Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

Based on comments I’m reading on Facebook and emails I get, there are some misunderstandings among a lot of people about three major volunteer-sending organizations: VSO, UN Volunteers and even Peace Corps. These misunderstandings lead to frustrations about what these organizations are looking for in candidates, and also leads to some perfect candidates not even considering applying to any of these organizations. I’m going to try to tackle some of these common misconceptions into today’s blog:

I’m going to try to tackle some of these common misconceptions into today’s blog. But please know that none of the following statements are official statements by any of these programs. These are my views, based on my experience working with these organizations and observing their work for more than a decade:

  • Each of these organizations require at least a six-month commitment, and most of their assignments require a two-year commitment. These aren’t programs for “I want a feel good work abroad experience for a few weeks” – these are real humanitarian assignments that require a longer-term commitment than an extended vacation.
  • These organizations are not for unskilled people who want to “try out” humanitarian work. You need to have a great deal of real work experience and/or a Master’s degree to be in any of these programs. The average age of a UN Volunteer was 38 when I worked at HQ a decade ago, and I don’t think it’s gotten any younger. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer, at the time of this blog’s publishing, is 28, but 7 percent of volunteers are over 50. You need an area of expertise and/or a project you have lead successfully that proves you could do a field assignment – and that project doesn’t have to be something you did outside of your homoe country – in order to be accepted in any of these three programs.
  • UNV, VSO and PeaceCorps are excellent options for seasoned professionals from the for-profit sector that want to apply their skills in the developing world – but you will need much more than just that experience to make the cut and get to be a part of these programs. You need to represent on your application work that you’ve done, paid or as a volunteer, with high-poverty communities, people with low-literacy skills, people that are at-risk for poverty, crime or exploitation, populations different from the one you represent, religiously-conservative communities, etc. These organizations want to know that you have experience that will help you get through the challenges in a developing country, that every circumstance abroad won’t be utterly foreign to you.
  • The application process for each of these organizations is highly competitive and the organizations reject MOST of the people that apply. These organizations want people who have résumés that show experience that proves applicants can do the job that is asked for. While I got a job at UNV HQ in 2001, I actually would NOT have qualified to be an actual UN Volunteer in the field at that time, because I lacked the experience to do so; I could support UN Volunteers, but I’m really not sure I could have been one myself at that time (now, I do feel I’m qualified, and have been accepted into the roster).
  • Demand for volunteers through these programs changes frequently. There may suddenly be a need for people that have a great deal of experience working in government, that can help a country transition after conflict or independence. There may suddenly be a need for civil engineers. And just because someone with HIV/AIDS education for teens, or someone that’s run a vocational program, or someone with experience creating farming CO-OPs isn’t needed today doesn’t mean such won’t be needed in the next two years, so it’s a good idea to apply for these programs now even if they aren’t asking for someone urgently with your particular area of expertise.
  • You might get accepted into the UNV program roster but never get a placement. Placement consideration starts with what skills are needed, and then recruitment or placement staff look at qualifying candidates in terms of a variety of factors, including nationality; if a particular country is funding a particular UNV assignment, they may want the chosen candidate to be from their particular country. It also can take many months between the time you are accepted as a candidate to the time you get a placement (if ever).
  • You will be paid if you are accepted and get a placement in any of these programs. All of these agencies like to stress that these aren’t jobs and you don’t receive a salary, but the reality is: you are paid. Your travel and accommodation expenses will be paid, you get medical insurance, and you will receive a living allowance to meet reasonable living expenses in-country during your assignment. In fact, as a UNV, you get a stipend that is often the same of what a local government worker in the country where you would serve would get. However, most would agree that the stipend is not enough to have money left over to send home, pay debts you have back home, etc.
  • You aren’t limited to the title “Peace Corps Volunteer” or “UN Volunteer.” You will, in fact, have a role that doesn’t have the word “volunteer” in it. You will be a maternal health care nurse, a clinic manager, an ESL teacher for women and children, a fisheries advisor, a communications manager, a public health educator, an IT manager, etc., with a local NGO or government agency in the country where you serve. You will have a specific role, and that’s what should be on your résumé or CV when you complete the assignment – that you did it under a UNV contract or whatever should be in your job description, because that is the contract under which you worked, but that title or role that describes what you did is what’s most important to a potential employer.

If the participants in these programs do receive compensation, what makes them volunteers? As someone who believes volunteer is merely a pay rate, and that it doesn’t have anything to do with level of skills, level of responsibility, motivation or commitment of a person doing that volunteer assignment, it’s a question I’ve struggled with. This is the conclusion I’ve reached: the United Nations, the US State Department, and various other entities that work overseas have different types of worker contracts. And in those agencies, when you call something a “job”, even just a “consultancy”, it comes with certain expectations on the part of the worker in terms of monetary compensation, because the people in these roles are doing this work full time as their careers, for many, many years. It’s how employees and consultants are paying for homes, putting their kids through school, paying family expenses, saving for retirement, etc. The vision of Peace Corps, VSO and UNV, at least on paper, is that the people that are volunteers through their programs aren’t necessarily people who are career humanitarians; they are professionals or highly-skilled people willing to give up six months to two years of their careers and fully compensated work in such to, instead, work as a part of a humanitarian endeavor overseas. Why do these agencies want these people? On paper, they say it’s because these programs can involve people in humanitarian work who aren’t career humanitarians, bringing in much-needed talent and experience that career humanitarians might not have – a bakery owner who goes to Africa for six months to help train local people in food safety and modern baking techniques, for instance. Or a police officer who goes to Afghanistan for six months and trains local police on recognizing and appropriately responding to domestic violence. The reality? I’m sorry to say that, for many agencies, it’s a way to save money; contracts through UNV, VSO and PeaceCorp are far, far cheaper than hiring someone as an employee or consultant outright.

