Help me find a volunteer project in South America
November 28, 2008 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Help me find a volunteer project in Bolivia, Peru or Ecuador. I am travelling all over south america for a year and am extremely interested in joining a volunteer project for a period of at least a month somewhere in one of the above countries. I do however have some specific desires;

1. Not interested in teaching English (dime a dozen for projects)
2. I love using my hands and building things (and am good at it) and want to find a project where I get to construct something, structures of any kind. A school, a fence.. whatever. Sort of like habitat for humanity (habitat itself is too large scale and expensive)
3. Not in a city. want countryside, the more remote the better
4. Smaller scale, more grass roots level
5. One where I dont have to shell over $2000+ just for the privilege of volunteering my services.

So far all of the more interesting projects i have found require a very large contribution. I guess I can understand that the money is how they fund the project but I was always of the opinion that the volunteers themselves should not have to be the ones who pay the very large sums and that the organizations should solicit the funding through philanthropic measures.

If anyone has any experiences, suggestions or knows anyone you can network me with I would appreciate it greatly. Thanks in advance
posted by postergeist to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do make sure that for the interesting projects that you are in contact with the project directly, and not an intermediary agency. These agencies will lie, misrepresent themselves, and charge a thousand dollars for doing nothing other than forwarding your emails to the volunteer organisation on the ground. It's possible that for some of those $2000+ projects you've found, that this is all agency "fees".

(Sorry for the mini-rant, but I used to work in an NGO volunteer office in Guatemala, and dozens of people walked through our door who we weren't expecting, weren't able to use in any meaningful way, and who'd paid $1k to an agency, of which we saw nothing. If you'd approached us directly, we charged $50, most of which went on the airport pickup and t-shirts anyway.)
posted by rjt at 8:31 AM on November 28, 2008

One quick and easy way to tell if you're in contact with an agency or the project directly is the phone number. Smaller scale, grass roots level, Bolivian NGOs will have a Bolivian number, not Florida or Toronto.
posted by rjt at 8:36 AM on November 28, 2008

Don't sign up ahead of time. Start your trip and keep your eyes open for opportunities, which will abound once you're on the ground. This will allow you to save money and avoid scams, and also avoid getting into a situation with an NGO that don't really need you.
posted by lunasol at 9:50 AM on November 28, 2008

Well, how's your Spanish? I would do the same thing that rjt suggested, contact them directly, and let them know what skills you have to offer.

In my experience, most of the project organizers with a U.S. presence are just middlemen. They're good for people who don't have experience in the foreign country they want to visit, who need language classes and/or assistance in locating housing or a homestay, etc...

When I talked to the NGOs directly, they were mostly not happy with the middlemen - pretty much rjt's 2nd paragraph, verbatim. For example, there was an organization who worked with developmentally disabled children. The middleman agency kept sending them people, usually very young, who had no educational or medical skills. They would say to me, "The agency is getting paid hundreds of dollars by these kids, and we never see any of it. Then they foist them off on to us, and we have to figure out something for them to do, and monitor them while they do it - essentially, we're babysitting, because the placement agency washes their hands of them."

So...about contacting the NGOs directly - sometimes they may be a bit wary. They might doubt your motivations, or think you're trying to take work from the locals. I would say, as far as organizing your trip, just go and see what turns up. That's what I did - after the middleman agency boogered my so-called internship (where I was supposed to be teaching basic computer skills), and tried to convince me to just teach English - I went out and found my own volunteer projects. However, it was far easier to do once I was already in-country and networking with locals and expats alike.
posted by HopperFan at 9:58 AM on November 28, 2008

Thanks for the advice. My spanish is currently not beginner but not intermediate either. I would call it functional... meaning that I can ask for things, understand when spoken to and have simple conversations. I will however be spending 4 months in other spanish speaking countries prior to going to Bolivia and Peru and learning spanish the entire time so I expect to be far more capable by then. The skills I have to offer are computer skills and building and repairing skills (and being in excellent physical condition if that counts). Building though, is really what I want to do.

I havent dealt with any agents and have been well warned not to. The trick is to somehow find a direct line to the project directors themselves and not the middlemen. For something like habitat for humanity for example, those expensive prices are actually requested directly from the organization.

I think waiting until I get there to gather information on the ground is of course a good idea but it would also be great to hear from anyone who has done one or can point me to something ahead of time. The reason being that there are seasonality issues and since I am travelling without an itinerary, I am extremely flexible as to when I can make a move from where I am (I am currently backpacking in South America). I don't want to show up in the middle of a rainy season when perhaps building doesnt take place.
posted by postergeist at 5:12 AM on November 29, 2008 perhap for ideas of what type of stuff is out there. some are probably the program types you have just been advised to avoid, but others no or maybe you could try to contact them directly.

i'd agree with the others to wait til you get there. take your trip at your own pace and each opportunity as it comes. you could always be in touch with places beforehand to keep in mind.
posted by nzydarkxj at 9:24 AM on November 29, 2008

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