5 Tips for Volunteering Abroad


“The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalisation…How about having volunteers advocate for their home country to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies (such as subsidy programmes)? This might seem unrealistic but the idea is to get volunteers to understand their own (direct or indirect) role in global poverty. The idea is to get volunteers truly invested in ending poverty, and not simply to feel better about themselves.” Ossob Mohamud for the Guardian

1. Know your skills.

Before you visit an unknown place, ask yourself how you can help and what you can learn from it. Do you want to help a small community or contribute towards a larger picture? Do you really want to make a difference or do you just want it on your CV? Do you want to challenge yourself or do you expect to be pampered while you’re there? See what skills the volunteer programme is looking for and adapt to it. If  you want to teach English, do a TEFL course, if you want to gain experience in wildlife conservation, do an online conservation course.

2. Be wary of working with children and orphans.

You will constantly see direct attempts by organisations that work with orphans and children who lure tourists by seducing them with wide eyes and heart-wrenching stories of abandonment. This leads to clumsy attempts to do good that end up harming communities we want to help, from teenagers fresh out of school teaching English with no experience to middle-aged professionals and retirees feeling guilty and giving absurd amounts of money to “give back” to society. Too many travellers carry a naively romantic idea of doing good while on their holidays. “Unfortunately, they are led by their hearts and not their heads and unknowingly support environments that may be abusive to children,” said Mark Turgesen, international coordinator of ChildSafe Network, which protects children from abuse.

Voluntourism”, the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet.” The Guardian.

3. Research the organisation.

A good volunteering organisation should be transparent with their spending and should be able to give you a receipt for your payment, a list of donors, and a breakdown of how much goes where. If they have been running for a few years, expect an annual review or report published by the organisation and circulated among its donor. They should also have a decent monitoring and evaluation system used for reflection and analysis of what is and isn’t working, also ensure they have long-term project objectives that address the underlying causes of a problem, not just a temporary solution. By being aware of how projects that work with vulnerable people (or animals) can actually have a negative impact, you can ensure that you’re contributing to sustainable development — not working with exploitative organisations.

4. Learn about the place you’re going.

What communities don’t want is volunteers coming and imposing a model or a way of working that isn’t appropriate to the cultural context. Doing this well as a volunteer requires insight into your own skills and the needs of the community or volunteer placement. Learn a bit of the language, look into the history of the country and the particular area of interest you will be working in. Find out what is important to people in terms of respect and way of life, things like dressing appropriately and avoiding certain subjects of conversation can go a long way. Many volunteers are also extremely unprepared for the conditions they are going into, be ready to see extremely impoverished villages, traumatised populations or dangerous conditions.

5. Build capacity, not dependency

The best projects are those where external expertise and local expertise join together in a fruitful meeting of minds and commitment. The key is to build capacity within the community through working alongside them and learning from each other – give trainings if required, see how you can make your role as a support system eventually unnecessary.