Market drives volunteering to re-explore its boundaries
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Demand for international volunteer ‘gap-year’ placements has triggered the growth of an industry worth an annual GBP 800 million to the UK economy alone (according to the gapyear.com website), and volunteer numbers in China have risen sharply. But many of the newcomers are young, relatively unskilled, and stay for only short periods. Here, Matt Perrement surveys the state and likely future of the international volunteer market in China, and possible links to domestic volunteer programmes.
Seven years have elapsed since China Development Brief last reported on international volunteer agencies in China. In 1999, a dozen respected international organisations ran established volunteer programmes on the mainland. The oldest of these, Princeton in Asia, dates back to 1898, while the most recent arrival, the US-China Friendship Volunteer Progam (part of the US Peace Corps), had arrived in 1993. Together, these agencies fielded around 300 volunteers across the length and breadth of China, with the notable exception of Tibet.
By the mid-90s, Cold War tensions had subsided, many previously closed borders had opened, and globalisation was providing the Western world with new travel opportunities. An adventurous minority who took up these opportunities returned home with tales of the marvels (and horrors) that lie beyond traditional first-world tourist destinations, and so set the scene for the proliferation of organisations that create volunteer opportunities and experiences for ‘gap year’ youngsters between high school and university.
The ‘gap year’ phenomenon is particularly associated with the UK: the Association of British Travel Agents estimates that as many as 200,000 British school-leavers and recent graduates have participated in gap programmes across Africa, Asia and Latin America. But a simple web search reveals many new providers based in other developed countries. (See examples in the accompanying table.)
Steve Rosenthal, who founded Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) in 1995, was one of the trailblazers. According to the official account on the CCS website, he “took the money that he had saved as an engineer and brought a one-way ticket to Nepal.” Of the many weeks spent crossing exotic lands—India, Thailand, Indonesia, Egypt and Kenya—“one week [in Kenya] stood out from the rest,” continues the corporate introduction: a week that Steve spent helping to build a medical centre, and that has lived on in his memory.
Colin Salisbury, who took a Masters in Development Studies before establishing Global Volunteer Network in 2000, spares readers the melodrama and simply notes that, through his own experiences, he “saw the tremendous difference volunteers could make in helping local organisations achieve their goals.”
At first sight, volunteer programmes can deliver obvious benefits: employment for local staff, prestige to schools who would otherwise struggle to attract a foreign teacher, and channeling of youthful energy to a worthy cause. But cultural exchange—often the main objective of many recently established operations—can turn out to be not only rich but also expensive.
Three of the newcomers to China investigated by China Development Brief-–Project Trust, World Teach and Gap Activity Projects—stand out for the experience they have accumulated as volunteer placement organisations. (The youngest of these, World Teach, was established in 1986.) Their programmes all provide volunteers with training, offer some form of screening process and (in two out of three cases) satisfy receiving agency demands for a one-year commitment. All three also offer placements outside of China’s wealthier eastern provinces in partnership with local government. In the case of Project Trust, there is genuine ambition to delve deeper into the poorest communities in the western region. “We hope to expand further into Uyghur areas and are thinking about Guizhou,” says the Project’s China coordinator, Alexander McClean-Bristol, who moved volunteers out of Shandong as soon as he recognised the much greater need in the arid north-western plains of Gansu and Xinjiang, where foreigners are as scarce as grass.
Other organisations, perhaps due to their short history in China and relative inexperience in volunteer management, stand out for less positive reasons—high fees, short placements (some lasting just one week), weaker screening procedures and an emphasis on leisure opportunities. A case in point is the US-based non profit, Cross Cultural Solutions, which charges USD 4,500 to place unskilled volunteers for twelve weeks with an NGO in Xi’an, and offers no pre-departure training. A UK-based company, i-to-i, charges GBP 1,495 (excluding flights) to place teachers for six weeks in Beijing or Xi’an—where paid teaching posts are available through sites such as www.tefl.com
This is a rough deal compared to the experiences offered by Peace Corps and VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas, based in the UK) who, rather than charging, give volunteers a modest stipend to cover in-country expenses. But they have stringent application procedures (50% of applicants to VSO are turned down) and provide 6-12 weeks of pre-departure and in-country training, together with supervision and support from field staff and frequent opportunities to develop professional skills at conferences and workshops. To committed professionals these are incentives; the barriers they present to less qualified recruits can be circumvented by some of the more commercialised agencies in exchange for hard currency.
