Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Survivor's Guide to Volunteering Abroad

Today is the 25th International Volunteer Day, a day organised by the UN to recognise the work done by, you guessed it, international volunteers. As I consider myself to fit into this category I thought I would share with you some titbits of knowledge that I have amassed along the way. You’ve had the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, this is not as humorous and neither does it have the very reassuring 'don't panic' feature, but ultimately it might be a bit more useful...

Rule Number One: Do not get ripped off.
I’ve learned this valuable lesson the hard way. The first time that I volunteered in East Africa I was young, I was nervous. I was a girl in my early 20s heading to Africa for the first time… alone. For peace of mind, as much for my family as me, I went through an organisation that shall remain nameless. However let it be known that last year their turn over was over a £1million.  As a result I ended up paying what I can only assume were huge administration fees whilst the organisation for whom I volunteered for saw only a small percentage of the money.
If you see a project that you’re interested in via  one of these companies I would strongly recommend trying to find out more details and contacting the project directly. This way any fees that you do incur are likely to go back into the project and you could save yourself a lot of money.

Teaching children to Swim in Uganda
 Rule Number Two: Pack wisely
This seems obvious, but wise packing is perhaps not obvious packing. I strongly urge everyone to take a jumper with them, regardless of where in the world they are going. You may be surprised by freak storms, cold nights, or just have need for a make shift pillow. The most useful packing advice is probably to take layers, this way you can adapt to all kinds of weathers and if the layers are thin/cotton when you wash them they’ll dry quickly too.
If you are going for a long time, take a few little treats as home comforts. Maybe a packet of your favourite biscuits or sweets, a face mask, just a little something. You’ll be surprised how much of a pick me up small items can be if you’ve been away from home for a while or have had a particularly tough day.

Rule Number Two (a): A sarong might become your best friend
Men, forget your pride, if David Beckham can get away with a sarong so can you. You don’t even have to wear yours to make it a valuable asset. Some of the most useful ways to utilise your sarong are: as a towel, a scarf/shawl, a sheet, a rug for sitting on, something to protect you from the sun, a pillow, a bag, a hat, privacy barrier (provided it’s not too see through) and of course, as a sarong.

Rule Number Three: Make contact
Before you go to your project ask if you can have the contacts of one or two former or current volunteers. These people will know the lay of the land. They will be able to give you invaluable advice and insider knowledge that guidebooks and official information fail to. They will be the ones to let you know that traveller’s cheques are pointless in a small town, that whilst there is power, it is incredibly intermittent and a wind up torch might be wise and that despite what the guide book says, there is in fact an ATM. In short, you can learn from their mistakes.

Rule Number Four:  Be flexible.
Not physically, although it may help in getting on and off local transport, but in terms of what you are required to do. It is often surprising the wide variety of things you may be asked to do as a volunteer. During my time volunteering for a non-profit in Uganda I went from teaching children in a rural primary school to setting up a radio show for young east Africans and eventually ended up as the director’s assistant. Generally people have all kinds of tools in their skill base and organisations like to take full advantage if possible (and if it’s ok with said volunteer).

Rule Number Five: It’s not all dig, dig, dig.
When most people think of volunteering abroad they think of teaching children, digging wells and building schools. However, it is surprising how many organisations need help with the administrative side of things. It may not seem as glamorous or heroic but helping a small organisation with human resources, accounting, volunteer co-ordination or legal issues can really make a difference. Many organisations and projects, especially in the developing world simply can’t afford to employ everyone they would ideally like to, especially those with clerical knowledge. By setting up a system that you can then teach locals you could improve life for local staff and make the whole organisation run a lot smoother.

Rule number Six: Rome wasn’t built in a day
Realise that in other countries things might not get done as quickly as they are back home, it is wise to adapt to this pace of life rather than getting frustrated. Be realistic about what you want to achieve from your time volunteering. Of course, have good intentions but if you’re intention is to volunteer and change the world.. forget it. I mean changing the world is pretty big stuff, especially for just one person. Goals like: I want to teach a child to write their name, I want to provide clean water for a village by the time I leave, are attainable and if you achieve more than this then you can feel doubly pleased about your efforts.

Rule Number Seven: Befriend the locals
When far away from home it is easy to stick to what you know, the comfort of someone who shares a same first language, knows your favourite band and is also missing the same home luxuries. Make friends with the other volunteers by all means, in fact in my personal experience you will become rather good friends with these people that you are in such close quarters, working side by side and sharing a great experience with. However, take the time to also get to know the locals. After all, it is people that really make a place. Forget language barriers and cultural differences by opening yourself up to people you will get a much better idea of how things really are. They will also be able to give you valuable local knowledge that might help keep you safe, or at least save you a bit of money at the local market!

Rule Number Eight: Enjoy
This is perhaps the most obvious pointer, but it’s also one of the most important. If you plan on volunteering for a long time you are bound to have a few ‘off days’, when was the last time you went several months feeling perky every moment? Feelings of frustration can be common when volunteering abroad especially if things are taking longer than expected or you’ve come up against unexpected barriers. However just remind yourself why you’ve decided to volunteer on this project in the first place.


  1. Just came across your page from 20SB. What a great resource and an awesome idea. Im gonna pass the link along to some mates looking to volunteer and add you to my blogroll!

    P.s I spent a few months in East Africa too (Mainly Kenya but also Ethiopia and Uganda and absolutely loved it..hope to go back and live there some day. x)

  2. Thank you for your comment Janet. I'm glad that you think people might find it useful, I think it's always nice to hear from a first hand perspective. It would be great if you could pass the link along :) Much appreciated

  3. love this post (just found it) and it's so very very true. lovely blog.

  4. Thank you very much Hannah Elizabeth, so nice to hear that people are finding some of the stuff I write interesting/useful.