The Importance of Ethics While Volunteering

Written by: Simon Tierney

When volunteering abroad, it’s vital to choose a project which makes a genuine difference to a community and a society. Volunteer organisations and volunteers alike need to be aware of both the benefits and potential pitfalls of their work, making sure that goodwill really does do good.

What you need to consider before going on a volunteering placement

A well structured period of time volunteering overseas can be of genuine benefit to both the volunteer and community. It can be a great signal to future employers that you take yourself and your impact on the world seriously. Additionally your energies, commitment, skills and money can support development projects. This is why it is of the utmost importance that you do your research!

The problem

Sadly, as flagged up in a 2011 report by political think-tank Demos, the long-term effects of volunteering on host communities have been ignored by some gap year companies, so it’s no surprise there exists some cynicism about going overseas to “do good”. Recently in the press there have been several articles rightly criticising volunteering placements that increase the burden on communities or the environment. All too common are tales of organisations exploiting communities or taking work away from local people, of slapdash work or unsupported volunteers given responsibility for work that is beyond their skill set. We must start avoiding these pitfalls, as I am sure we all agree, that they are simply not fair on either the volunteer or the community.

With so many gap year opportunities and activities to choose from, and ever increasing numbers of organisations providing them, ensuring you and your host community benefit from a worthwhile and well supported gap year project can be difficult. Choosing an organisation involves a variety of considerations; safety, costs and value for money, whether it will be of benefit to the volunteer and last but not least, whether the project will be worthwhile to those it professes to help.

The Importance of Ethics While Volunteering

A volunteering case study

18-year-old Radha Measuria, now studying medicine at the University of Liverpool, spent a long time weighing up her options before volunteering. She decided to go to Kenya with UK organisation Quest Overseas and their partners, the development charity Excellent. With 12 other volunteers, Radha worked alongside community groups for five weeks building sand dams, a simple piece of engineering providing a clean, reliable water supply for thousands of people.

“The dams provide a sustainable solution to longer term issues surrounding drought and famine,” said Radha.

“These problems have been particularly evident throughout the work we’ve been doing, which makes it all the more worthwhile.”

On a well-designed project, it’s not just the volunteers who see the benefits of work, so too do the host community. 18-year-old community member Abednego Mwendwa said: “A sand dam here will change our environment. It will become more green and we will be able to use the water to grow vegetables.”

The Ethical Volunteering Guide

The Ethical Volunteering Guide is an independent website dedicated to ensuring volunteer placements are beneficial and worthwhile, both to the communities they are supporting as well as the individual volunteer. The Ethical Volunteering Guide sets out a series of questions you should ask an organisation that you are looking to volunteer through to ensure that your experience will be a positive one – make sure you use it!

Fair Trade Volunteering

Fair Trade Volunteering is ensuring that your money and presence will benefit a community when volunteering overseas. Fair Trade Volunteering calls for a minimum local investment from organisations, a long term commitment to their projects, clear and honest project descriptions and thorough volunteer preparation, in country support and project management. Finally it calls for 100% of volunteer expenses to be covered by the placement organisation rather than the local community.

Member organisations must meet all criteria, giving a benchmark by which to operate all their placements. This also allows prospective volunteers to understand how their time and money will be benefiting their project. Look for organisations displaying the FTV logo and rest assured that your time overseas will not be at the exploitation of a community in need.

There are a few things you need to consider before going on a volunteering placement

British Standard BSI 8848

Launched in 2007, this British Standard affects all youth travel outside the UK, including school trips, fieldwork and expeditions and was introduced as a way of regulating the youth travel and gap year industry. BSI 8848 sets out minimum safe operational practices in the gap year industry, setting apart organisations that are committed to managing overseas projects and expeditions as safely as possible. To be awarded the standard organisations undergo a rigorous assessment by the Young Explorers’ Trust.

More about Quest Overseas

Quest Overseas specialises in team projects and expeditions in South America and Africa. Operating since 1996 it was the first gap year organisation to be externally assessed as compliant with BS8848, encourages all volunteers to sign up to the Comhlámh Volunteer Charter and is committed to ethical and worthwhile volunteer projects.


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Find out more about volunteering abroad

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