Professional skills and long-term commitment are also prerequisites for signing up with the likes of Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) and the Amity Foundation, who often perceive impact in terms of time spent in-country.
VSO recently merged with British Executive Services Overseas (BESO), which used to specialise in short-term placements. VSO China Country Director, Michelle Brown, says however that “VSO remains committed to long-term volunteering.” The merger with BESO, she says, “enables us to support partners in more flexible ways,” adding that “short-term volunteers should ideally have China experience.”
Doris Vogl, UN Volunteers Programme Manager for China, says that signing up at UNV, where terms and conditions are arguably the best in the business, has also become more flexible because “most volunteers are reluctant to sign 2-year contracts.”
The modest growth of the UNV programme in China cannot compare with the Jian Hua Foundation, which has quadrupled its volunteer corps to more than 200 despite an “increasing reluctance to accept applications for less than one year,” according to Glenn Herr, the foundation’s Director of Finance and Operations. Ideally, he says “we would like people to stay at least 3-5 years. One couple has been here since 1981.”
Shorter-term placements with less exacting criteria are clearly attractive to some volunteers, but not necessarily to employers. The CCS marketing team appears to grasp and lose this point in consecutive sentences. The benefit of independence, boasts their website, is that “our volunteer work is matched to the needs of the community, local people, and partner organisations.” But it goes on to let slip that the most cost-effective solution for its overseas partners would be to recruit a language-savvy foreigner who “is likely to stick around.” It is debatable whether providing unskilled teachers (as CCS does) constitutes an opportunity or a threat for the recipients.
Partnership and values
Contrasting organisational values and objectives go some way to explaining the broad range of programmes on offer in China. Government-funded agencies such as Australian Volunteers International (AVI) and Peace Corps only send volunteers to work in the poorest western Provinces where resource shortages are most acute. Korean Overseas Volunteers (KOV) also clearly states that work should focus on “people tormented by poverty-stricken conditions,” while JOCV now sends more than half of its volunteers to western regions and no longer places offers placements in the richer, eastern quadrant.
Amity, Jian Hua and VSO fall into a similar category and all, to varying degrees, talk the poverty alleviation mantra, although only VSO works exclusively in western areas. NGO status gives these organisations greater independence in their decision-making, enabling segments of the Amity and Jian Hua programmes to remain in the east. Nevertheless both organisations, which have strong historical links to Nanjing and Tianjin respectively, feel the pressure to move westwards. “Moving to the west is our goal,” confirms Liu Ruhong, director of Amity’s Education Division, whose main problem has been identifying an exit strategy from former sites. Instead of setting deadlines for a complete withdrawal Liu says that Amity “will not be replacing teachers in eastern colleges” where 50% of their current volunteers are placed. Jian Hua’s Glenn Herr echoes the go west sentiment and says that their expansion in that area has been facilitated by “more of an openness and willingness to have volunteers.”
Funding aside, there is also an expectation from the established senders that some of the financial costs of receiving a volunteer should be met by in-country partners.
Some gap-year organisations have also learned that reliable partners can bring added value and help avoid some of the pitfalls that new arrivals in China face. One of the reasons World Trust decided to move its programme west was “greater interest from Gansu Provincial government,” says McClean-Bristol. The provincial government provides modest funding for World Trust’s teacher salaries, as does the Hunan government for another group, World Teach.
In contrast, in wealthier Shandong (where at least two other gap organisations operate large programmes) Project Trust had to rely on middlemen to broker deals who, unknown to the programme, were also pocketing large fees.
What is volunteering?
But values do not suggest a fixed definition of volunteering, and this issue is muddied by the wide spectrum of organisations catering to different niche markets, paying or otherwise.
Organisations that do not charge fees could argue that the concept of “paying to volunteer” does not sit easily with the Westerners, who tend to associate volunteerism with the delivery of social services that require drivers for meals on wheels schemes, able bodied people to run shopping errands for the mentally disabled or sociable types to chat to lonely seniors. The greater costs of international volunteering create the need for cost recovery, but the non-profit status of providers like CCS, whose volunteers pay the full costs of placements, is blurred—despite their having successfully branded themselves through associations with the UN and CARE International.
