Structured voluntourism program, placement agency, or independent volunteering?

So, you’ve thought about what you want to get out of an international volunteering experience, and now you’re ready to decide whether a structured program, an unstructured placement, or independent volunteering meets those needs best. What are the differences?

Structured programs

A structured voluntourism program with domestic animals generally focuses on skills-building. The two biggest and best-known ones for pre-vet and vet students are VIDA (operating in Central America) and World Vets (worldwide). I’ve done a trip with VIDA in Guatemala, and I plan to do a World Vets trip during my third year of vet school.

If you’re at a large university, there’s probably a VIDA recruiter on your campus, a smart marketing plan that has made VIDA the best-known way for pre-vet students to do international volunteering. VIDA does trips for pre-med, pre-vet, and pre-dental students, as well as clinics for those already in vet school. VIDA does frequent trips, mostly two weeks in length, where 6 out of the 14 days are spent volunteering, and the rest of the time is devoted to recreation and sightseeing. VIDA is controversial in that trips usually allow pre-vet students to perform spay and neuter surgeries, although what you do on a VIDA trip completely varies depending on the vet leading that team. VIDA’s website makes no mention of this, but their campus recruiters (students who are compensated with a free trip if they enroll enough paying participants) do use the lure of being able to perform surgery as the top selling point. It’s ethically murky: they don’t officially admit that they’re selling surgical time to untrained undergrad students, but they rely on recruiter-led seminars and word-of-mouth advertising, which does pitch surgery as the reason to “do VIDA.” But then again, not all trips involve surgery. The one I went on upgraded us up to vet techs, not veterinarians.

On my VIDA trip, we had one day of training that mostly went over how VIDA works, and we had some practice tying sutures on foam boards. Our three clinic sites were in school rooms in small rural communities, which we drove to each morning from our hotels in tourist towns. We always had electricity for our heating pads and fur clippers, but some VIDA sites function without electricity at all. The lighting was generally not the best, and we wore headlamps. We used IV (injection) anesthesia. At the clinic sites, we were trained in giving dogs and cats basic physical exams, placing IV catheters, prepping animals for spay/neuter surgeries, intubation, anesthesia monitoring, vaccination, and post-surgical recovery. We were also allowed to “assist” during surgery, which meant holding instruments for the vet, tying an occasional suture or ligation, or cutting between two ligations. We spent five days doing those sort of spay/neuter clinics in school rooms, and had one large animal day, where we gave vaccinations to cattle, pigs, and chickens and other poultry.   (I’ll do a more detailed VIDA trip review later.)  The clinics ran very slowly because the focus was on teaching, and we only sterilized 18 dogs and cats in our 5 days of small animal work. I signed out of my VIDA trip early (when we only had recreation days left) to spend time with a locally-run spay/neuter group and learn how they work, which I am so glad I did.

World Vets also runs frequent trips, generally one week in length, where 4/7 days are spent volunteering. They have two types of trips, normal ones and those labeled as “IVM sessions.” These IVM sessions are comparable to a VIDA trip in that the focus is on training pre-vet and vet students. The big difference between World Vets’ training clinics and VIDA’s, however, is that World Vets’ IVM sessions are held at one site in Nicaragua that has a modern, Western-style clinic set up with gas anesthesia and proper lighting. I think that regular World Vets trips function more like VIDA’s DIY mobile clinic approach, being held wherever a community has space, possibly without electricity. Here’s an email I received from World Vets when I asked them to compare their two trip types:

The International Veterinary Medicine (IVM) Program is World Vets student program. The objective of the IVM program is to provide one on one instruction to students in relation to clinical activities performed at a small animal practice. For example, veterinary students are placed in surgery with a veterinarian and veterinary technology students in patient prep with a licensed technician. Read more about what students will learn here.

On a field service project, students will be exposed to similar clinical activities as on the IVM Program. However, the opportunity for prolonged one on one instruction may be restricted due to local conditions (i.e. a large patient load ) and/or the team make up. For instance, some veterinarians and/or technicians may not want to “mentor” students. Whereas veterinarians and technicians are signing up for the IVM Program to do just that.