A reminder that none of the aforementioned statements are official statements by any of these programs. These are my views, based on my experience working with these organizations and observing their work for more than a decade.

Also see:

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

Using Your Business Skills for Good – Volunteering Your Business Management Skills, to help people starting or running small businesses / micro enterprises, to help people building businesses in high-poverty areas, and to help people entering or re-entering the work force.

How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip – for those who want short-term volunteering opportunities abroad and who don’t have the high-demand skills needed for VSO, Peace Corps, UN Volunteers, etc.)

4 thoughts on “Misconceptions re: VSO, UNV & Peace Corps

  1. Ann

    Interesting and useful article, Jayne, as always! I have served as both a Peace Corps Volunteer and a UN Volunteer. I would challenge your notion that PCVs are inexpensive labor, but I sadly did see that trend with UN Volunteers in some agencies (although not always). And I think there is a difference, for these long-term full-time commitments, between paying for your own participation and having your basic living expenses covered. A person might pay for the cost of their own participation in a short-term volunteer program, a few weeks or even a month, or might be able to fundraise enough funds to cover the cost of their participation, if they can’t afford it themselves. But if you only seek people who can afford to take a couple years off work AND pay for all their living expenses during those 2 years (even though probably much less than the cost of living in the U.S.), you will by default end up with a demographic of wealthy participants. (Not that wealthy participants are somehow worse than low- and middle-class participants, just saying that a large part of the population will be excluded from participation due to inability to finance themselves.)

    As for the host organizations, PCVs receive extensive training (both language and technical skills) and are placed with NGOs, schools, and other organizations that certainly could never afford to hire an American at even the Peace Corps stipend, and often can barely pay their own local staff a living wage. It may be different in other countries, but in Eastern Europe, the host organization is responsible for providing housing to the volunteer, and the PCV receives a small stipend to buy food, cover travel costs, etc. No one comes out of Peace Corps having made a profit, no one. Should the U.S. government/Peace Corps pay “regular” salaries and place “regular” staff at the host organizations? I think this would change the nature of the experience for all parties completely. A PCV is not motivated by money, but rather by adventure, gaining skills and experience, and even, dare I say it, helping others. 🙂 And I think it’s important, at least in my part of the world, that the local community see volunteers as professional, serious and making significant contributions.

    UNV, on the other hand, is dramatically different depending on where you come from and what your personal circumstances were before UNV. I not only could afford to live in the capital city where I was posted (eg, basic living expenses provided for), I also could contribute to my retirement fund a little each month and even save some money along the way. But the living allowance was nowhere near what I had earned in my full-time job in the U.S. (actually, about 30% of my previous salary). I knew Ukrainian doctors who served as UN Volunteers in South Africa and East Timor, their living allowances were significantly higher than they earned as full-time physicians in Ukraine, and they supported their families with the income. While they had some motivation for adventure, international experience, etc, I believe the main motivation for the Ukrainians was money (which I do not think is a negative, just a fact). I 100% believe the agencies and projects that utilized them had cost-savings as their main motivation for using UNVs. Eventually, my Ukrainian friend on one of these projects figured how he was “cheap labor” compared to other doctors on the project and was very disillusioned by the experience.

    On the other hand, while “cheap labor” for the UN agencies, the income did help families in Ukraine survive, so from one perspective, maybe we can think of it as a humanitarian project on both ends – great doctors who had much to contribute in other countries had the opportunity to participate in international projects, and their families were raised out of poverty because the living allowance was enough to actually support them. I don’t know, I go round and round about UNV. There are pros and cons.

  2. jcravens Post author

    I started reading this without seeing who wrote it, and was so thrilled someone knowledgeable commented – and then I’m like, oh, hey, it’s ANN! Which, of course, still makes you knowledgeable…

    “I don’t know, I go round and round about UNV. There are pros and cons.”

    Yeah, me too…

    Main reason I wrote the blog was because so many highly-skilled, experienced people write me wanting to get started on a career in international development – they are coming from corporation, government or non-profit backgrounds – and they balk when among my recommendations is that they consider applying for an assignment through Peace Corps, VSO and/or UNV. They don’t understand that these programs aren’t for kids fresh out of high school, or people that just finished their undergrad studies.

    Believe it or not, I still contemplate going into one of these programs myself some day… maybe when I retire…

    ANd now, back to looking for that kvass recipe you think you might have sent me…

    (soooooo missing Ukraine right now)

  3. Ann

    Ah, I see. Yes, a lot of folks don’t think of these options after they are more than a couple years out of college. I happened to be one of those people who very purposefully used Peace Corps to change my career. When I realized all the jobs I was looking at required minimum two years international experience, well, there was a (relatively) easy answer for that! I was mid-30’s when I joined Peace Corps, with over ten years professional work experience under my belt. And I think I was much more focused in my service, because while I did have the warm-and-fuzzy goals of doing good and helping people, I also had very concrete personal and professional goals. I sought out additional opportunities to gain specific kinds of experience and network with people in the kinds of jobs I was interested in. And it worked! The job I had hoped to get after Peace Corps landed in my lap a year early, and I ended up making the difficult choice to end my service early to pursue the opportunity. And the rest is history, I had changed my career just like I had wanted.

    So, I concur wholeheartedly that experienced professionals absolutely should consider VSO, UNV and Peace Corps to help them break into the international development profession.

    (Ukraine is missing you too! Someone has to drink all this kvass…. )

  4. jcravens Post author

    ” I happened to be one of those people who very purposefully used Peace Corps to change my career.” I hadn’t even thought of that… but you’re right! I need to write another friend of mine that I just realized also did this (and also went from being a PC member to being a UNV – you should start a club).


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