I'm in the same situation - prepared to donate my time and skills but don't have the cash!!! I have travelled fairly extensively in Africa and am prepared to organise my own accommodation etc. Please keep me in the loop - I am looking at Tanzania and Zanzibar during November/ December 2008.
there are a lot of organisations making good money from providing so called "volunteer" work - preying on people who are sensitive to (and perhaps feel guilty about) the plight of those in third world countries and want to do something positive by giving their time. the "profit" from volunteers who pay for the privilege of working for the needy goes on management salaries and these organisations should not be thought of as charities in the sense that good minded people think of the word.
worse, a lot of the "projects" have little real benefit to the local community and are just set-up for the volunteer "business" - i recently looked at some UK "volunteers" who paid a lot to go out and reconstruct/decorate a school in Kenya. the collective amount they paid would have kept a whole lot of local people in work, paid for the materials, provided years of schooling material and done a lot, lot more. instead the locals stood around looking bemused by these kind, friendly, enthusiatic but pretty useless building team, little knowing that they had paid a lot of money to do this. what a waste!
i cannot offer an easy solution - but please do not support these types of organisations and do try to organise your own trip somewhere to help people and get the reward from seeing you actually made a difference - it can be done these day on the internet!
I spent many years in this field and agree with the last post.
Volunteering is not as easy as some websites, especially the pay ones make it out to be. Yes you can pay and have a nice GAP year somewhere digging up turtle eggs or building wooden shelters. But think of it like this. MAnual Labour in a developing countries is not an issue, nor is is a problem to obtain. Skilled manual labor by in large is also not a problem, people have doing this there since the dawn of time. One could argue if a house in Niger is as good as one in London, but that is a different story to do with economics and socio environmental issues.
Skilled volunteers are needed. But you yourself need to be honest about what you can genuinely contribute. spending 6 weeks working in a community on a development project just does not crack it. It takes a lot longer. However spending 6 weeks teaching someone how teach someone else how to inject a vaccine or use a keyboard that can then show can be a lot more benifical.
Once in country the amount of dodgy money grabbing NGO's etc you will encounter will be staggering. Development work is big business, of which volunteering is apart of.
Good luck in your search
Can you do it without qualifications?
Nice to hear (hmm..read) that so many people are interested in volunteering! check volunteersouthamerica.net out.. loooots of free (and VERY cheap) volunteer programmes in south and central america plus the caribean.. i know its not africa, but.. check it out!
Yes without qualifications... but, really only if you have good and vast experience in a particular field. They also have quite a strict interview process. They take volunteering seriously at a professional level. It's harder than the average job interview!!
IMO, those in real need of volunteers, are the places which lack the resoucres to have websites, internation recognition etc.
I'd just fly to the country and personally discuss with locals and expats, about places of dire need of help.
That's just me though
I understand the frustrations of not being able to even give your time away for free. I ended spending almost $10,000 for a 6 month program. And since then I now live and work in Africa exclusively (with a int. ngo). Here are some points to maybe help you understand a bit more why its so difficult to find work. And how you can still do something that will bring you a great experience!
As other people mentioned one of the key factors in making a development project work is Sustainability. When you have a workforce turnover every 2 weeks there is not going to be good institutional memory and the progress of the project will be slowed.
Okay this is a very "formal" reply. You might say, "well i'll dig ditches for schools free and love every minute of it, just as long as someone directs me where to go" Well i'm on board with you. The reason why this isn't a good option is, yes okay you're working for free. But by offering your services for free you're taking away the opportunity of a local citizen digging that same ditch for maybe $1 a day. So for us to satisfy our exotic dream to be in africa "helping" we take away the opportunity for someone to put food on the table for that day. And most NGOs aren't having problems paying these small salaries. Though we come from more developed countries and have many skills the fact is that a local employee doing something like digging a latrine or basically anything will take less supervision than it will take us to get the same work done. This supervision takes away from other work that can be done and you'll find this also adds to why short term volunteer programs have high costs. They have to employe someone to organize the volunteers and most times its a foreigner (who expects a decent salary)because if you're there in the country for only 1-2 weeks, not being able to understand what your leader is saying isn't very enticing, also foreigners holding these positions are also able to help relate the experience to you since they've gone through it themselves.
Now i might sound like i'm totally against international volunteers working in grassroots initiatives. Let me be clear, i am not. There are many benefits of volunteer work, both for the individual, the project and Africa overall. Especially the stories and passion volunteers take back with them to their home countries and share with their friends and possibly inspire them to get involved.
What i would suggest is along the lines of what others have suggested. Go to anywhere you'd like in Africa (but trust me, there will be more NGOs and work opportunities in medium/small size cities than big ones. Big cities are where offices are, small towns are where hands are working) Go to some NGO's (you will have no problem finding them GUARANTEED) ask if you can help with anything. If everyone says no, then start your own thing. Organize a group of kids to play a game for a few hours or hold a weekend tournament of the favorite local sport. Find a farmer and help him plant some seeds. Hang out at the small local gatherings and just talk to people. Go to the waterfront and buy some bait for the fishermen then hang out and chat with them. Theres so much you can do if you're just creative. Let me be honest sometimes working or volunteering with some organization can be frustrating because you don't always have the flexibility to do what you want. Most times you have to follow the structured plan whether you agree or disagree! I suggest take a box of crayons, a bunch of colored paper and go have drawing competitions for the kids with small prizes. To sum it all up, yes go to Africa don't worry about having plans of work (cause even if you do, well as they say TIA "this is africa" and your best organized plans at home will most likely not work the way you think here in Africa.
If you ever meet someone that comes back from Africa and says they couldn't find anything to participate in as a volunteer most likely they were waiting for someone to hold their hand and help them help someone.
That's what I meant if you read between my 1:50000 indentment