Volunteering abroad: who benefits?

Eva O’Brien delves into the world of volunteer programmes; the volunteers who choose to go abroad and the varied approaches organisations take in funding these journeys


Why do so many young Irish people choose to spend weeks in discomfort and heat, thrown into challenging circumstances, working often in an area in which they may have little or no experience?

This year, Suas sent 73 people abroad to placements in India and Zambia. For every volunteer, there were approximately two applicants who were not accepted onto the programme. Suas is just one organisation primarily defined by its volunteer programme. Aiesec is another NGO that is very active on College campus, facilitating both internships and volunteering opportunities in the form of “exchanges” across 127 countries.

For Liam Landy, a student who volunteered last summer in Sao Paolo, Brazil through Aiesec’s “Entrepreneurial” volunteer programme, it was about a different kind of travelling, and also a way of gaining skills for his business degree. “It’s a completely different experience to just going and doing the touristy things,” he explains. “You really get an insight into the culture, you get a real appreciation of the problems that exist there.”

Ciara Corrigan volunteered in Delhi last summer with Suas, and like Landy, she was after a wider view of life than had previously been open to her. “I love seeing new places,” she told Trinity News. “I was from a small area, I’m so secluded there – I just wanted to get a chance to see what it was like.”

There are many barriers and difficulties involved in the experience of volunteering. According to Kate Doyle, programme director of the Suas volunteer programme, one of the first challenge that volunteers typically meet is cost. “I think people are surprised by how much is involved in the preparation. They have to do a lot – they have to raise €2995, which is not small, and they have to do it while juggling other commitments… some people have exams, it can be hard.”

Corrigan agrees that for her the most prohibitive aspect of the programme in the lead up to it was its cost, and the need to organise and fundraise for her experience. “I think that the fundraising was the main worry I had… I didn’t like asking people for money,” she says. However, she was surprised by how generous people were in her community. A bake sale she held in her home village raised €1500. “It was just amazing – after that I had a few big donations from companies in the area, so it all just came together in the end,” she says. “Some people would just give so much, way more than I was expecting, even people who wouldn’t have much money themselves.”

The volunteer programme costs €2995 for every person who participates. That money is spent, according to Doyle, on basic practicalities and running costs, from flights to accommodation, as well as the extensive training that every Suas volunteer receives. The overall cost of the programme, Doyle notes, is considerably more. “It’s really more like four thousand, but that would be really very prohibitive.”

Suas offsets this cost by extra funding that it receives from Irish Aid. “We’ve also worked very hard to keep the cost level over the past number of years, while the running costs have gone up significantly – we have had to do that in a number of ways, through funding from other sources and also sending more people, which obviously brings down the cost per volunteer.”

In effect, it is the Irish public who primarily funds these trips, whether through the fundraising undergone directly by the volunteers, or through Irish Aid, paid for by the taxpayer. It is arguable that this level of fundraising for such projects is questionable: Irish Aid exists “in order to ensure lasting improvement in the lives of poor people and poor communities,” according to its website.

However, if invested directly into the work of organisations, arguably much more good could be done locally. In Kolkata,  the Development Action Society could pay for the school admission fees of 225 children with €2995. Instead, it is diverted through the circuitous route of young and inexperienced teaching assistants who do not speak the local language.

While Suas spent 20.1% of its overall budget in 2015 on the direct running of the volunteer programme, only 5.3% of funds went directly towards financial support for the partner organisations in India, Kenya and Zambia. Doyle explains that this 5.3% also comes directly from the volunteers themselves, who often raise money over and above the requisite €2995, despite the manifest challenges in doing so. This might seem surprising, but Corrigan’s experience is one demonstration of how powerful fundraising networks in Irish communities can be.

Corrigan sees her experience abroad as providing a direct link to the developing world that tends to be absent in charity donations. “I think it was because they knew me, so they had a direct connection there – some charities who ask you to give to their campaigns, some of that might be going to advertising or whatever, but whatever I was collecting was going directly to what I was doing in Delhi.”

Her words speak to the same impulse that drives typically highly successful campaigns raising money for one important operation or mobility device, while larger charities that aim to change the lives of countless people in dire circumstances often struggle to tap into the same empathetic root, except in occasional emergency appeals.