A major difference between the IVM Program and a regular field service project is the clinic setting. Based out of our training center, the IVM Program has a controlled environment with access to modern equipment such as gas anesthesia and an autoclave. In contrast, the clinic site on a field service project will always vary depending on local conditions and injectable anesthesia is almost always used.

Another difference relates to the volume of surgeries that are performed. The IVM Program has low volume clinic days as emphasis is placed on teaching whereas most field service projects experience high volume clinics. A field service project may also attend consultations and treat many additional animal cases alongside spay/neuter services, this is not the case for the IVM Program.

Both are great opportunities for students as they facilitate an unforgettable cultural and learning experience. They also allow student volunteers to gain “real world” experience and/or practice and contribute their skills for the benefit of animals. In deciding what option they should choose, we recommend that students evaluate what they want to get out of their World Vets experience – receive guaranteed one on one instruction or be a part of a team that provides free veterinary services to as many animals as possible.

I like that World Vets specifically spells out what you’ll be doing in their program, rather than the vagueness of VIDA. I think World Vets offers a far better learning environment for you and better standards of patient care since their training trips take place in a proper clinical setting rather than dark school rooms without reliable electricity.

Placement agencies

In the middle between structured training programs and fully independent volunteering are unstructured internship/volunteer placements. I did one myself through Humanity World International in Ghana (which may have since gone out of business). For $800 for two weeks, Humanity World would find a volunteer job for students interested in a range of professions, and provide you with housing and breakfast/dinner. It was like a bed-and-breakfast that found me a veterinary clinic to volunteer/shadow in for two weeks. (I shared the house with business students and a pre-law student, and we all had our own jobs we went to each morning.)

There are a ton of similar placement agencies that charge you money to find you a place to volunteer in another country, usually providing you with housing as a part of the price. Some are officially registered as nonprofits, some aren’t. One of the places where I volunteered independently had a company like that provide them with occasional volunteers, housing them in a nearby hostel. In talking with a pre-vet student who was there through that company, she said that she planned to come back again, but not through the paid placement service. You get the least for your money with these types of programs, since they’re just telling you were in a country you can volunteer and  pre-booking your hostel or running a guesthouse. I think you’re much better off spending that money on a training program with World Vets or VIDA, if you can afford it. Otherwise, you can easily Google “animal rescue [location]” and “hostel [location]” and plan your own trip.

Most of the results you’ll find online searching for “volunteer abroad with animals” are these middle-man placement agencies, or affiliate programs of these agencies. They often don’t name the exact shelter or rescue where you’d be volunteering, because that information is the product they’re selling. I’ve used these company’s websites to browse, though, and then searched for the host nonprofit so I could contact them directly and look into volunteering without paying the placement service.

Independent

The widest range of options come from independent volunteering. That means there is no agency booking your travel, so you are responsible for your all of your own accommodations, flights, and transport. You pick your own place and dates, and can stay as long or as short as you like. You can decide how many days you want to spend working, and how many on vacation activities. However, don’t expect teaching to be the focus. Animal rescues in developing countries are even more short-staffed and and under-funded than shelters in the US, so expect that things will not be like what you have at home. I love small clinics and spay/neuter projects, the determined people who run them, and the way they are able to do so much good with so little money.

Independent trips are great if you feel comfortable not traveling in a large group with a guide. There’s so much more flexibility both in locations and timing, and you could always get a group of pre-vet friends together if you want an adventure to share. Rather than spending money on a program fee, you can always bring donations, which are gratefully received. (You can also ask local vets or your shelter if they have recently-expired or unused veterinary supplies that you could take as a donation.) You can also add-on a short visit to an animal shelter/clinic if you’re already planning international travel for fun, saving you the cost of an additional plane ticket. I think I’ll always do so from now on, and wish I’d started visiting shelters during my travels earlier.

