Review Ubelong and general safety advice for volunteers

To understand the impact companies have on the quality of programs, it is important to understand how volunteer companies operate. Here are some information on how Ubelong sets up their programs:

Ubelong teams up with local organizations, that carry out the services and work on the ground. This are independent institutions. Ubelong works with exclusive partnerships but also local partners that take on other international companies. In Vietnam they cooperate with Volunteer for Peace Vietnam, a local organization that focuses on voluntourism and is matching volunteers with local organizations. Volunteer for Peace Vietnam is receiving volunteers from several companies, among them are Ubelong volunteers. As an example, the organization has worked in the past also with International Volunteer HQ. Volunteer for Peace Vietnam dropped International Volunteer HQ as a partner, due to arguments about  IVHQs requirements towards local partners.


What really contributes to the quality is, how companies approach and work with their local partners. Ubelong is a company that is visiting the countries they work in more frequently than most other companies. They visit almost all placements personally. Most companies don’t. Still, the quality of the local Ubelong partner (orientation, commitment, sustainability) varies from country to country and depends on with whom they have teamed up with. Still, sometimes they put their volunteers in positions, they should not be in due to a lack of experience and qualification. A common issue in international volunteering, as voluntourism is dominated by a colonialistic mindset and full of neocolonial structures. Furthermore, the pressure to succeed against unethical competitors in an aggressive market influences the whole industry. This is usually not an safety issue for the volunteers, but can cause complications.


Safety – a crucial part in every pre departure preparation and orientation


How the international volunteer travel companies can impact safety, is on how they work with their local partners and prepare their volunteers before their arrival. Once volunteers arrived in their host country and finished an orientation, volunteers are left to their own devices, as long as no challenges occur.

The orientation is usually the responsibility of the local partners, here it is very important to cover health and safety with all kind of aspects as well as to prepare the volunteers through information, role games or presentations. Before you arrive, volunteers should make sure all important aspects will be covered in an orientation. For example, basic health aspects are, that volunteers should have the numbers of good hospitals, doctors, police and local coordinator with them at all times. They should carry a piece of paper with numbers and insurance information in both, the local and english language. Also, if volunteers do worry about safety a lot, they should inform the local team when they travel to other cities or countries for holiday. A good thing to do, is to get a local sim card as soon as possible when volunteers arrive. Subjects covered should be

  • street safety
  • food safety
  • police
  • corruption
  • hospitals
  • how to react in case of robberies and other threats

and a lot more.


Good Volunteer programs are designed for people that trust their skills and abilities


Volunteer programs are (should, many aren’t, unfortunately) designed for adults and people that trust their skills and abilities to make a difference, therefore there is no 24/7 supervision included. Safety, responsibilities and activities are mainly in the hand of the volunteers themselves, by chosing the right project and beeing careful once arriving. Volunteers travel to grow with such experiences and take on a lot of responsibilities by working with vulnerable groups. This requires, of course, also a certain level of self-reliance. But what the company and local partner must ensure, is that these subjects are covered before and after the arrival and volunteers are helped, when help is needed. Some companies forget this. And the most important aspects is the selection process. A company should not send volunteers on a mission, they are unable to accomplish.


Voluntourism – the role of supply and demand


In terms of sustainability, We believe Volunteer for Peace is not very different from other local Volunteer institutions. Most local partners work with a huge variety of local placements, to ensure that many volunteers can be placed and the demand of the companies is met. The mechanics of supply and demand play also for them a role. If the companies they team up with require many placements, Volunteer for Peace will provide them. Some placements are very good, others are ok and some might be only interested in the volunteers to gain profit. In our experience, the higher the demand for placements is, the more likely it is to receive a less organized placement (peak season, for example). Which often means: Big numbers = low quality.

How Ubelong usually distinguish themselves from others is, that they make sure they know in advance, where their volunteers are placed. Most companies do not know where their volunteers work nor do they know the name of the placements they offer. So the chance to have a good placement is higher when volunteering with Ubelong rather than with some of the big players.

Often, how sustainable the placements work is  unknown by the international sending companies and the local partner, as there is usually no systems in place that measures the impact volunteers have and the work of the local placements. Commonly there is no interest or no capacity. We have not seen a single local palcement organization yet, that actually measure the impact their volunteer program has on the local communities. Numbers alone are being used as indicators and proof of quality. We do not know how Volunteer for Peace does ensure sustainability, this is something to ask before signing up.
How to ensure you find a good placement: Asking the right questions – before you leave
We cannot give an answer to the question, how worthwhile projects are. But what we can do is to try to convince volunteers to do everything in their own power, to ensure the projects are worthwhile and  safe. Volunteers should

  • ask the right questions to themselves before signing up. Check out some good question to ask yourself here
  • ask the volunteer travel company beforehand a lot of questions. It is not a problem if they are unable to have an answer to all questions, but they should give at least to most of them a satisfying answer
  • make sure they know the matching process is adequate. Volunteers should know before they leave, where they will be placed and should be placed, based on their skills, experience and interests
  • make sure they are well prepared (pre departure preparation, in country orientation, evaluation)

Here you can find some good information about voluntourism, that will help to ask some questions you have about voluntourism in general.


Signs for good placements


Some things to look into to find out if a placement is legit are

  • transparency (annual reports, other information they share with the public, how they talk to the public, audits)
  • how an organization generates funds,
  • the work the volunteers are supposed to do (does it take a job away, is the work really needed, is it an assisting role, does it create dependency),
  • child safety regulations in place (when they work with kids),
  • how an organization presents the target group online
  • which donors they have
  • if they have a board of directors
  • opinions of past volunteers

and a lot more. This are points the local partner should look into (in this case volunteer for peace) but often they do not. To sum it up, the safety and quality of the projects are in the hand of the volunteers themselves. Preparation and self reflection are the key factors for a successful volunteer experience.

Now we hope, that you can answer the questions, wether your program is safe and worthwhile, yourself. And Prepare yourself!

And one hint in the end: Most accidents and problems occure, because volunteers drink or drive (traffic). Well, and doing both together does not make it better!

What is your safety advice? Please comment below!