Students complain that pricey volunteer agencies simply offer sightseeing

By Cao Siqi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/27 19:18:40


The 20th batch of Shanghai volunteers take off to Southwest China's Yunnan Province for their 6-month-long service on August 21, 2017. Photo: IC

Every summer, adventurous Chinese college students travel abroad to volunteer, often on trips organized by volunteering agencies. These agencies tell students they will have a chance to teach, help animals and provide basic medical care to people living in underdeveloped parts of the world.  

When Chen Ying, a 25-year-old Beijing resident, graduated from college in 2013, she decided to become a volunteer teacher in Nepal.

Although the project provided her with a great opportunity to learn about the local culture, compared to her experience in a Beijing-based NGO which is also dedicated to public welfare, she felt that her volunteering experience in Nepal failed to meet her expectations due to a lack of continuity and disorganized management.

Currently, international volunteering is no longer a rare experience for young middle-class Chinese, indeed it has become fashionable and popular. But along with the rapid growth of this industry, many international volunteer agencies have been accused of lacking relevant qualifications and excessively loose management.

Even though many ex-volunteers have claimed that their volunteering experience turned out to be little more than sightseeing, demand for international volunteering seems to still be  rapidly expanding.

No better choice

Chen participated in her project through the Nepal Volunteer Council (NVC), which claims to be a Nepal-based NGO authorized by the Government of Nepal.

The organization says it offers volunteering, internships, travel and tour programs in Nepal and aims to continue the process of sustainable development and uplifting the living standards of local poor and marginalized communities.

"It charged each volunteer $200 a week covering fees for breakfast, supper and accommodation," Chen told the Global Times.

Chen was taken to a village in Kathmandu where she taught English, math, music and art. Although the organizers were very friendly, Chen said the whole activity was poorly planned and executed.

"They did not provide any training or instructions and we began our work as soon as we arrived. The school was very shabby and there were no regular teachers. We talked to the organizer about the discontinuity of the curriculum but they said they had no better choice," said Chen.

Another Chinese volunteer surnamed Zhu also complained about the lackluster management of the international volunteer agency she used.

In 2012, Zhu participated in a program in India organized by the Akanksha Foundation, an NGO that aims to equip all students with the education, skills and stigma they need to lead empowered lives.

She was taken to a low-income community and taught kids math and English. "After we arrived at the school, we were requested to have an interview. Those who failed the interview were withdrawn from the project and started a sightseeing tour. However, many of the sightseers claimed that they were volunteers when they came back to China," said Zhu. 

According to Zhu, the people she met in Nepal volunteered for different purposes. Some wished to know more about other countries, some were devoted to welfare activities while some hoped to polish their resume, especially those who planned to apply to universities overseas.

Hugely profitable

The huge demand has spurred the growth in the market for international volunteer agencies. A search for "international volunteer" on social media platform WeChat returns dozens of active agency accounts.

On Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website similar to Quora, users listed a number of popular international volunteer agencies and shared their experiences, most claiming that the experience can both help polish one's resume while offering enriching experiences.

A Zhihu user named JuliaO2 listed the advantages and disadvantages of several agencies, among which safety concerns, low standards and high charges were the main problems. 

For example, Projects Abroad, which claims to be the world's leading international volunteering organization, with headquarters in the UK and offices and projects in over 50 countries around the world, charges over $3,000 for a month in most countries.

A former employee of an international volunteer organization told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that her organization charges volunteers a lot of money but only around 30 percent actually goes to covering the costs of their time abroad.

"If you really want to participate in welfare activities, you had better not choose an agency. No matter how famous they are, they are profiteering," said the employee.

Newspaper headline: Vacuous volunteering

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