International volunteering - from a project’s perspective

There is much to say about volunteering, and the pros and cons of such interaction by mostly young international volunteers. Gap year experiences or volunteering abroad have been around for quite some time.

As they have grown into a more mainstream way of travelling and tourism, focusing on active participation during a holiday, we need to keep looking at the impact and risks involved.

The “we” used in this context includes the provider of volunteer placements, volunteers themselves, projects hosting volunteers - as well as organisations dealing with international volunteering in any other way.

The subject of international volunteering is widely spoken about in most Western countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, and the media is currently very negative about this form of travelling. The views used to reason these pros and cons and to justify their strong negative opinions are unfortunately quite one-sided, and lack one very important aspect:  the views and opinions of the projects who host these volunteers, and what they see as the impact that is made.

It’s easy to have an opinion sitting in a warm office somewhere in Europe, saying that young people from our country should not involve themselves in (for example) teaching in a developing country, if they have no teaching qualifications in the first place. It sounds very reasonable when you look at this through Western eyes - but this is not the only viewpoint. It’s important look at all sides, and to explore the views of all those involved.

“International volunteers are having a positive impact on the kids we work with in the township, they are giving them a reason to smile. Smiles that they don’t get, some of them, not even at home.Lungi Mbambo – Izizwe Projects

To give you an example: a school in Arusha, Tanzania, invites international volunteers to assist them with a variety of needs. The teachers they employ to teach English lack a higher level of understanding of the language themselves, and teach something they are themselves not really qualified for - the reality is that they haven’t been taught to speak English properly. The resources they have at their disposal are very limited, and conversational English for the children remains largely at “How are you?” and “I am fine”.

This school, and others like it, need support to increase the level of quality of teaching. This has proved to be highly successful with the help of international volunteers. Volunteers assist the teachers to improve their own English skills, and therefore improve the general quality of lessons to the children. They assist with creating educational tools, donating books and giving the teachers an opportunity to improve their teaching methods in many ways.

 International volunteers should not take over from any teacher, or have the illusion they know everything better. Any support should be given with respect , but their experiences of growing up in a Western country, learning to speak English from a young age, and their eagerness to help are invaluable to any school wanting to improve their quality of education. There is clearly a big benefit in this case, and the purely negative view of Western media is not justified, as the perspective of the school is not taken into account at all.

Khaya has been working with various projects over the last 12 years and believes that a strong ethical and responsible policy can create more success than failure – which is something the Western media overlooks.

“International volunteers bring new ideas and continuously help us to develop fresh approaches to our projects.  Our staff and community are exposed to a whole world beyond Missionvale – there is a mutual learning of other countries and cultures which is an enriching experience for all.  There are other advantages too; especially in our clinic where medically trained volunteers enable us to see and treat more patients (in our case, the sickest of the sick, and the poorest of the poor).  Volunteers also help to create more awareness about our Centre, and as a non-profit, awareness is everything!  We deeply value our relationship with Khaya Volunteers and the wonderful people we have met through them.” Linda van Oudheusden – Manager at Missionvale Care Centre

It's quite shocking to me, sometimes, to see the judgemental ways of the media and institutes in Europe regarding international volunteering. Their views are very one-sided and lack context, and real knowledge of the local situation in Africa. It's easy to judge and have an opinion about how international volunteering should be done - but at least do your research and speak to the projects involved. Ask them how they see international volunteers and how their support benefits their organisation and the communities they work with, and bring their vision and opinions into the conversation to focus on responsible volunteering - which I believe can be done very successfully for all involved.

“What I think about the volunteers I meet from overseas is that they are very beneficial to the community, specifically Walmer Township. They help with different things, because we help crèches that can’t paint or fix up their schools for themselves. We as a team with international and local volunteers try to help with painting, fixing up the garden, and a lot more is done through the help of the volunteers. That’s an amazing thing. Since I’ve joined the project as a local volunteer, I’ve become a happier person. To see the kids every day, how much they love me, it just brings such joy to me. To see them smile, to see them talking to me and asking for me if I’m not there; that just brings a lot of joy to me. Something I would not have had without these international volunteers.”  Leesah Mhambi – local volunteer at Izizwe Projects

Don’t get me wrong - I completely agree with the fact that international volunteering, especially working with children, is a subject that should be looked at critically, supervised professionally and spoken about frequently to create a situation where all involved benefit positively. I also strongly believe that there are two sides to any story, and that the opinion of the actual projects receiving international volunteers is hugely ignored by the media. It seems like it’s all doom and gloom, but after working with international volunteers for the last 12 years and living in South Africa, I have seen many beautiful things happen through the concept of international volunteering - things that I believe have made a huge positive impact in the lives of many. That is, in essence, the reason why we do what we do.

“The volunteers here at Ithemba, they participate a lot. They help children to know that, early in the morning they have to brush their teeth. They help us a lot during our work, because we as teachers don’t have enough time to do the tooth brushing for all the little ones.” Siphosethu, teacher at Ithemba Day Care

See you in Africa.


Founder of Khaya Volunteer Projects


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