There is a huge variety in the type of work that it is possible for volunteers to engage in. This ranges from assisting with projects where no particular skills or qualifications are needed, to performing highly skilled work for which several years’ work experience is required. The type of work that volunteers undertake very much depends on the organisation that arranges their placement.
Some volunteers described working on basic construction projects where no previous experience was required, and where much of the value of the work was seen as being in the interaction with other people.
- Natasja described her work in Tanzania thus: “We started to make cement bricks with the villagers so that we could build a school for the children of the village. We spent 5 or 6 days a week, most mornings and a little time after lunch (if it was not too warm) carrying bricks, cementing and mainly enjoying the happiness it brought to everyone.”
- Others talked of teaching English, which is a very common activity for Irish volunteers, and of their additional educational work. In Anna’s placement in Nepal, she “taught English in secondary school and worked with fellow volunteers, teachers, and students to re-build a library, run a workshop on smokeless stove building and keep the Green Club active (with the GC, we mostly ran environmental awareness days and performed educational dramas with younger members of the community) ”.
Others talked about the changes that took place in their work throughout the course of their placement.
- Eleanor, who volunteered with an environmental conservation organisation, found that the work she began in Kenya had to be altered because of a lack of resources: “I started out working on a mapping project for the entire Diani region but this project had to be dropped due to lack of human resources. I then worked on the Pest Management project for the Colobus Trust and oversaw the redesign of the Visitor Center at the Colobus Cottage.”
- Áine also found that her administrator’s role changed over time, as she became more accustomed to the project: “Initially I worked mainly in administration, writing reports for the funders, looking after the finances, etc. After a few months…I began to organise the nutrition component of the programme, i.e. organising nutrition clinics and home visits in the various outlying areas.”
For others, their work has involved using their educational qualifications and previous experience to contribute to projects in the range of areas.
- According to Pete, a volunteer with WWISA in South Africa, 2004-2005, “my anchor project has been the Home Vegetable Growing project for villagers. I established a ‘model’ vegetable nursery where local conditions and a wide range of vegetables are tested. The young plants raised are then distributed to members of the project for planting in their own village gardens”.
- Grace used her legal background when volunteering in Nigeria with EIL in 2004: “I worked for Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative [WRAPA] which is an organisation which provides legal advice or counselling to women who have been victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, etc.”
These descriptions illustrate only a small aspect of the different types of volunteer work that are available. One essential characteristic emphasised by former volunteers is the need to be flexible when undertaking a volunteer placement. Many volunteers have found that the work they signed up to do can be very different to what they actually undertake when they arrive in the host community. There are a number of reasons for this, including responding to needs as they arise, filling in if there is no-one else available for the job, adapting to changes caused by a lack of resources, or simply because a project’s objectives can change over time.