Another type of volunteering I suppose I’d file under “independent” are small organizations that travel to do clinics, sort of similarly to some voluntourist groups, but they aren’t focused on vacation activities and training students. I’m hoping to eventually volunteer with Animal Balance, a well-organized American volunteer group that provides veterinary support to local communities in addressing pet overpopulation in island nations. The group’s founder told me that she was happy to see that I  wrote, “I’m not looking for a vacation” on my application, because the group works 16 hour days.  (Our VIDA days were 7-9 hours long, and I would have gladly stayed longer.)

So which way to go?

One of the most important decisions is whether you want a trip that is focused on teaching participants new skills, or one that is focused on helping the greater number of animals. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you want to do a volunteering trip that focuses on skill-building for yourself rather than providing the quality, efficient patient care. Learning and honing skills makes you a more valuable volunteer later, but be honest about your motivations.

I’ve tried to strike my own balance. I once applied to a RAVS, a very popular volunteering program for students and was excited that I’d managed to get an interview. I had applied two years previously when I was just cleaning litter boxes at my local shelter, but didn’t have enough experience to be accepted to the program. This time, I was a better applicant, but I turned down the opportunity when I found out that as a pre-vet student, the only thing I would be allowed to do is paperwork and cleaning, and I was specifically told that I shouldn’t even be touching any animals. (Those tasks were for vet students, techs, and veterinarians only.) I think the group does amazing work, and I’d love to volunteer with them when I’m a vet, but… I didn’t want to spend money to travel to do secretarial work. I am performing more skilled and interesting tasks at home with my local shelter, and it doesn’t cost me a cent. In that case, I chose to not volunteer with a great nonprofit because it wasn’t right for me at this point in my life.

The main thing I really stress about deciding how to volunteer is that you should be conscious of the fact that you are making a choice between providing efficient, cost-effective charity work and maximizing your own education.

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Start with questions: what do you want to get out of international volunteering?

When I try to give people advice about the large umbrella topic of “international volunteering with animals,” the thing I have to remember is that everyone is looking to get something different out of it. Advice I’ve given to one person with one set of needs won’t suit another person with other interests. And while my experiences so far have been fairly varied, they have concentrated on small domestic animals, so I can’t give you advice on where to get your start a career as a wildlife or equine vet. I’m interested in working on spay/neuter projects in the developing world as my long-term career plan, and I want to understand how veterinary medicine is practiced around the world. And, I’m not just trying to volunteer, I’m also trying to take a peek at many different organizations and see what each one is doing best so I can emulate it myself one day.

So, before you figure out how and where you want to volunteer internationally, you have to ask yourself, why do you want to do the trip?

* Do you want something that looks impressive on your resume and makes you stand out?
* Do you want to work in developing countries as a part of your career goals?
* Do you want to learn how veterinary medicine is practiced in typical local vet clinics, or get experience with Western standards of medical care?
* Are you trying to maximize school breaks to accrue as much veterinary experience as possible during that time?
* Do you want to travel outside the country in part because you’ve never done so before?
* Is there a specific type of project that you want to volunteer with?
* Is having recreation time equally important as the working portion of a trip?
* Do you want to be a part of an efficient team that helps as many animals as possible, even if you are personally performing uninteresting labor?
* Or, is your focus on your own professional development: learning new hands-on skills like giving medications, vaccines, performing physical exams, prepping patients for surgery, or doing surgery yourself?

Moving onto the how and where, other questions to consider:

* Do you require tourist-class/Western-style accommodations and food?
* Or, do you want to immerse yourself more in the local culture, even if it means things are less reliable and clean than you have at home?
* What is your current skill level? If a vet asks you for a certain type of surgical instrument, could you pick it out of a pile? Do you know how to give subcutaneous fluids or start an IV catheter? Are you a vet student who has already done your surgical training?
* Do you want to volunteer with your school club as a large group?  Or by yourself?
* Do you feel comfortable planning and organizing travel for yourself? Have you traveled alone before?
* Do you speak many languages?
* How important is structure? Do you need a set daily itinerary?
* If you or your family are already planning on taking an international vacation, are you thinking of fitting in some volunteering as a short add-on?
* How much time and money do you have to spend?
* If your parents are paying for the trip, do they have certain requirements (or restrictions) on where you go and how you spend your time?