Going overseas clearly has buy-in for those who can afford it: first-hand experience of a new culture; language exposure, and a platform for travel to other exotic locations. But the same applies to a holiday. So what is the distinction between placements that offer tangible benefits to the local community and laying on a commercial holiday experience that is sold under the banner of self-sacrifice?
UK-based gap year volunteer opportunities run by Community Service Volunteers (CSV), a kind of domestic counterpart to VSO, attract a much lower level of interest: 11,000 volunteers over the last 10 years according to a 2005 CSV report.
Almost all overseas volunteers receive wages, which conflicts with some common international conceptions of volunteering, and is also difficult to understand for Chinese people, who sometimes see volunteer stipends as high. “This comes as an embarrassment to some volunteers living in western areas” according to Liu at Amity, and other agencies experience much the same. Yet institutions receiving volunteers usually pay only a fraction of the full market value for their (invariably qualified) foreign teachers who, in most cases, live a frugal lifestyle and save only enough for an annual vacation.
Government sets a volunteer wage structure (with basic salaries for qualified volunteers ranging from CNY 2000–CNY 3000 per month, close to the minimum wage for foreign experts as set by State Administration of Foreign Experts’ Affairs), but essentially a free market exists, and with it discussion as to what constitutes a volunteer.
For those at the top end of the scale (UNV monthly stipends start at USD 1,700) life as a volunteer must be especially uncomfortable alongside their local counterparts. Doris Vogl concedes that “Propagating volunteerism in China is difficult under the UN banner.” Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the scale (Peace Corps volunteers make do with just over CNY 1,000 [USD 125]) take the prize—at least on financial grounds—for self-sacrifice.
Commonalities and exceptions
Despite reputations that extend beyond education elsewhere in the world, almost all of the organisations mentioned in this article have found it difficult to develop more diverse programmes in China.
Jon Darrah of the Peace Corps explains how environmental specialists placed in Chongqing soon became English teachers, teaching environmental issues only as a minor component. “The Chinese side has made it clear that English teachers are what they want,” he continues. Other organisations have met with similar difficulties. The language barrier is the most common reason for placement failures outside the classroom. Foreign language instruction, especially English teaching, thus remains a common thread amongst all programmes, and this has tended, for better or worse, to shape Chinese perceptions of international volunteering.
The Jian Hua Foundation is the only international organisation that has managed to develop a strong non-education component, with a range of activities that the organisation simply refers to as ‘projects.’
“Community work by English teachers has been instrumental in setting up other projects,” explains Herr, who says that initiatives set up by Jian Hua teachers using their own money now span agriculture, health and social services. He adds that special education for disabled people is in particularly high demand. Projects have flourished in Xining, where Jian Hua has established a field office that houses a sizeable proportion of its 100 mainland staff whose work is “mainly project related.” One such project has helped to provide equipment and training for a medical emergency room in Qinghai’s Huangnan Prefecture. This now functions 24 over 7. A training component of the 4-year project is ongoing and there are hopes to attract additional long- and short-term volunteers to assist with plans to improve the emergency ambulance service.
UNV is another notable exception to the language teaching norm, seeking as it does to place volunteers within UN-sponsored poverty alleviation projects. But the UN admits that identifying placements is a challenge, especially in remoter, western areas where the agency would like to field more volunteers. The absence of a language training programme may have curtailed UNV’s expansion, but it has also spared the organisation from battles over turf.
“There is enormous demand for English teachers, especially trained teachers, who are a bit of a rarity” according to Darrah of Peace Corps. But there is a finite number of teacher training institutions to absorb volunteers, and this can cause conflicts where volunteers from agencies with different values are placed in a single institution. This is especially true in Western China, where teacher training colleges are less able to afford private teachers, and so more reliant on volunteers. Wage-levels charged by competing NGOs, particularly religious organisations, can then be a swing factor in deciding who obtains ‘rights’ to a placement. There have certainly been cases were a teacher recruited through a secular agency has been withdrawn from a post because a religious organisation offers a cheaper teacher. Although religious proselytising is illegal, poorer colleges have been known to turn a blind eye when the price-tag for the teacher is right.
