International Cultural Youth Exchange is an international non-profit organisation that offers a range of short or long term placements in the developing world. One of its distinctive features is that volunteering from the UK also helps to facilitate young people from the developing world visiting the UK. Stephanie Roberson who we interview below calls this ‘a true exchange’ In this blog post we also cover issues such as ‘voluntourism’ and Stephanie talks to us about what employers in the sector are looking for. If you are interested in getting international experience there are many organisations that can help organise it including programmes organised through the International Citizen Service which is delivered by organisations such as VSO and Restless Development. Or you can use specialist agencies who will help source more bespoke placements for you (2Way Development and Links For Change) Use Careerstagged.co.uk to find other overseas volunteering opportunities for International Development and or just read through our previous posts
Why did you choose ICYE? I was interested in volunteering overseas, but was extremely wary of doing a short-term trip. I wanted to make a real, tangible difference, and to me that meant living and working somewhere long enough to really do something. The majority of volunteer organisations at the time were offering short-term placements from 1 to 6 weeks, and I felt strongly that it wouldn't be enough for me to achieve something worthwhile. In the end, I chose ICYE because I liked their ethos - focusing on cultural exchange, and I liked the fact that the money I raised to go would not only cover the costs of my flights, accommodation and insurance etc, but that it might also help someone from overseas come to the UK to volunteer as well - a true exchange.
I knew I had made the right choice when I got to Nepal too - ICYE pay strong attention to pastoral care for volunteers, providing language classes, pre-departure training, mid-term and final evaluation camps, and were always there to help. I met many volunteers overseas who were struggling, and were not getting any support from the UK from the organisation they were volunteering with. When I decided to raise more money to send the children at the orphanage to school, ICYE were instrumental in helping me to raise and collect the money, and made sure it was transferred to me in time for the start of the school year.
How did you raise your programme fee? I set up a 'Justgiving' page, and sent several (and frequent) reminders to my friends through emails and facebook - including a facebook group. I was actually surprised how quickly and willingly my friends and family donated - and how generous they were! So many of my friends were proud of what I was doing - giving up my job to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal for a year, and were happy to help me get there. I asked for donations instead of presents for my birthday as well, which helped to boost my donations quite a bit - I think people donated a lot more than they would have spent on an actual present!
Once I was in Nepal, I fund-raised again to get the kids into school, and although I thought that would be a lot harder, having already asked many of my friends to donate just to get me there. But again, people were incredibly generous, and the second time around I focused much more on events. We held a fund-raiser at a local restaurant, with some traditional Nepali musicians who agreed to play, and I also did a sponsored silence at a Vipassana meditation center - 10 days of complete silence! There were a lot of people willing to pay to see if I could make it 10 days without speaking!
What are your thoughts on the debate about voluntourism? I do think there are a lot of things to be aware of when volunteering overseas. Making sure that you are volunteering with a reputable organisation, and that they have checked out your host project is a key one, to ensure that the money is going to the right place, and being used appropriately. For example, the orphanage I lived at was a really great project, and the owners took great care of the children, making sure they were always well-fed, clean, had good quality clothes where possible, toys, and were loved and well-cared for. Other orphanages I saw were in a much worse state, with damp, mouldy walls, children dressed in rags, and sleeping on the bare floor. Many volunteers felt that their money should go to the projects that had nothing, and a number of people commented that my project clearly didn't need the money as much as others. However, after living there for a while, I would challenge those assumptions. At my project, the money donated was very clearly and openly being spent on the children, while other orphanage owners received large donations from volunteers, but the conditions at the orphanage remained the same, begging the question of where your money was going to. But it is almost impossible for volunteers to know in advance which projects or placements might be corrupt, which is why choosing an organisation that is trustworthy and reputable is vital, as they can use volunteer feedback to ensure placements can give you the right experience.
Another thing to be aware of is to be careful that you are not making things worse simply by being there (for example, you hear stories of volunteers digging wells/trenches and rendering local construction workers unemployed and without their daily wages). However, it's also true that a lot of hosting projects get a large part of their income from volunteers through food and board, so even if you do only go for one or two weeks, you might still be supporting their local livelihoods by doing it.
Do you need a masters to get research jobs or any jobs in the sector? It definitely helps! I don't know much about research jobs specifically, but an awful lot of jobs in the International development/humanitarian sector do require a higher degree or qualification in that field. One of the most useful things I attended after returning from Nepal was RedR's "So you think you want to be an aid worker?" one-day training course. (read our post about this course here)They discussed the main points of entry into the sector, and recommended some excellent master's programmes - one of which I went on to do (MSc in Humanitarian Programme Management at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine).
I think the main things that employers in the sector are looking for is:
- Some experience of working overseas in the development/aid sector - including volunteer placements
- A second language is enormously helpful - particularly French, Spanish or Arabic, as it enables you to apply for more jobs in places like DRC, Haiti, West Africa, Lebanon, South America etc
- A higher degree or qualification in a relevant subject.
It is also important to have some relevant job experience that is specific to the post you are applying for. Contrary to what most people believe, there really aren't any generic "aid worker" positions. The aid sector is seeking qualified professionals just like any other organisation, so they may want doctors, engineers, public health workers, food security specialists or people with a background in HR, Finance, Project Management, etc. Developing any of those skills in the private sector first can be just as valuable.