Once you spend more time thinking about your own needs and preferences, you’ll be in a better position to make the next decision in how you want to volunteer: with a structured voluntourism program, an unstructured placement, or independently?

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The road from “they are so cruel to animals!” to “thank you”

One of the first issues that comes up commonly when I’ve seen other pre-vet and vet students talk about international volunteering is the way that “they” treat animals. Yes, “they” do treat animals very differently, and that’s a big culture shock that I still haven’t gotten over. (Nor do I particularly want to get over it.)

But here’s one of the take-home points I want you to get from my blog: we in the West are the ones who treat animals bizarrely. Throughout most of the world, and our history as Europeans, people haven’t thought of animals as their babies or best friends, they have been seen as working animals, pest control, transportation, food, security systems, and above all, sources of income. “Pets” are a relatively new concept, but Americans spend $50-60 billion per year on our pets, about half of which is spent on veterinary care.  Even though I call my cats my “kids” and indulge them in all the best treats, toys, and accessories, I know that such a relationship to animals is “weird.”

When you come to a volunteering project in a developing country with an attitude of judgement towards the local people, you’re just perpetuating the hundreds of years of Westerners marching across the globe, telling the rest of the world how to live. It not only reinforces imperialist dynamics, but you’re actually hurting any supposed goals of contributing to better animal welfare in that community.

When I was on one of my trips, a man brought in a dying dog. It was clearly very ill, and had been ill for some time. We started giving the dog fluids and attending to its problems as best we could, but there was a quiet sense that it was probably a lost cause at this point. As we did this, the man hovered over us, watching, and asking if the dog was going to recover. He was clearly concerned about his dog, but it was too little, too late. He didn’t really grasp how bad things had become. The poor dog died a long, slow death that could have been prevented had it only been given preventative medications, or brought into the clinic sooner. To us at the clinic, is was a senseless death, something that can make animal lovers both sad and infuriated. I share that anger, believe me — but you have to keep that anger in check, and ask yourself whether it’s appropriate to vent it at a client.

While the group of volunteers and I were attending to the dog, one of the other girls kept tossing out criticism at the man. “I can’t believe you waited this long to bring your dog to us.” “You could have prevented this.” “If you’d gotten here sooner, we could do more, but now he’s probably going to die.” I didn’t want to start an argument with the other volunteer in the middle of treating a patient, but all I could think was, holy crap, will you shut up?! Not only does he have to watch his dog die, he has to sit there while you purposefully try to make him feel worse.

After all, this man did bring in his dog, whereas most people in the area would not have. He cared enough to try at the very end, and while that wasn’t enough, it was still a start. It was a door opened just a crack. I think the rude volunteer (a first-timer in a developing country) probably came away from the interaction thinking that she’d given the man a stern lesson about the responsibility that comes with having a dog, but I worried he came away with the memory that if you take your animal to a “white people clinic,” they’ll belittle you and tell you it’s all your fault, and your animal will die anyway.

From the other volunteer’s behavior, I decided to change something about how I help care for patients. No matter how abused, or how sick an animal is when it’s brought to me, I will always make a point of thanking the person for bringing it in. It’s something I’d done with spay/neuter patients, but I realized I need to make it a part of all my client communications, even if I’m aghast at its condition. If clients come to view veterinary care provided by Westerners as a lecture on how they are bad people, they’ll simply stop coming. That doesn’t help animals at all. Use your fellow volunteers as gripe/anger/compassion fatigue outlets, not clients. Sometimes, the best you can do is work within a harm reduction framework.

