Skip to content

Volunteering abroad for older women

After writing an innocent remark (clearly there is no such thing) on a travel social media group. I was actually asking for recommendations but mentioned that I’d just completed volunteering, how much I enjoyed my experience and that everyone should try it (provocative I know). I got absolutely annihilated, judged, shamed and called out for ‘white saviorism’. Considering I’ve worked with disadvantaged kids for most of my life, I felt this a tad harsh. Due to the backlash I felt it important to dispel the myth that I’m some revolting, vile, human being for wanting to volunteer in Africa and not all volunteering organisations are power, money hungry evil empires. Here’s some information on how to choose an ethical and sustainable organisation that’s not encouraging voluntourism.

As a social worker, I worked throughout the COVID pandemic. Our caseloads grew and our funding got cut. It was impossible to do a meaningful job and meet the needs of our children with my hands tied behind my back, blindfolded. I love being a social worker but I became disillusioned by our broken welfare system in the UK. I’ve travelled all my life and as the world started to open up again I felt it was the perfect opportunity to put my social work skills into practice somewhere else. Plus, I’d just split with my boyfriend and running away seemed like a very good idea as well.

I’ve lived and worked (teaching English) in five different countries so I love to immerse myself into different cultures. I’ve always wanted to travel to Africa and thought volunteering would give me the opportunity to submerge myself into its society. I started to specifically research for a long-term, skill-based placement in social work.

I wasn’t aware of voluntourism until I started my exploration into the world of volunteering. I had no idea the multimillion dollar business it has become and the amount of money some organisations charged for the experience. I volunteered in most of the countries I lived in previously but I never had to pay for the privilege.

The downside to voluntourism:

  • Avoid orphanages- As a social worker in the UK the institutionalisation of children no longer exists (apparently). Children who have been placed into an institution such as a residential homes statistically don’t achieve as well as a child brought up in a family. Children in the UK are adopted, placed in foster care or specialist units. Also some orphanages in developing countries can make a profitable business out of housing children (who have families). So charities or organisations that encourage volunteering opportunities in orphanages should be avoided.
  • Unskilled and inexperienced Volunteers- Considering one of the main consumers of voluntourism are gap year kids who don’t have the skillset to complete certain tasks, such as building schools or houses. Thus, resulting in costing the community more money, time and energy fixing what was made.
  • Stealing local jobs- Using the above example inexperienced volunteers are pushing local construction workers, carpenters, plumbers out of work.
  • Poor supervision: Many inexperienced young people won’t have had any training in working with vulnerable children. Without adequate education or supervision from local workers, this could potentially be quite harmful to children with trauma.
  • Local resources misplaced: Community projects want to be excellent hosts, so they input their own resources into accommodating volunteers. However, these assets would be better placed improving their own lives.
  • No time to travel: Volunteers work full time, so they will miss out on opportunities to travel and not gain a deeper understanding of the culture they are in.

When searching for a voluntary organisation try to follow these guidelines:

  • Do your research into the organisation (avoid voluntourism)
  • Choose an organisation who partners with local workers/ organisations/departments. Try not to take away from them.
  • Choose an work area you’re passionate about.
  • Choose a project that will play to your strengths not your weaknesses (which is pretty obvious I know).
  • Make sure the organisation adheres to sustainable development.
  • Try to find a volunteer position that’s free of charge, that supports alongside their local staff. Often you can find these placements when you’re already living/working in that country.
  • Ask yourself, do you have a genuine desire to support vulnerable communities or are you looking for self- gratification on your social media posts?

However, having a skillset and being older can surely benefit some communities. Not all volunteering is voluntourism. I first started looking into free volunteering organisations- The UN (in particular) but I felt like I needed a PHD to complete the application process, it’s a long winded and complicated, there were also no posts for social work at that time. If you are interested in long term volunteering experiences (up to two years) you can apply to; Voluntary Service overseas (VSO), EU Aid Volunteers, UN volunteers and The Peace Corp (USA). These organisations provide flights, medical insurance, accommodation and a monthly allowance. Other free organisations are Workaway, WWOOF- World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and Help Stay. These organisations do not charge a fee- food and accommodation are provided but there is no monthly allowance provided.

I wanted to volunteer for 3 months with the opportunity to extend if I wanted. I decided to be more specific in the role I wanted to carry out, so I decided I would have to pay a fee. It’s nerve-racking choosing an organisation because you don’t want to get it wrong and end up contributing to an institution that exploits children rather than cares for them. Equally, you don’t want to be so ‘woke’ that you don’t try at all. Everything has a bad side- even giving money to some major charities but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. My google search was overwhelming, there are so many organisations to choose from- how was I going to find an ethical and sustainable institution?

Once I narrowed down my search I started having interviews with different organisations. These are the five main questions I wanted answering.