Another aspect to this market competition is the development of the private education sector. Entrepreneurs, domestic and foreign, have long realised the potential for charging top-dollar for teaching English as a must-have skill in the 21st century. But establishing reputable local brands which deliver reliable services has proven difficult (especially in Western areas) due to visa difficulties and retaining qualified staff.
This has seemingly been resolved by the advent of franchise agreements through big-name western companies, such as English First and Saxoncourt. English First is the bigger of the two and has franchise branches in 55 cities including the provincial capitals of Guizhou, Yunnan, Gansu, Guangxi, Shaanxi and Xinjiang. However, high down payments for franchises (CNY 500,000 for major cities), the need for investment capacity of over CNY 1.5 million and comparatively high costs for expatriate staff (USD 750-1,250 per month) are likely to deter investment in the poorest parts of China.
Impact and Development
While smaller and newer programmes have not necessarily considered evaluation, VSO invested considerable time and effort in an impact assessment of its ELT program in the late ‘90s and goes through an annual review process in order to sharpen its objectives.
In 2001, the organisation introduced new activities in China to support the development objectives of its global education portfolio. These began as a series of awareness raising activities, delivered through volunteer teachers, to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS, environmental issues and disability. Within the current strategic plan for China the focus has been narrowed to HIV/AIDS, with an ongoing effort, in collaboration with the China Red Cross in Yunnan and Xinjiang, to establish a team of student peer educators in 15 colleges. Known as the Dandelion Project, the aim is for the students to continue delivering public health messages in their future lives as teachers.
VSO plans to close its ELT programme in China in 2009. As that date draws nearer, its attentions have turned towards bequeathing a lasting legacy to China: a platform for volunteerism to thrive. The hope is to strengthen the organisational capacity of key partners at national and local level. The Beijing based grassroots NGO, Huizeren, will collaborate in establishing a Volunteering Development Centre in Beijing, which will target support to provincial partners in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Shaanxi during the 3-year project. This links in with VSO’s volunteering philosophy, which has already seen the establishment of VSO recruitment centres in the Philippines and Kenya, but also ties in with a belief in bottom-up development.
“There is definitely a readiness to volunteer in China,” according to Doris Volg of UNV, another potential partner in the project. She believes that “The younger generation is more detached from the era of mass mobilisation. [Volunteering] is becoming an individual decision rather than an obligation.” UNV is hoping to advance dialogue on policy reforms, such as easier registration processes for NGOs and the provision of financial resources, which VSO also considers imperative. “UNV/UNDP is pushing the government to sponsor volunteer programs,” confirms Vogl.
Foreign government funded volunteer programmes in China are almost certainly in their last days: it is only a matter of when they close down. But demand for native language teachers will remain and some of the newer, market-driven international volunteer agencies can be expected to expand to meet this demand.
With a 1,000 day countdown already in progress, mention should finally be made of the 2008 Olympics, which has become synonymous with ‘opportunity’ for anything associated with China, including volunteerism. The Olympic vision does not, however, extend as far as civil society, which has had no involvement in an official Beijing Olympic Volunteering Programme. This will instead call on UNV to help the government recruit the 100,000 Olympic volunteers it hopes to find. Flashy TV broadcasts are already announcing details of how prospective volunteers can become involved, making this appear from the outset like a mass mobilization campaign aimed at a rather narrow elite.
Vogl nonetheless believes that “Government sees great potential for the outsourcing of social services . . . NGOs are perceived as the growth areas.” Only time will tell whether the the Olympic volunteer drive will evolve into policy support for the community volunteers that China needs to deliver its vision of socialised welfare.
* The online version of this article includes a table giving basic information on more than 20 international volunteer placement programmes in China.
*The March issue of our Chinese language sister publication will be largely devoted to a ‘volunteer management toolkit’ aimed at Chinese NGOs that make regular use of volunteers. The toolkit is one outcome of a series of training workshops for community based organisations delivered in December 2005 in Beijing, Xi’an and Kunming by People Link and the National Committee for US-China Relations, who recruited two seasoned US volunteer programme managers to serve as trainers. The US State Department and the US-based Maclellan Foundation provided funding support for this project, which also includes internships in the United States for key trainees.
*China Development Brief receives frequent requests for advice on internships and volunteer opportunities. We regret that we cannot provide recommendations, but will shortly post a volunteer / job-seekers FAQ on our website.