I would like everyone to see their animals as “a part of the family” rather than just something to eat, breed for sale, or perform work, but I also know I need to step outside of my own love and respect for animals to recognize that I’m the one in the minority, globally. I’m a pragmatist, not a utopian, and so I know that the path towards better animal welfare on the global scale is an incremental one. You can’t berate people into taking better care of their animals, especially if you’re a random white person intruding into their town and telling them what to do. People bringing their animals to a vet clinic is a great start, so don’t blow your chance to make it a productive and positive experience for clients, no matter how much it might repulse you to see the condition of those animals. It gives us a chance to educate an interested audience about how to care for their animals, to provide preventative care like vaccinations, and get people to agree to spay and neuter their cats/dogs. And hopefully, they’ll tell their family and friends about how you were helpful and respectful, and those people will be more likely to visit you, too.

Especially as a short-term volunteer in a community, be conscious of how your attitude has a ripple effect long after you leave. The organizations working in these areas on a long-term basis can’t afford to have you sabotaging their humane education efforts by making clients fell judged. No matter how angry you get about abuse and neglect, you have to learn how to say thank you for bringing him in, and hope that’s the start of a positive relationship between the client and the clinic, not the end of one.

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What is “voluntourism”?

When I went to East Africa on a wildlife watching vacation, I had a couple of days of downtime at a campground in Uganda. I was planning to spend the time drinking beer by the river and reading a book. There was a group at the same campground who were there on a volunteer project that was building a school for Ugandan children, and I was invited to join them the next day to experience the satisfaction of helping the least fortunate. After our bus ride to their work site, the mostly-completed schoolhouse was now in need of painting. We spent the day using tattered, clumpy paintbrushes to slop bright blue paint onto cinderblock walls, getting dizzy from the fumes and working in the blazing sun. The volunteer group was having the time of their lives, though. None of them were familiar with construction labor, and I gathered that the local people had to teach the outsiders how to build a schoolhouse for them. Amongst the volunteers were doctors, engineers, families, lawyers — all sorts of people who would no doubt be described as pillars of their communities back home, and certainly were people of some financial means. After spending a day painting with them, all I could think was, “That was so inefficient! Why don’t they just work their normal high-paying jobs for a week and donate their earnings to an NGO that hires skilled local construction workers to do this? This makes no sense!”

That was my first exposure to the voluntourism industry.

There are some key characteristics to my definition of “voluntourism,” and how I differentiate it from other ways of volunteering internationally:

 

For a more in-depth exploration of voluntourism and how it compares to other forms of volunteer work, I defer to Camaro West in her Master’s thesis, Volunteer tourism: effective development tool? Or feel good travel?  To pull some quotes from the book, West explains her use of “voluntourism” and why she doesn’t believe it constitutes genuine development work.

Millions of travelers looking to “make a difference” have been inserted into development and conservation work under the pretense that they can in some way, make positive contributions to some aspect of life in the developing world…

The very defining characteristics of voluntourism prevent it from making lasting positive impacts on local development projects. The short-term nature of trips, lack of relevant skill requirements and failure to educate volunteers prior to sending them into the field, orient voluntourism to benefit the voluntourists and sending organizations [in developed countries] rather than the people they are supposed to be helping…

Voluntourism is structured to fulfill the needs of volunteers, not the poor. Most voluntourist organizations are based in the tourism industry, meaning that they are first and foremost accountable to tourists…

As an industry concerned with selling an experience to Westerners, voluntourism often operates in a vacuum. That is to say, the volunteers are mostly oblivious to the political and social context that they work within. Most voluntourist websites and brochures provide almost no background information about the countries and specific communities that volunteers will be working in.

Here is a another searingly smart piece of writing that talks about many problematic aspects voluntourism. I highly advise reading it. My favorite part:

As Al Jazeera America points out, “As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”

Ask yourself this: Do you want to go help, or do you want the people to be helped? If you honestly care more about the latter, then understand that the best way to help a community may not involve you personally traveling to it. Unskilled, short-term voluntourists often do very little to actually help a community develop in a sustainable manner.

I use the term voluntourism with derision, but I also acknowledge that it can serve a valuable purpose in the context of projects catering to pre-vet and veterinary students.

