The cost to volunteer abroad

Student interest in aiding developing countries is sometimes exploited

The ALDEA daycare centre was one of the facilities DEVS ‘09 Seetha Ramanathan volunteered at t in Quito, Ecuador as part of DEVS 410 World Study Placement course.
The ALDEA daycare centre was one of the facilities DEVS ‘09 Seetha Ramanathan volunteered at t in Quito, Ecuador as part of DEVS 410 World Study Placement course.
Ramanathan says she would have rather seen the $400 in fees she paid to a North American feeder organization go to Fundación Chiriboga that sends volunteers to childcare centres like the daycare program pictured above.
Ramanathan says she would have rather seen the $400 in fees she paid to a North American feeder organization go to Fundación Chiriboga that sends volunteers to childcare centres like the daycare program pictured above.

When Seetha Ramanathan got off the plane in Quito, she was under strict instructions. She was given the name of a government-regulated taxi company that would take her straight to her placement. A driver was waiting with her name on a sign.

“I took formal Spanish classes in high school and college so I thought I’d be fine,” she said. “The moment I got to Ecuador, all my Spanish went out the window.”

The DEVS ’09 graduate arranged her trip to Ecuador as a part of the DEVS 410 World Study Placement course. She spent 10 weeks in the summer of 2008 volunteering at child care facilities in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito through Fundación Chiriboga, run by two Ecuadorian sisters.

Ramanathan said she discovered Fundación Chiriboga through a Montreal-based organization called Horizon Cosmopolique. She paid Fundación Chiriboga about $400 per month for meals and room and board and covered her own airfare. Horizon charged her a fee of $400 for their services which included an orientation before she left.

“None of the money you give these middle man organizations are going to these projects. I took issue with that,” she said. “I wish I went straight through to Fundación Chiriboga.”

DEVS 410 Professor Paritosh Kumar said many students looking to volunteer abroad experience similar frustration. He said many of the North American middle-man companies can be problematic for students and the communities they seek to help.

“It’s become big business, to tell you quite frankly,” he said. “A lot of programs I’ve seen are more like academic tourism.”

Kumar said student volunteering abroad has been an upward trend since the 1990s.

“There’s a surge in consciousness in student activism ... there’s something happening in schools where students are getting exposed to global issues topics.”

He said not all North American organizations offer a negative experience. There’s ways of distinguishing between the benevolent organizations and those more bent on profit. Kumar said one obvious tell is the refund policy.

“With organizations that are more concerned about money, the policy about refund is not so good,” he said, adding it’s crucial that the organization provide a transparent fee breakdown as well as a list of previous volunteers available to comment on their experience.

Kumar said the system of North American organizations providing students with volunteer opportunities abroad poses a major issue.

“The issue of development is defined by our students, not long established local NGOs,” he said. “What we might define as an important development issue may not be the most important issue for a community. But when there’s big money involved obviously you have development of NGOs in the global south to meet these demands.”

The current situation of volunteering abroad poses an ethical dilemma that often goes without consideration, Kumar said. It’s not common for students in foreign countries to travel to Canada to aid in domestic issues.

“We see it as a right to go anywhere we want in the world,” he said. “We rarely think of the impact it may have.”

The aim of DEVS 410 is to develop a thorough understanding of the culture during the placement. The corequisite, DEVS 411 involves a critical reflection of the experience upon return to Queen’s. Kumar said without proper preparation, any student-volunteer experience can be diluted or misinterpreted.

The temporary nature of volunteering in a foreign country can alienate the volunteer from their host community. Kumar said volunteers know they have an escape route, separating themselves from the reality of everyday issues faced by members of the host community. He used an example of a white woman volunteering in Kenya.

“Being a white woman might bring sexual attention,” he said. “It’s also important to understand what’s happening to women there. Or else it’s just ‘my experience’.”

Kumar said in order to maximize an experience abroad, a predeparture briefing is required for his DEVS 410 students, however not all North American organizations offer it before sending students to NGOs in developing countries.

Alan Travers is an organizer of the Alternative Practicum program within the Bachelor of Education. Of 740 Bachelor of Education students, 170 choose to complete their required alternative professional experience outside of Canada. Travers said about one third of the students who took placements abroad went to developing countries.

Students are permitted to use North American agencies when arranging their placements, but Travers said the faculty is working towards phasing out those organizations by forming direct relationships with schools and foundations in developing countries.

“It’s becoming less necessary for [students] to go through one of these agencies,” he said. “The main thing is it costs more ... We’re gradually developing a menu of opportunities for students to choose from where there is no additional charges.”

Travers said the criteria are professional relevancy, faculty approval and safety. Like DEVS 410 students, Bachelor of Education students traveling abroad must undergo a briefing before leaving.

“They can’t go to high risk areas,” he said. “As a Queen’s University student, they have to go through a predeparture briefing through the International Centre.”

Travers said while many students express interest in opportunities abroad, most don’t follow through.

“The students cover the cost,” he said. “Money is always the issue.”

The Elliott Travel Fellowship is a Queen’s bursary to cover travel costs. Students must demonstrate financial need and make a case explaining how the will money will be used. 65 students were awarded the bursary this year.

Basecamp International is a Kingston-based organization with centres in Tanzania, Ghana, Ecuador, Peru, Nepal, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Basecamp was founded by Queen’s alumni Dave Morrison and Jim Carson in 1998. Basecamp volunteer consultant Jackie Baldry said they have seen a correlation between volunteer numbers and crises like the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

“We do find it brings a lot of more awareness to volunteering overseas,” she said.

What separates Basecamp from other organizations in North America is they’re directly involved with projects abroad. She said they both facilitate volunteers with local organizations as well as undertake their own projects in the communities.

“In the west we don’t know what their specific concerns are or how they operate things in their country,” she said. “We don’t go in there and say ‘this is what we’re going to do’. We like to ask what needs to be done.”

A trip to volunteer in Ecuador with Basecamp for two months this summer would cost $2995, not including airfare. Additional time can be bought at $185 per week.

Balrdy said a fee break-down was not available on the website, but she said the fee includes a placement setup, fundraising assistance, predeparture manual, airport pickup, in-country support staff, accommodation, meals for six days each week, and a one-week orientation upon arrival. Basecamp’s orientation includes a cultural breakdown and a warning of sketchy taxi companies lurking around the airport.

Baldry said trip prices vary between countries, depending on cost of living. She said generally Central and Southern American countries are usually less expensive compared to countries overseas.

Basecamp’s website includes links to Facebook groups for each of the seven countries they’re involved in. Prospective volunteers can contact any member of the group for feedback on the experience.

Ramanathan said she’d advise anyone to volunteer with Fundación Chiriboga, where she spent her DEVS 410 program, but that any volunteer should be informed of the challenges they’ll face.

“In Quito, if you’re a female taking the bus, you’re going to get catcalled,” she said. “You have to be able to handle that.” She said her volunteering experience wasn’t thankless, but she wasn’t praised as the saviour of the childcare facility she worked with.

“It’s not a one-time, lump sum appreciation. Everyday you get a little something,” she said. “The kids get really excited when volunteers come. It’s a part of their life. Volunteers are in and out of their lives.”

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