The Struggle to Give Back to the Community by Volunteering (in Argentina)

  • Luke Sewell
  • 9 November 2010

‘Ecotourism,’ ‘volunteering’ and ‘giving back to community.’ The words are so full of altruism and yet, in reality, the volunteering sector is a minefield of organisations that exploit generosity for profit mixed in with good causes. So how do you find what’s meaningful?

Volunteers with Un Techo Para Mi Pais in South America construct shelters

Volunteers with Un Techo Para Mi Pais in South America are able to construct shelters and houses for a cost of less than US$5 per structure

Volunteering: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the past, I worked for a rather money-oriented nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that, like many others, disappointingly requires volunteers to pay large sums in exchange for working on one of their projects. Google the following: ‘volunteer in Africa’ or ‘wildlife conservation in Costa Rica’ and you are greeted by a list of sponsored organisations that – for a tidy sum – will help you to help make the world better. Or so they claim.

The reality is that if an organisation has money for marketing and is glossily packaging its programmes for helping orphans and turtles in travel magazines, then, unfortunately, it is more than likely only looking to make a difference to its bank balance rather than to the community or the environment.

While travellers that do pay to volunteer with these organisations usually have a good experience and leave with their eyes opened to some real problems, they do so with no real knowledge of whether, by volunteering, they made a positive impact or not. Ecotourists need to be aware of the reality: some so-called volunteer vacations may be damaging. For example, no poor community should have to waste valuable resources on housing tourists as they build a school. Travellers need to make more informed choices about how they can help.

Un Techo Para Mi Pais stages a protest to spread awareness of poverty

The politically active nongovernmental organisation called Un Techo Para Mi Pais often stages protests as way to spread awareness of the problems associated with poverty

Luckily, there are a large number of charitable organisations that obviously do make a real difference, that really are making the world a better place. Discovering these worthwhile projects and any volunteer programs they run sometimes requires a great amount of research. Often you will already have to be in a country to get the real inside word. You have to keep your eyes an ears open for good causes, approach local charities, talk to people and think about the skills that you have and how you can contribute. It’s a lot more work than a click of the mouse and will mean that you may have to arrive somewhere without concrete plans.

In other words, helping requires a big commitment.

Please look below at examples of good NGOs and do your research before you next choose to volunteer. Decide if you are really giving back to the community. Make sure you are not accidentally doing any harm. Research the company thoroughly. In this way, hopefully you will be able to make more of a difference.

A Roof for My Country

The problem is that truly productive causes rarely have enough money to market themselves or actively advertise for volunteers. I am now working for a Spanish language school in Buenos Aires, called Vamos Spanish Academy. We have been vigilant in our search for good projects in and around town where our students can volunteer.

So far we have connected with Un Techo Para Mi Pais (A Roof for My Country), through which you can help build houses in villas (shanty towns). It is free, as all volunteering should be, but you will need to bring your own tools and a sleeping bag so that you can actually be useful!

Communities in the slum area of Buenos Aires called Villa 31 come together though a football match coordinated by the charity Voluntarios Sin Fronteras

Communities in the slum area of Buenos Aires called Villa 31 come together though a football match coordinated by the charity Voluntarios Sin Fronteras

The NGO is active in 18 countries in South America. In Argentina alone, the group has constructed an impressive 1,700 houses with help from over 10,000 volunteers from all over the country. The group is also politically active, as on October 16, 2010, approximately 2000 members marched on congress to mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The 2000 spent the night in congress without a roof over their heads to draw attention to the needs of the poor in Argentina. Un Techo Para Mi Pais is a true non-profit organisation and that is why we have partnered with them.

Volunteers without Borders

Another worthwhile volunteer organisation in Buenos Aires is Voluntarios Sin Fronteras (Volunteers Without Borders), which runs several excellent community projects and volunteering opportunities. These include: helping with lunches in a soup kitchen, volunteering with an AIDS foundation, teaching and helping in Villa 31 (an infamous slum in Buenos Aires), and assisting with the community project magazine, sporting events and other worthwhile causes. The projects are carried out in alliance with the Civil Society Organisation and aim to create a strong rapport between the volunteers and the beneficiaries, thus connecting volunteers with the everyday lives of locals.

Voluntarios Sin Fronteras encourages the development of social organisations through an international exchange of volunteers, leaders and employees. It has therefore created an exchange network across 15 counties linking organisations working on social projects, as well as creating an international network of ideas and people. This skill and resource exchange creates intercultural understanding, international connections between volunteering groups and a nurturing of human values such as respect, cooperation and tolerance.

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Argentina, children, cities, homelessness, human interests, local knowledge, opinion, personal experience, poverty, South America, voluntourism,

One Response to “The Struggle to Give Back to the Community by Volunteering (in Argentina)”

  1. Maria says:

    Great to see some volunteer options

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