There is a tradition of idealistic volunteering that dates back a century – and it’s very ethical. At a reconciliation conference after the First World War a young German got up and said that the way to create real international understanding was to work together. Pierre Ceresole took hold of this idea and in 1920 organised the first “work camp” where volunteers from former enemy countries worked with the community to rebuild the ruined French village of Esnes. Ceresole created Service Civil International (SCI) and this was the beginning of the international voluntary service movement for peace. The idea caught on, especially in response to the suffering in Europe after the Second World War. The standard type of service was the international work camp: a disparate group of volunteers working on a useful project with the local community. The idea spread to Asia, Africa and the Americas, adapted to the needs of the time and place. Today over sixty countries are in the network of partner volunteer associations, members of the Co-ordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service which is based at UNESCO in Paris.
In the UK and Ireland the six partners are Volunteer Action for Peace (VAP), Concordia, UNA Exchange, Exchange Scotland, IVS GB and VSI Ireland, the last two being part of SCI. We all aim to exchange volunteers with our partners all over the world (though travel costs and visa restrictions make it an unequal exchange). We keep our costs down and our fees are low but we take seriously our responsibility to try to ensure that the work the volunteers go to do is useful and ethical.
So what can we offer travellers who would like to get to know the people and the country they are visiting – and do some voluntary work? There are 2-4 week work camps in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas where you might help build a school or a clinic, plant trees, teach children or help families after a flood or a storm. There are longer placements of anything from a month to a year – often in schools, health centres or with children. Volunteers pay a fee to the sending organisation which will offer an orientation session or weekend to prepare volunteers, especially those going to “southern” countries – and in many countries the national volunteer association charges another fee to help pay for food and accommodation (don’t expect luxury) and to help the association to survive. We do not offer “voluntourism” but some associations offer to help volunteers visit places of interest after their project, or to stay with a host family, and they often can provide a short course in the national language.
The usual image of the volunteer is of a twentysomething with a rucksack. While most workcampers are indeed in their 20s or 30s, our network welcomes older volunteers. VAP, for example, wants to recruit older and more experienced volunteers of any age for six months service or more. The work could be teaching or helping in the administration of a health centre or social project – or helping in the office of the voluntary organisation. The first projects are in Kenya, Peru and Vietnam where our partners will make suitable arrangements for this older age group.
Helen, a volunteer from Hull, went to a work camp in Iceland: “I feel my life has benefited from the change it has brought about within me and the valuable lessons I learnt. I have more awareness of life, a larger sense of adventure and heightened curiosity about the world.”
Karoline from London was a long term volunteer in Spain: “The most beautiful thing about volunteering obviously is the people you meet – the helpfulness the understanding – there is always someone who puts a plate of food in front of you if you say you are not hungry and not in the mood, or gives you a pep talk or simply a hug. And that is special considering you have recently met these people. And that is what makes you cry your eyes out when it is all over and faced with the new change. But every end is a new beginning.”
Like Helen and Karoline, volunteers when they return home usually feel they have had a positive – even life-changing – experience, that they have done something useful and enjoyable, begun to understand another culture and won new friends, often friends that last for life. Intercultural learning and knowing “the other” is a small step towards world peace.