Favela Volunteering FAQ

Is it a good idea to volunteer in a favela? What should I think of before? How can I find a project to volunteer in one of the 1000 Favelas of Rio? FAQ for Favela volunteers.


A lot of people asked us about volunteering options in the Favelas of Rio in the past (many of them don`t speak german so we`ll write this post in English). Here we go.

Do I have to speak Portuguese?
You should in order to have a really great experience – because volunteering is about getting to know a place and its people, the culture, exchanging ideas, expanding your knowledge (if you don`t just want to stick to the “gringo crowd” – foreigners – hanging out in Rio). You`ll find some people in the Favelas of Rio who are excellent English speakers but the majority only speaks Portuguese.

If you are able to speak Spanish you also might come along with your “portenhol” – a weird and funny language mix combining Spanish and Portuguese. If you don`t speak any Spanish or Portuguese and don`t have the time to prepare yourself before traveling to Rio you could contact NGOs with americans or canadians or europeans involved to communicate with them. And while supporting projects with not-so-verbally-focused-tasks (repairing computers, doing research, watering community gardens) you can pick up words and learn portuguese learning by doing.

Which Favela should I choose?
Rio has more than 1000 Favelas to offer, some small, like little villages some are like cities within the City. A lot of people prefer to volunteer in one of the Favelas in the south Zone like Cantagalo or Vidigal, easily accessable by public transport, close to the beaches and the sea, with a beautiful view and a lot of other foreigners who had the same idea like you.

But there are a lot of Favelas far from the south Zone that don`t have a similar access to the beaches, the “asfalto”, education, cultural projects, and so on and where your skills might be more valuable and where more projects might be searching for volunteers. The Favelas in the northern zone of Rio (or in Niteroi) are also accessable by public Transport -you just have to stand a longer bus ride – and you also can explore amazing projects and amazing people there and places which are not already flooded by foreigners.

Should I volunteer in a not-pacified favela?
A lot of foreigners feel more comfortable with volunteering in a pacified Favela, with the so called UPP Police force (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora) present – since 2008 the brazilian state has been occupying favelas (with a focus on the south zone and favelas close to strategic points of interests like airport, central station or stadion) to get rid of the drug gangs that ruled/had been in charge of the favelas in the past or/and secure the points of interest before the international tourist crowd is going to come to Rio for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The UPP offers a list of pacified Favelas here (even though this list is not 100 % updated because 33 – not 30 UPPs – are currently installed and also we don`t really count 153 Favelas in reach of the UPPs but the list gives you an overview at least).

It would also be possible to volunteer in not-(yet-)pacified favelas – the favelas under drug gang rule are no 100 % no-go-zones (even if the image of favelas point to that conclusion) and favela people have built up some NGOs, initiatives, creches (kindergarden), grassroots-style in the last decades that you could support. But: inform yourself well about the place, you should not be totally clueless about the context and you shouldn`t just go there and stroll around but contact people who work there and can meet you and brief you about appropriate behaviour and places to go/not to go. A lot of people say that favelas under drug gang rule used to be safe – if there`s no fight for turf between two or more rivaling fractions or a fight between gangs and police/special forces.

Which Project should I support?
Language classes, kindergarden, computer classes, sports projects, gardening, DJ School and more: The list of favela projects is long and colorful and you should pick something where you can really make a difference – by sharing your skills in the most efficient way. The type of project which would fit best also depends on your character. Are you a person that needs structures and clearly defined tasks and you want an experienced, very professionally organized, big favela Project? Or are you more an “entrepreneur” type, an innovative type of person that always comes up with own ideas to improve and expand things, that wants to make an individualized difference (so you might be better off with a smaller, or younger, not-so-defined project)?

We`ll organize a list of favela volunteering options soon and link to it here. If you would hook up with us on Facebook you could also autimatically receive the latest volunteering options we hear of.

How long do I have to work as a volunteer?
Some organizations want their volunteers to stay at least a couple of months to get to know the people, the place, to have a long-term experience – and if you stay that long it really makes sense. Some projects are quite flexible – you could for example give English lessons a couple of hours every week, help kids with homework. If you are just traveling and you don`t have too much time why don`t you think about sharing your skills with a single Workshop – a DJ class or a photography course,…?

For some activities you even doesn`t have to be in Rio – you can raise funds from everywhere and projects like Cantagalo`s favela museum MUF are searching for digital ambassadors.

Do I have to pay for volunteering? 
Most organizations/projects don`t ask their volunteers for money. But some catch up with the american model that volunteers come and pay for the time they work in the favela and contribute to the survival of the projects. There might be good reasons to do that but we don`t really like and support this idea. We are not as rich to PAY TO WORK even if we do a lot of work (like this blog) UNPAID. What do favela people think of foreigners who PAY TO WORK, doesn`t that further strengthen the brazilian image of foreigners that they are all rich and ideal “cash cows”? And (open question!) are young people who pay for their volunteering service as engaged to work as others (or even more), do they have high(er) expectations, or do they think they already did their duty, financially wise?

We prefer projects that are self sustainable by having a great social business model for example by selling their handcrafts, offering computer services, doing tourism, or having a language school offering free lessons to favela kids and paid lessons to other people who want to learn portuguese,…

What you never should forget to “pay” while volunteering in a favela is respect, openness and sensitivity – which means informing yourself about the circumstances people live in and sharing your skills, experiences, knowledge instead of just bragging about how “cool” you are working in a favela. You`ll be rewared with a bunch of new experiences and by meeting cool kids, cool people, having a great time.



Dear Readers, if you are missing anything or if you want to add your own experience please post it into the comment section and we`ll update this article as soon as we can. Thank you!

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