Training-focused voluntourism trips like those provided by VIDA and World Vets are valuable to participants in terms of teaching future vets more hands-on practical skills. While there are definitely issues with the implication it’s okay to “go and practice on the poor” before helping “real” patients, the same can be said of vet students learning surgery at an animal shelter or feral cat clinic in the developed world. Whether an animal is legally classified as shelter property, a feral/street animal, has a legal owner who is rich, or a legal owner who is poor, I take their well-being equally seriously, and I hope you do as well.

But even while acknowledging the value for students in training-oriented voluntourism programs, at what point is it appropriate to start surgery? First year of vet school, after you’ve taken anatomy? Third year, after you’ve had formal surgical training at school? How about high school, when you’re considering maybe applying to vet school some day? I was told on my trip that VIDA allows students as young as 16 on trips, and VIDA recruiters on undergrad college campuses market the program specifically as one where you get to do surgery. World Vets doesn’t allow program participants to participate in surgery until they are in veterinary school, and undergrad students are limited to learning vet tech type skills. I think that is a much better set-up.

Voluntourism programs can give you practice with hands-on skills that are hard to develop elsewhere unless you know a vet or professor who is kind enough to spend the time helping you learn. The mission of your typical animal shelter or commercial vet clinic isn’t to train students, it’s to save lives by practicing efficient medicine. A voluntourism program’s slow clinic workflow is because the focus is on you first, and patients second. That’s both good (for you as a learner) and bad (for efficiency and quality of patient care), but most importantly, it’s something to acknowledge and think about.

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Welcome! Start here (pinned post)

Are you a pre-vet or veterinary student interested in volunteering abroad with domestic animals? Great!

I am interested in trap/neuter/return (TNR) programs for stray/free-roaming dogs and cats, shelter medicine, public health, rabies vaccination campaigns, animal welfare in international development, and providing medical services to low-income communities in the US and abroad. I’ve done research into ways of quantifying and monitoring free-roaming/feral cat populations. I’ve been a short-term volunteer in 5 countries with 7 different projects, both through structured pay-to-volunteer programs and independently. I’ve never met another pre-vet or vet student who has the sort of varied international volunteering experience that I do, so I’m in the unique position to be able to compare different options based on first-hand knowledge. (I’ve traveled to about 30 countries total in my life, so I’m also an experienced independent traveler aside from my animal-related volunteering.)

I want to help you find the international volunteering route that fits your needs while also challenging you to gain a real understanding of global animal welfare and health issues. I am not a paid recruiter for any program, I earn no commission from voluntourism companies, and I’ll give you the honest pros and cons of my experiences so you can make your own decisions. Above all, I want you to get more out of your trip than just those cliche photos of you hugging cute brown kids. I want to help you gain a thoughtful, internationalist view of veterinary medicine, so that once you’ve earned your DVM, you’ll be in a better position to volunteer again when your help will be more useful. I try to be an optimist, but I’m not an obtusely enthusiastic do-gooder who’s here to tell you that you can save the world over spring break. I advocate having some understanding of postcolonial theory/orientalism and the many critiques of voluntourism before undertaking any voyage abroad to “help.” Even your best of intentions could use some introspection.

An important disclaimer about the othering inherent in this blog: as an American, my use of “international” and “abroad” assumes that you are a pre-vet or veterinary student from a developed/Western country, and that you wish to travel to developing/non-Western countries to work with animals.

I also assume that you are an pre-vet or veterinary student, but I imagine that there is useful information here for anyone interested in volunteering with animals in developing countries, or for veterinarians who are curious about the subject.

I advocate evidence-based medicine as the essential foundation of medical ethics and animal welfare. The first step towards providing cost-effective, compassionate care for your patients is to use therapies that actually work.

I’m hoping you’ll read my posts in chronological order, starting at the end of page 4 and reading forward, because I have been moving from general advice to more specific information and trip reviews. You can easily download and read all of my posts using an RSS feed reader, or use the “subscribe via email” link to the right.

You can send me an email via my contact form.

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