Every year, as summer approaches, Vicente Baeza, coordinator of social mobilization and communication for the NGO Movimiento por la Paz (MPDL) has the impression of receiving the same email: "Hello, I am a person who has always been sensitive to poverty. I would love to go painting, fix houses or teach children... Sometimes they even put you the place they want to go: Cuba, for example. And one thinks, but what ignorance!"
Volunteering abroad during the summer generates both enthusiasm in applicants and reluctance in many NGOs and aid recipients. Dedicating your time to others is "always laudable," organizations stress, but not everything goes. For example, "it is not worth thinking that we are going to pay them for a vacation", ditches Beñat Martínez, technician of the Youth Directorate of the Basque Government, from where about 100 aid workers between 22 and 30 years old are sent every summer for three months (July, August and September) to different parts of the world thanks to the Basque Cooperating Youth program.
Nor is it worth the image of a famous person hugging African children or surrounded by indigenous people of the Amazon spread on social networks. "We do not judge anyone, we do not say that it is right or wrong, but we flee from that and try to detect it quickly because we are fighting to dignify situations and people and with these images we believe that it is not achieved," says Baeza.
For this reason, and although it is still possible to fulfill the dream of volunteering during the summer holidays, NGOs, large and small, increase filters and professionalize cooperation to limit the so-called solidarity tourism. A minimum time spent on site, specific training, links with humanitarian work, motivation letters, interviews and meetings of potential volunteers during a weekend in the same house are part of the selection processes of the organizations.
I think that nowadays the concept of volunteer includes very few people without experience. That of solidarity holidays, of good-hearted people who leave for a month, there is less and less
José Félix Hoyo, volunteer doctor
"I think today the concept of volunteer includes very few inexperienced people. That of solidarity holidays, of good-hearted people who leave for a month, exists less and less. I'm not saying that in its right measure it can't be fine, but the reality is that the work of NGOs has become very professionalized and in addition, they work more and more with local staff, "says José Félix Hoyo, emergency doctor at the university hospital of Móstoles and volunteer for 25 years in Doctors of the World (MdM).
His first mission was to Central America in 1998, after Hurricane Mitch and he has almost lost count of those who have followed, all on vacation or thanks to permits. "We're not going to take pictures. It is clear that the image of a famous person in Africa has a lot of visibility, but we find it criticizable to use an image of blacks 'saved' by the embraces of whites when what we want is to accompany these people so that they carve out a future, in this case, in the field of health. Insists.
A Venezuelan migrant hugs a volunteer in Tumbes, Peru, in October 2018Manuel Medir (Getty Images)
None of the NGOs consulted for this article sets rules for their volunteers in the use of social networks, but they do insist on respect for the people with whom they will live, that there is legislation that protects children and the need to take advantage of the opportunity to integrate into the reality that will surround them for several months. "And sometimes reality does the rest. For example, in many places there is not even a good connection to be tweeting or posting photos, "says Beñat Martínez.
Coming back with a different look
"I had been looking for such an experience for a long time. My balance is very positive and I would like to do something similar again in the future. I believe that anyone who has the desire and attitude can find a project that suits what he or she can offer. There are selection filters and that's fine," explains Manex Garaio, a 30-year-old Basque computer scientist who was in Peru last year with the organization Ayuda en Acción to develop two applications for local cooperatives.
Martínez stresses that the objective of the Basque volunteer program is to sensitize young people and therefore they do not necessarily choose people already linked to cooperation. "We pre-screened 200, that is, twice as many volunteers who will eventually go and put them together in a shelter for a weekend. There, the selection committee is seeing how is the coexistence, the characters, the difficulties and aptitudes. After those two days, we have it much clearer, "explains the responsible.
It is very important to work on the expectations of volunteers and tell them that they will not end hunger or conflict.
Vicente Baeza, MPDL
Leire Álvarez Gracia has just been informed that he will spend three months with the World Rural Forum in El Salvador. "I am going to help an association that is dedicated to family and local agriculture to become an NGO. I am very motivated, I know that it will be a humanly good experience and that it will give me experience to be able to practice in the field in the future," says the young Basque, who is studying a master's degree in development cooperation.
The NGO PSE Por la Sonrisa de un Niño, which works in the education and training of more than 6,000 children and young people living in extreme poverty in Cambodia, has been sending volunteers from Spain, France and the United Kingdom for 20 years for a month with a very precise objective: to provide school support to 3,000 children who are at risk of not returning to the classroom after the summer holidays, in which they return to their often complicated and conflictive environments. "Our program has a very specific purpose and it works for us because we have managed to reduce school dropout. And the volunteers return with a different look at the world," explains Pablo Alonso, coordinator of the NGO in Spain.
The person in charge agrees that the selection process allows to quickly identify people who seek recognition on social networks, want to go on vacation or simply meet people their age. "In the end we found a group of conscientious and serious people. For example, we set a minimum age of 19 because we think that when a young person turns 18, he can first try volunteering in Spain, where there is also a lot to do, and then think about going to another country, "he explains.
One more ingredient
The CINDE Foundation, which supports educational programs in El Salvador for children who come from environments of violence and exclusion, has been sending volunteers for short periods for years. "They support teachers, they work in the school kitchen, they do math or English homework with the children, they provide administrative support... Our balance is very positive," explains Cristina Inclán, coordinator of the entity's international volunteer program. "It was very enriching, I was shocked by what I saw and I knew little. The trip helped me from a humanitarian and also professional point of view because I took photographs with which I organized my first exhibition," explains Claudia Viñas, 26, who volunteered with this entity.
At the Pablo Horstmann Foundation, with hospitals and schools in Kenya and Ethiopia, they organize volunteer programs of at least two months for doctors and nurses specialized in pediatrics and neonatology. In 15 years they have sent more than 500 professionals for these short missions and have trained as many local health workers. "In our case, solidarity tourism is rare because we are looking for a very specific professional profile that we need for the project to continue. People write to us to go for a short time, but we know that it is more difficult for their work to have an impact. Finally, we are responsible, the NGOs, to channel the aid, to ensure that solidarity works and generates impact, "explains Belén Manrique, head of communication.
We are responsible, the NGOs, to channel aid, to make solidarity work and generate impact
Belén Manrique, Pablo Horstmann Foundation
Large NGOs cover the travel and expenses of lodging and living expenses of the volunteer, in addition to insurance. In smaller ones, the person must finance the trip and complementary travel insurance is often required. In all cases, prior training, of greater or lesser duration, on the country to which they are going, the NGO and the project in which they will participate, is indispensable.
"For us it is very important to work on the expectations of the volunteers and tell them that they will not end hunger or conflict. It should also be stressed that they are not going to a job, they are going to spice up. I usually say that they are like another ingredient of a dish, which gives quality and contributes, but they are not the main ingredient, "compares Baeza.
MPDL will send 17 volunteers this year, most of them with no connection to the humanitarian world, for nine-month missions in different countries, since they have found that spending one or two months on a project is not enough to impregnate or to contribute substantially.
"The purpose of all this is the transformation, that the volunteers return, contribute something and make known the causes of the situation that they have had to live. For example, we have sent a person to Jordan to work with refugees and train them in the use of social media. When she returns to tell how they live in the camps and what problems they have, it will have much more value than if I say so," concludes Baeza.
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