too.
And then the final phase, the apotheosis, when perspective really changes: it is not about the project and it’s goals. It is about us, the volunteers! The mental change went as follows.

The women took the introduction of the interest and a business plan as a punishment. What did we do wrong? was their response. Have we not always paid everything back, the way we were supposed to do? Also, our request to hand in a business plan (what will they spend the money on and how will that improve their income?) accounted for angry reactions. They believed that we were not supposed to interfere, and found us, the volunteers, much less nice than they did before.


One specific moment brought a few changes. After yet another explanation of why we introduced these new conditions, I had a mental breakdown. The women had again shown unwillingness towards regarding Project Abroad (and its volunteers) as being different than a ‘free bank’. Exactly this breakdown was needed to show them that our intentions were good, and that we believed there was more behind solely the giving and taking of money. We had a mission.
However, that same moment was, in hindsight, the moment that genuine cynicism was born: this ‘mission’ might have been the mission of the current volunteers, but it was not Projects Abroad’s mission at all.


A few weeks later marked the end of the 12 weeks I worked on this project. The volunteers usually receive an evaluation form a week before their ‘placement’ ends. There are, however, several moments of formal evaluation throughout the period of placement. Amy, the project coordinator, fills out the form, yet it is unclear to us what happens with that form afterwards. Often, while hanging out with my fellow volunteers at night, we share our experiences with each other. Almost everyone has a lot of critique on the local staff. When I  speak out these critiques to the country director, however, the response always is: “Niko, nobody complains except you.”
I did not want to stay within the limits of the evaluation protocol: I had more to say. I promised both Glory and the global director in London that I would write an extensive evaluation report on the microfinance project. And so I did.


Feedback
In this report I implemented concrete examples in order to draw my conclusions. I once again explained that sending people without experience and for a short period of time is not just useless, but also truly counterproductive. “They walk in the way!”
I, moreover, described that when you give people (who normally have to pay a large sum for a loan) ‘free money’ without any conditions attached, in practice you make them less independent since they do not learn how to cope when this system of free loans stops. To actually help the women, they must put in a real effort. This incentive does not exist in the current system.
I especially stressed that the PRO-construction is misleading. They truly did not need my CV! The project coordinator had not even heard of ‘Projects Abroad PRO’, the program for experienced professionals. Also, despite what the website suggests, some PRO-projects do not even exist. The only thing Glory commented was: “of course we expected you to take the lead in the project.”

There is only one final conclusion: this kind of volunteering does not exist in order to give a constructive contribution and alleviate any kind of distress in the Third World. That is at most a positive by-product. The primary goal is purely money-making.

For three months, I have worn those different glasses. Three months long, I have lived a totally different life. I spent Christmas on Zanzibar, I climbed the Kilimanjaro and saw the ‘big five’ in the wildparks. On top of that, I got to live with an amazing host family and met many special people. I can honestly say that I have never been more happy than during those three months in Tanzania. Projects Abroad’s (and other volunteering companies’) ‘business case’ – promoting itself with the combination of adventure and contributing to a good cause, while secretly basing itself on a ‘not-for-profit’ promise – is strong: your project is just one of the aspects of the whole adventure. An independent and opportunistic adolescent will definitely succeed. In the case of second-thoughts about your project, you will always have the amazing environment you are in, which offers you new experiences and increasing independence.

It is a win-win: everyone benefits. Also – when interpreting it a bit short-sighted – the supported women. And the kids who are taught English at school, the patients of the hospitals, and the kids in the orphanages: they will really benefit from the support that volunteers offer.
And yet, it does not make sense at all.

Projects Abroad was not amused by my feedback. The country director put me on her black list. They will not be bothered by me any longer. Volunteers come and go. When I log in on Dropbox and examine the documents, I see that the project just went on the way it always did. I was just a passenger. The bookkeeping training has changed considerably, despite my efforts to create a more continuous system. Naturally, the volunteers decide what happens, even though they join the project for a short period. Amy is the coordinator, but in practice she has two tasks: translating between the women and the volunteers, and bringing back loans. And, as I mentioned before: “Niko, what training are you gonna give next week?”
The organization is powerful and it’s marketing flawless. Often, I hear volunteers use the phrase “Projects Abroad was the organization I kept ending up on!” And almost everyone participates in volunteer work only once in a lifetime. It is hard to make concrete comparisons: I myself had to decide quite quickly as well. Moreover, on their websites organizations clearly explain why you have to pay for volunteering and how this money will be spend. And that is what you believe.

Can it be different?
It is clear to me now, that there are many good and more reliable alternatives to volunteer. It is clear to me now, that the agencies are the middlemen who you, in fact, do not need to contribute to a good cause in Tanzania or any other country. And that you will save thousands of euros. Even on the flight! Projects Abroad offered to arrange my flight to Tanzania, and only after I arrived I found out that it had cost me €400 too much. When asking for an explanation, the response was: “we did not force you to book the flight with us, did we?”

There is only one method to fight the organizations that profit from the naivety of the future volunteer: making the process more transparent and promoting these good projects, initiatives and organizations. It is hard to exactly determine what is ‘good’, but direct contact with the place you will be working at, and solely paying for food and accommodation, will make the world of organized volunteering ten times better.

Niko Winkel, May 16, 2014