Voluntary work and short missions

The interest in questions of global development is enormous. Many young, and young-at-heart, want to get directly involved and undertake voluntary work in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Is that international cooperation? And what value does such experience bring to a career in international cooperation?

International cooperation (IC) is professional work that requires a certain level of experience and competencies. This risks being undermined by people who spontaneously get involved in a development project or wish to undertake a humanitarian mission after a natural disaster. However there are possibilities for short-term missions outside of the profession. These are presented below.

Farewell to ideals

The value of short-term missions is often overrated. They can provide a first impression of living in different countries and a change of perspective, which can be personally enriching. But they do not provide a realistic picture of what working in IC means today. In fact, they can quite often give a wrong or out-dated picture of development cooperation.

The benefit to the local population of such engagements is at best minimal. Unfortunately, damaging effects are not uncommon because the demand for such missions is often driven by people in rich countries and does not correspond to local needs. Business opportunities in volunteer vacations, which can inflict great damage, have increased because of growing demand. 

Traineeships are not traineeships

Traineeships involve undertaking professional activities with learning goals and supervision. Voluntary postings abroad are sometimes described as traineeships. However, the requirements of an IC traineeship far exceed those of a voluntary posting.   

Offers are available in the grey zone between professional traineeships and voluntary postings. It is important to recognise the difference and to understand clearly what you are looking for and what you are committing to.

Not just for young people

The majority of offers for voluntary work abroad are for young people over 20 years old. However, there are also opportunities for older people to volunteer abroad or participate in a general workcamp during a break, although there is no guarantee that they will be able to utilise their professional experience. 

Some professionals volunteer through other channels, such as their professional association or the Senior Expert Corps, which places professionals voluntarily in small and medium-sized companies.
Testimony «Unbezahlbare Erfahrung – Mein Einsatz mit der Swisscoy im Kosovo» / «Mon engagement au Kosovo avec la Swisscoy : une expérience sans prix» (cinfo, 2014)

How to move forward

Before making concrete plans for voluntary work in a developing country, be clear about your motivation to do it and about your expectations of it. There are many providers; it is more difficult to assess how serious their intentions are.

Assessing the quality of an offer

While there are no rules, there are a number of important factors to consider:

  • Serious organisations provide some form of preparation or make it a condition of participation. This is a positive endorsement of such providers.
  • Make sure that the organisation is present, or has a representative, onsite.
  • Serious organisations are generally able to provide references from former participants or independent positions. Such organisations will want to know more about you than just your name and credit card number.

Organising your own mission

Time and again people organise their own voluntary work, either alone or with the help of friends or acquaintances. Many non-governmental organisations (NGO) in developing countries have a web presence, which makes direct contact possible. But be aware that short-term postings have become a business in some areas. You should generally apply only when the NGO regularly hosts people from Europe and ask for references. Even then there may be certain risks involved in such voluntary postings.

A volunteer vacation for the career?

To what extent does a volunteer vacation, travelling combined with voluntary work, support a career in IC? Read more:

Surfing tips

The following choice of websites may be useful for researching further information. Their inclusion is not a recommendation on the quality of the service.

Voluntary work in Switzerland

Nouvelle Planète
Service Civil International
Workcamp Switzerland

Workcamps without age restrictions

Nouvelle Planète
Service Civil International
VSO Voluntary Service Overseas


PEP! von Mission 21
«Leitfaden zu Auslandpraktika» of the ZHAW

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