The "weltwärts" volunteer program from Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has been subject to some criticism recently. Participants say the program gives them priceless experiences.
Anna Schwarz, a 23-year-old politics student spent eight months volunteering in a school for children with mental disabilities in Togo - an experience she'll never forget. "It was a turning point for me. These days I sort all my experiences into two piles - either 'before,' or 'after' Togo," she tells DW. Anna is just one of many young people who have taken part in the German government's 'weltwärts' program.
'Weltwärts,' translated into English, means "in the direction of the world." As part of the program, young people between the ages of 18 and 28 spend a year in an overseas school, or a youth or community center. Host countries for the initiative are in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Although the program is officially run by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the exchanges are organised through local and international organisations. Within four years weltwärts has already been responsible for sending more than 10,000 young people around the globe.
For Anna, the trip to Togo gave her an insight into the breadth of problems facing people in developing nations - for example, the role of European agricultural subsidies in Togo's markets. "Chicken offcuts, that couldn't be sold in Europe, are sold in African markets at such low prices, that local chicken farmers can't sell their products," she recalls.
Mixed reception for the program
Although only in existence since 2008, the weltwärts program has already been on the receiving end of some criticism - especially from parts of the German media. Critics argue that young Germans without any specific job training can do little to help in developing nations and that it would be more useful to send doctors or engineers.
Twenty-one-year-old mathematics student Jakob Heuke says that participants in the program are made aware of their limitations during a 12-day seminar, held well before they set off on their travels. "The first part of the seminar was all about telling the people who thought that they could help the country they were going to, that really they can't help substantially at all," Jakob recalls.
Still, Jakob doesn't regret his experience teaching at a school in Kenya. He remembers having to watch on during a class as a senior teacher used corporal punishment against a student, a practice that has been banned in Germany since 1973. Trying to understand this practice was an important experience as well, says Jakob.
Continuing work back home
Jakob believes weltwärts participants should try to remain involved in development work upon their return to Germany. Since returning, Jakob works as a volunteer for the 'Studieren Ohne Grenzen' (Learning Without Borders) organization. The group's aim is to improve schooling conditions in various troubled regions. In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance, they organize internships for local agricultural students.
Anna Schwarz has also decided to stay involved in development work since coming back to Germany from Togo. She runs seminars preparing volunteers for their time in Africa. For that, she needs to inform herself of the situation on the ground in various African nations.
She believes that the image of Africa portrayed by German media is too simple. "The majority of the reporting on Africa is either romanticized, with giraffes and elephants against a beautiful sunset, or it is one of war, illness and hardship," she says. Since working in Africa, Anna knows that neither of these clichés tells the whole story. That knowledge, she says, only weltwärts was able to give her.