International volunteers: how effective are they?

Findings from a study in Tanzania and India

By Dervla King [1]

International volunteering, where volunteers work in countries other than their own, promotes skills sharing and improved cultural awareness, but there is scope for improvement when it comes to training these volunteers. More can also be done to ensure that these volunteers meet the specific needs of host organisations with which they are placed.

These were some of the findings from a study on the impact of international volunteering, specifically in India and Tanzania, commissioned by Comhlámh [2], a ‘member and supporter organisation open to anyone interested in social justice, human rights and global development issues’.

Objectives of the research
The Comhlámh study examined:

  • the involvement of host organisations in the establishment and operation of programmes that involve international volunteers;
  • the effectiveness and value of volunteering projects for the host organisations and the communities they serve;
  • the contribution of international volunteering to furthering local development agendas; and
  • ways in which the host organisations felt the content of Comhlámh’s code of practice and volunteer charter needed to be amended in order to reflect their viewpoints.


Face-to-face interviews were held with representatives from twelve host organisations in Tanzania and ten in India. Further data were collected by conducting four focus group sessions, two in each country.

The participating Tanzanian organisations were located in three areas: Dar Es Salaam, Arusha and Moshi. The participating Indian organisations were located in New Delhi and Kolkata. The host organisations ranged from community-based organisations to branches of international organisations, both secular and religious, which were engaged in a wide range of activities. Organisations also varied in their resources and the scale of their operations.

International volunteers engaged in projects related to all the organisations’ activities and skills (medical, educational and income-gerenation) were in great demand. The data gathered revealed that 80% of the international volunteers in both Tanzanian and Indian host organisations were short-term volunteers, i.e. with placements of less than three months. Approximately 11% of international volunteers in the host organisations in Tanzania and India were medium-term volunteers, with placements between three and twelve months. Long-term volunteers with placements of more than twelve months were the least common, at an average of 8% in both the countries.


Both groups of respondents identified ‘skill sharing’ and ‘improved cultural awareness’ as the main benefits of international volunteering. In addition, the volunteers bring some funds with them into the host country, and spend this in local communities, and this was welcomed.

The main benefits of working with sending organisations were identified as ‘exposure to complementary organisations and people to increase funding for projects’ through further funding from the sending organisations; the development of new contacts; and direct contributions from the volunteers and the ‘knowledge sharing’ that takes place as a result of placements.

Respondents in both countries indicated that four particular areas could still be fine-tuned. These are:

  • development of placements,
  • selection,
  • training, and
  • monitoring and evaluation.

Development of volunteer placements: Although some of the host organisations were actively involved in the development of volunteer roles with regards to specific placements, an overwhelming majority of the organisations stated that they had no involvement whatsoever in the recruitment of international volunteers.

There was unanimous agreement that more involvement on the part of the hosting organisation is essential. Very often, the host organisations have specific needs (for instance, both Indian and Tanzanian respondents expressed their need for more skilled volunteers, with India indicating the need for skilled volunteers in the HR development and training, IT and engineering, and organisational-development fields), and involving them in the process from the onset can ensure targeted volunteer placement.

Volunteer selection: Respondents from both countries were quite vocal about how the objectives of the international volunteers seemed to differ from the objectives of the host organisations in placing these volunteers.

One Tanzanian organisation felt that most of the volunteers were sent to host countries to cater to the demand from the public for volunteer placements, rather than to address the host country’s needs for development. This resulted in volunteers regarding their stint in the foreign country as a holiday rather than a contribution to the host country. This was echoed by several respondents in India, one of whom said: “We have some volunteers who really want to be tourists. Many are hard workers, though, but some lack any real objective.”

This problem could be addressed by better selection of volunteers. One of the Tanzanian organisations commented that the placement of volunteers and their assignment to appropriate projects with realistic objectives should be a responsibility shared between both the sending and the host organisations.

Nearly all of the organisations said they had no contact with their international volunteers prior to their placement. Both sets of respondents stated that more involvement in the selection process and better communication between the volunteer, the sending organisation and the hosting organisation would benefit all parties.

Training for volunteers: The study resulted in some interesting feedback on both training for outbound volunteers as well as training in the host countries themselves.

With regards to training for outbound volunteers, Indian respondents were clearly more content than their Tanzanian counterparts. Indian respondents were positive about what volunteers knew about their host organisations’ activities on arrival as well as these volunteers’ cultural sensitivity, giving it a ‘thumbs up’. Respondents from Tanzania had mixed feelings about volunteers’ knowledge and their cultural sensitivity on arrival. According to one respondent in Tanzania, “Volunteers need to be more flexible, and cultural sensitivity needs to be taught … as a prerequisite to becoming volunteers.” Pre-departure training to increase volunteers’ awareness and understanding about the host countries, organisations and their projects was emphasised by the Tanzanian respondents.

Structured training for volunteers, with defined objectives based on the needs of the projects and of the volunteers, was not common in either of the countries. It was identified as one of the key areas to be addressed to develop and support programmes involving international volunteers.

The importance of language training was also identified. When asked about any difficulties relating to international volunteers, the responses indicated that language appeared to be a major barrier.

Monitoring and evaluation of volunteers: Nineteen organisations reported that they provided a supervisor at all times for the volunteers, and that mentoring was provided on an informal basis. None of the organisations received any support from the sending organisations for these initiatives. Only one of the organisations received health and safety guidelines from their sending organisation, while all of the respondents agreed that guidelines jointly developed between the sending organisation and the hosting organisation would be very useful. Thirteen of the organisations had a formal monitoring and evaluation process for volunteer programmes, whereas seven organisations reported that they only ‘monitor’ and do not ‘evaluate’ their volunteers.

Recommendations arising from the research

  • Sending organisations should ensure the participatory involvement of host organisations in the selection, recruitment, development, education and training of international volunteers.
  • Sending organisations should ensure the monitoring and evaluation of the impact of volunteering by developing policies that include standardised processes and evaluation tools, based on the principles and indicators in Comhlámh’s code of good practice and volunteer charter. Consultation with the host organisations/communities can provide critical input to this process.
  • Sending organisations should publish case studies of successful volunteering to guide and motivate new volunteers.
  • Sending organisations should place volunteers with relevant skills as required by the host projects.
  • Comhlámh should incorporate the findings from the research with host organisations into the code of practice and volunteer charter.
  • Comhlámh should facilitate the development of a code of practice to be adopted by the host organisations.
  • Future research should be considered on a number of topics to increase awareness of all aspects of international volunteering.

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[1] Derval King, Project Officer, Comhlámh’s Volunteering Options programme
[2] Comhlámh’s Volunteering Options programme was established in 2004, in order to respond to the changing nature of international volunteering. Funded by Irish Aid, it aims to encourage good practice in the overseas volunteering sector and to support volunteers in a longer-term commitment to development. A part of the Volunteering Options programme has been the development of a code of good practice for volunteer-sending organisations and a volunteer charter for volunteers (see