  • Tell me about your organisation– how did it originate? Are you a social enterprise of non-profit organisation? Do you work with local community partnerships? Is your volunteer organisation legitimate, is it registered? Do you follow a code of ethical standards? What type of volunteer opportunities are available; short-term, long-term, skill-based…? What sort of support is offered to volunteers.
  • Work schedule– What does my day to day entail? How many hours a day will I work? Will I work at weekends? Can I travel in between volunteering? Is transport included? Will I need to know a second language?
  • Accommodation and food– Will I be sharing a room? Can you send pictures? Where is the location of the accommodation? Is the accommodation near my volunteering placement? Will I be picked up from the airport or will I have to find my own way there? What meals are provided and does this include weekends? Do I need extra money for food if all meals aren’t provided? Are their restaurants or shops near the volunteer housing? How far is the nearest town/village?
  • What’s the average age of your volunteers? Could I contact a previous volunteer to find out about their experience? How many volunteers will be working with me at one time. What’s the youngest and oldest volunteer you’ve had?
  • How much is it? Where does my money go? What portion goes back into the organisation? How do I pay? How much extra spending money will I need?

At first, I couldn’t believe the difference between organisations: the price, the accommodation, the support given and the differing projects. Many of the larger companies were geared towards younger adults (18-24 years). Being 47 years old I didn’t want to end up communal living with a load 18 year olds making me take ‘Bereal’ posts on socials, once a day. Some were also charging a fortune to sleep in 18 bed dorms and work 12 hours a day (who exactly is being exploited here). There were some companies who catered for older, trained volunteers but I did need to delve a little deeper to find these placements. To widen my search, I also spoke to volunteer agencies, although try to find out how much commission they charge the charity, if not a non-profit agency.

I was excited about one project in Malawi targeting older skilled workers such as midwives, nurses, social workers etc. They were also one of the cheaper options but I would also have to complete fundraising before flying out which is how they kept their costs so low. The major drawback was that it was two hours away from the nearest village which felt too remote for me. I was a little apprehensive about communal living with other volunteers and I needed to know I could get away at weekends or in the evening, if I needed. So I kept on searching. It was through a non-profit agency that I found a social work role in Kenya. During my interview I learnt that they worked with five different local community partnerships- one of them being ‘Kisumu Children’s Remand Home’ who worked with ‘children connected to the law’ (young offenders) and ‘children in contact with the law’ (child protection cases). This attracted me instantly because I’ve previously worked in ‘The Youth Offending Service’ as well as ‘Child Protection departments’.

Also another important point is that if you are working with children any reputable company will need to check your DBS or police check. If they don’t ask for this- don’t work with them. The fees were also very low which basically covered accommodation and food. The only downside was that the majority of volunteers where 19 years old. I was assured that there were two other older women that would be joining us in the following months.

I can’t begin to tell you what an amazing experience I had. It went above and beyond all my expectations. Working in the remand home was harrowing, rewarding, emotional, eye opening and also made me dumb struck on occasion. The stories I heard brought tears to my eyes and the sights I saw (such as punishments) made my blood boil. Working in a government welfare department based on the UK model was interesting because on the one hand it was similar (they used the same jargon) but on the other it was a million miles away due to cultural differences. Also officially the maximum time children were meant to stay in the remand home was for 6 months whilst ‘children’s officers’ from the welfare department either rehabilitated kids back with their families, to rehabilitation centres and foster carers, or sentenced to borstal school. Due to the criminal justice system being so utterly abysmal there were some young offenders pushing into their third year. However, Kenya too is following suit with abolishing orphanages and children’s institutions- in the attempt to keep children within their family setting.

The relationships I formed and the work that I completed with all the kids was incredible. I completed vision boards, counselling session, home visits and wrote reports. I had my own cases to follow up, I attended case conferences and court hearings, I worked with children’s officers, I participated in girl’s groups. I started an English class that took place every morning and I got to hang out with the kids all day, every day. The working relationships I formed with the local staff and social workers was also educational. We exchanged ideas and knowledge of our differing systems and I was devastated when I had to leave the kids and the staff behind.

Of course there were some little annoyances but in the grand scheme of things I was lucky to have found my organisation. My research paid off. I’d heard horror stories of young volunteers in other organisations that had literally been stranded and left with no support, living with families in slums where robbery was a regular occurrence. The three local head honchoes of my organisation, running the day to day  were very young and not so experienced. Quite often I had younger volunteers coming to me for advice because they weren’t getting the appropriate support from the local team. There were times when I felt undervalued as an experienced social worker due to male chauvinism (run along little girl) but that’s the price we pay for being women world over.

There were occasions when children were misinformed- generally around sex education because of religious views which was frustrating. I also had a very strained relationship with one of the other younger volunteers who thought she knew it all- so I was happy that I worked separately from the other volunteers. Nevertheless, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I finished my placement with one overriding impression, that I still had passion to work with children which I thought I’d lost in the UK. I am proud of being a good social worker and I hope I brought positivity and love to some of the children that had been through so much.