Volunteering in Bolivia: From the rooftop of the world to the jungles of Amazonia
11 September 2007
by Geoffrey Groesbeck
Bolivia is a study in geographic contrasts. From the administrative centre of La Paz (at 4,058 metres, the highest capital in the world) to the lowland jungles of its vast Amazonian reaches, Bolivia is home in one place or another to virtually every type of climate and topography found on earth – and more than 60% of the world’s known life species. Yet for all of its incredible diversity, Bolivia also is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. According to the United Nations and World Bank, only Haiti ranks lower in terms of both gross domestic product and gross national income per capita.
Small wonder, then, that with conventional resources so scarce, volunteerism is a long-standing tradition in Bolivia. Happily, it is one that has had a measurable and sustained impact from its origins in the early 1960s, when the first Peace Corps volunteers arrived, straight through to the present day. The total number of volunteer organizations operating in Bolivia at present is unknown, but certainly is more than 300. Most of these are North American- or European-based non-government organizations, although several governments also send volunteer contingents (Japan, Germany, and Holland in particular).
Most programmes last from as short as a month to as many as three or more years, and run the gamut from the more conventional faith-based and non-denominational social development initiatives to academic research in ethnolingusitic studies to environmental education and beyond. If you are looking for a volunteer opportunity in Latin America, you couldn’t possibly do better than to look at Bolivia.
Apart from the stunning beauty of the country (Bolivia has six UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and the famous warmth of its people (Carnival in Bolivia rivals that of Rio), Bolivia also is the least expensive country on the continent at the moment (September 2007), and boasts one of the lowest crime rates in North or South America.
Bolivians are not only hospitable, they are conscious of the good that volunteers do in country. While those living in developed nations are accustomed to having almost anything they need or want at their fingertips, Bolivians, on the other hand, are accustomed to doing without – even when it comes to things many would consider bare necessities. This recognition of Bolivia’s chronic resource deficit has led the country to adopt a pragmatic and welcoming approach to volunteers of all stripes.
A volunteer project may be rural water purification, urban child immunization, adult education, or sustainable development, but in all cases the need is recognised and supported by the host country, making volunteering in Bolivia far less problematic than has been the case elsewhere. While volunteering in Bolivia has its share of the paperwork formalities (tramites) familiar throughout Latin America, perhaps nowhere else in the continent will a volunteer be more welcomed.
This also makes getting started as a volunteer in Bolivia much easier than one may imagine. With the need as great as it is, depending upon the organization one serves with, the process in many cases can be completed in a month or less – a rarity in Latin America. As noted above, the opportunities are nearly endless, and the number of organizations participating is actually growing (bucking the trend across the region, which otherwise has seen fewer opportunities for in-country volunteering over the past decade).
One way to determine volunteer opportunities is of course to target a particular organization or sector of interest. If your search is more general, there are several “umbrella” sites online that offer a wealth of information on – and direct contacts to – volunteer opportunities in Bolivia. The following are just five of the many that have details on volunteer service in this amazing country.
Formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Geoffrey Groesbeck works with several agencies and NGOs in Bolivia assessing, promoting, and raising international capital, resources, and recognition for sustainable development initiatives, in particular cultural and ecotourism projects.