Doyle defends the volunteer programme as a way of making change partly on these grounds. “Obviously we would always welcome it if somebody would like to give us three thousand just to give the financial aid directly overseas, but as you can imagine, that rarely happens.” While the utilitarian philosophy (deliver the greatest good to the greatest number possible, with the available resources) might be objectively the best policy for the charity sector to follow, it rarely operates this way in practice.

For some, the different model provided by an organisation such as Aiesec might seem to provide a welcome alternative. Although it is also styled as an NGO, Aiesec’s philosophy differs from that of Suas in that it unapologetically centres around the experience of the volunteer, rather than the work that the volunteer does and the difference that they make.

Elaine Ryan volunteered last summer in Dar Esalem, Tanzania, with Aiesec, and she is also the chairperson of the Aiesec society in Trinity. “Liam here, for example,” she says, “how can he develop himself by going to Brazil? Sure, he’s going to have knock-on effects and he’s going to be able to do good while he’s over there – but from our perspective it’s much more about impacting Liam than impacting Brazil.”

In this spirit, the cost of the programme to those who participate in what Aiesec terms its “exchanges” is just €400 in Ireland. (This does not cover flights or other living expenses.) This is made possible by the fact that the majority of Aiesec’s funding comes from corporate sponsorship. “Our latest one is Apple,” Ryan states proudly. Other sponsors include DHL, Google, Microsoft, PWC and EY. Ryan and Landy are unsure to what extent this sponsorship covers the running costs of volunteer programmes, or whether they exert any influence over the programmes themselves, but they believe that the sponsorship is most directly concerned with Aiesec’s other form of exchange facility, namely its Global Internship programme.

Both Landy and Ryan feel that despite the volunteer-centric nature of their experience, they were making a genuine difference in the communities they served. This is particularly true of Ryan, who was involved in a project promoting sexual health in young girls through education and the provision of basic resources such as sanitary towels.

Describing the interactions that she had with some of the teenagers she was working with, Ryan says that facing the stark reality of their situation could be “quite harrowing” at times. “We got questions back like ‘What if a family member tries to have sex with you?’ While it was just a rational question for them to ask, for us it was a completely different matter, so with stuff like that we definitely felt like we were making a difference because while we couldn’t change the circumstance, we could give them a different perspective, we could let them know that it’s not okay and they didn’t need to feel bad.”

Doyle and Ryan both also emphasise the potential benefits of developing a generation of young people who are aware of global issues and feel the need to make change. In Doyle’s words: “I wouldn’t underestimate the benefit of letting young people really see what they are doing, and what they then go on to do, and to achieve… it’s not a small good you’re creating, and I certainly wouldn’t discount the worth, the value of that.”

It is undeniable that all three volunteers I spoke to feel that the impact of their experience on their perspective, their outlook and their priorities has been profound. All three stress the effect of witnessing first hand the poverty and deprivation that exists in the communities where they worked.

“There’s really two Brazils,” Landy observes. “You can have a relatively nice area with big high-rise flats, and then at every crossroads there’s fifty homeless people sitting in the street… I mean, obviously we have a homelessness problem in Dublin but not at all on the same scale. It really does put things in perspective.  Most of the kids in the centre where I was working, the only meal they get in the day is the lunch they get in school.”

For Corrigan, returning to “normal” life after being immersed in the world of Delhi was “a second culture shock,” and the hardest part of the overall experience. “The wealth was the biggest thing,” she says, still sounding truly shocked by this, a week after her return. “How people take things for granted – all the spending… just the things people need to be happy here are so different to the things people in India need. Over there, once you sing a song to children, they were just so happy – whereas here you have to spend so much money just to get excited.”

She, along with Ryan and Landy, feels that ultimately volunteering benefits the volunteer more than the community. “I gave them everything I could, but at the end of the day I’d say I definitely got more from it.” She deeply regrets having to leave behind people with whom she had gradually built up a relationship. “I’m still in contact a bit with the teachers, but there isn’t actually any proper way to contact the children. I’ll never see those kids again.”