Volunteering in a developing country can be of value to a community and hugely rewarding to the volunteer. However, you need to get it right. Here are some ideas to help you to get the most from a volunteering experience.
Volunteering in 15 seconds
- Why you want to volunteer?
- What can/will you do?
- Volunteering in an orphanage or school
- Should you book through a company or direct with a placement?
- Are volunteer companies over priced?
- Don’t forget to get suitable insurance
- Be respectful of difference cultures and customs
First and foremost, volunteering can be good and really can make a significant and positive impact on local communities. However, there are some things that you can do to improve your chances of being a worth while volunteer on a worth while project.
Some people volunteer because they have a genuine desire to help those who are less fortunate. These people may have volunteered at home; helping in charity shops, visiting care homes or fund-raising. Others will choose to volunteer overseas as a way of combining adventure travel and gaining work experience to enhance a CV. Both are valid reasons, but the goals and objectives will differ.
There is a growing trend for volunteering in developing countries. However, don’t discount other opportunities. Working in an orphanage in a rural African community isn’t a right of passage. Give it serious thought and if that kind of experience isn’t for you then you can choose from any number of conservation volunteer programmes operating to the developed world (Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada and the UK).
What will you do?
Recognise your limits. Where possible focus on existing skills; for example qualified teachers and medical staff can be extremely valuable. Professionals can contribute on skill share programmes through organisations like VSO. Unskilled volunteers can still be of great value. However, in such cases you’ll need to choose your placement carefully. A well educated person could volunteer as a teaching assistant in an understaffed rural school and make a positive contribution. (But please consider that this isn’t the best way to discover whether or not you should pursue a teaching career.) See below for more information regarding volunteering in schools and orphanages.
You need to reassure yourself that there is a genuine need for international help and that local staff aren’t available. Teaching vocational skills within a community is a good way to encourage sustainability. Health awareness initiatives can also be of great value.
Work hard to make sure you are as well prepared as possible and don’t underestimate your responsibilities as a volunteer.
Think about the conditions. Rural facilities will be very basic. Schools may be under resourced so you’ll need to be creative with your lesson planning. Accommodation will be very simple; will you have electricity or running water? What are the toilet facilities. What standards will you be happy with? Where are you living, who with? Standards vary in each country/placement.
Orphanages and schools
Lots of potential volunteers like the idea of working with children. The media is filled with upsetting images of young children who would benefit from extra care. However, please consider the following before signing up for this type of work:
How long can you commit to the project? Short term volunteering with children can be damaging. Consider it from the child’s point of view. An enthusiastic foreign volunteer arrives at the school and for 2 weeks befriends them, comforts and supports them. Then after 2 weeks, they leave and at some point a new volunteer will arrive. A young child will not have a good concept of time and this repeating friendship/separation could be upsetting and very hard to comprehend.
Additionally, consider as a volunteer how long it will take to become adjusted to your new environment, how long will it take to get to know the children and to understand their individual needs? Having identified their needs how long will it take you to give them constructive support of real worth and value to their upbringing?
If you want to work with young children we would suggest that you volunteer for at least 3 months (preferably longer) to allow time to get to know the local community, understand the children you are working with and provide some continuity in their life.
We would recommend that you take a TEFL course prior to travelling so you are in the strongest position to make a positive contribution.
As an alternative, if you can’t afford an extended period of volunteering, look for placements that contribute to the infrastructure. School beautification projects (painting/decorating classrooms), or building projects (improving sanitation, providing running water, building new classrooms). These will allow you the pleasure of being supportive to children without disrupting their education.
These are of course generalisations and there are exceptions to the rule. However, if you have read this far, hopefully you will appreciate and understand the importance of researching not just the project but also examining your own skills and the contribution that you can make.
Where to book?
In most cases there are two options. Either to apply directly to a placement or to arrange your trip through a company in your home country. There are pros and cons for both. We’ve highlighted some consideration for each below.
- If you apply directly to a placement there may be uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of the project until you actually arrive. If things aren’t as you expected you will have little recourse. Similarly if there is an emergency (sickness, accident or problems at home) the ability of the project to help may be limited.On a positive note, the cost should be significantly cheaper and if you have chosen the placement based on the recommendation of a friend then you stand a good chance of having a good experience.If you are arranging a placement directly with a project we advise that you travel with a friend rather than on your own.
- Using a company to arrange your placement will be more expensive. However, if you use a good company you should receive many benefits:
- Help selecting the right project based on your skills and experience
- You should be given realistic expectations of the trip
- Help preparing for the trip; flights, visas, insurance, inoculations, packing ideas, project background, testimonials and comment from previous volunteers, fund-raising ideas, etc.
- If things don’t go as planned, in addition to the placement staff you will be able to liaise with the organising company to have your problems resolved. In the case of an emergency they should be able to help coordinate appropriate action.
Are volunteer companies overpriced?
OK, so when you go through an organisation to arrange your placement you will pay for the opportunity. Check what you get for your money. If you are happy – then its good value. If you are not, look at the alternatives. Shop around, but make sure you are comparing services fairly. Try to get recommendations and look for positive feedback regarding the company you choose.
Volunteers frequently complain that there is a discrepancy between the amount that they pay and the amount that the community receives. Know where your money is going – reputable companies will be happy to provide a breakdown of costs. But in addition, recognise the relative value of money in different countries. The majority of costs that you pay will be to cover the organising company’s overheads (office space, salaries, insurance, equipment, marketing and sales), a smaller portion will be paid to the in-country project. At first this can seem unfair. However, when you analyse it you will realise the there is a necessary disparity between the developed world and a developing country. Salaries and overheads in the developing country will be significantly lower and it is important that local staff are paid an appropriate salary. Inflating salaries can damage the local economy and also jeopardise the purpose and integrity of the project.
Make sure that you have a decent travel/health insurance policy that will acknowledge the type of volunteer work you are undertaking and will provide cover should you have an accident while on project. Check any limitations of the policy and be sure the country/ies that you are visiting are included. If you are going volunteering in the developing world don’t scrimp on insurance.
Culture, customs and local laws
Finally, make sure that you are familiar with the local culture, customs and laws. You want to integrate quickly and understanding the culture and acting respectfully will help.
Accept that things are different (after all, this is one of the reasons you’ve chosen to travel overseas) and don’t be too quick to judge. It is fine and healthy to have a difference of opinion but don’t be dismissive of other peoples feelings and respect the attitudes and ideas of the local people and other volunteers.
Also, make sure you know how to act on a day-to-day basis: how to greet people, understand and be respectful of hierarchy within a community; how to eat and drink without causing offence (which hand to eat with? Do you have to wait for your host to start eating first? Do you clear your plate or is it polite to leave something?) How should you dress? (Should you cover your shoulders? Do you take your shoes off before entering someone’s house?). Is it OK to smoke or drink alcohol? Are there any specific laws that you should know about – what about public signs of affection and attitudes toward same sex relationships?