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What to consider when deciding to volunteer abroad

Volunteering abroad is a fantastic opportunity to make a difference in the communities you are going to visit and travel to a new country, immersing yourself in the culture. However, there is a fine line between travelling to try and make a difference and when it becomes 'voluntourism' - something I realised I may have been guilty of without even knowing it, which is why I decided to write this blog post. It is important to consider a few important factors before volunteering abroad. I've listed my top ones below:


1. The nature of the programme - what is the aim?


When looking online at gap year or volunteering opportunities that will require you to go abroad, it’s paramount that you are clear on what the programme’s aims and are and also what your OWN goals are and how you plan to meet them diring your trip. For example, Global Pre-Meds - the programme I decided to undertake during my gap year - is a programme specifically designed for providing aspiring doctors, nurses, midwives and allied healthcare professionals with clinical shadowing placements in partnering countries. It has an ethical medical shadowing policy, meaning that I did not participate in any surgery or patient care decisions without being under supervision or patient consent. Have a look at the 'About' and 'Contact' pages to investigate whether a company is reputable and what their ethos is for their volunteering schemes. Ask questions or submit an enquiry if ever in doubt! I know Global Pre-Meds had a fantastic phone line and was always happy to answer questions when I called. This can not only ensure that you don't get scammed but also that you are signing up for an ethical and genuine volunteering opportunity.


2. The cost


Sometimes you will be expected to pay for the experience and you want know where your money is going. Global Pre-Meds employs local people in their partnering countries to ensure that the company is contributing positively to the community. Part of your fee goes to the hospitals and other healthcare facilities that host your placement, ultimately helping them to improve the patient services they can provide. The programme funded medical equipment such as neonatal incubators, beds for a paediatric ward, surgical equipment and a range of hospital staff training. Our money also paid the healthcare professionals an extra fee on top of their current salaries for the additional time they are giving up to mentor us and allow us to shadow them. The money also paid the chefs, house-keepers, taxi drivers and all of the independent partnering tourism agencies who were responsible for any tourist activities we did during our time there. Depending on your volunteering opportunity, make sure that you research any fees you may have to pay and exactly what they are going towards. Be expected to pay for your own flights and bring spending money for your time there.


3. The length of the programme. What will your time consist of?


How long you are planning to stay in the country matters so that you can budget accordingly and sort out Visa applications EARLY. You will need to look at the Foreign Travel advice on the Gov Website (especially now due to COVID restrictions) to understand the Visa process and when this must be completed so it’s all ready before you board your flight. Applying for a VISA may be a process that you can complete online or you may have to visit the relevant Embassy in the UK.

Furthermore, it is vital to look at what you will be doing during your time on the programme. For my time on Global Pre-Meds, our days consisted of clinical placements from 8am-2pm and we knew where we were supposed to be (we were chauffeured to and from placements) and who we were supposed to be shadowing everyday. After 2pm, this was as our free time and we were able to book tourist activities or relax at the house with other students on the programme.


4. Who you will be staying with and where you will be staying


Some organisations offer housing that is affiliated with their programme whereas others partner up with local families who will host you during your stay. Make sure you are comfortable with the types of living arrangements and accommodation options available and ask questions if unsure. It is also worth having a look at the location of where you will be staying in case you have to factor in commuting to your placement/volunteering role.


5. Read online reviews

Read reviews on a range of sites from previous volunteers instead of relying only on the promotional materials given to you or available on their website and social media pages. You can then get a better insight into the reputation of the company and the way the volunteering takes place.


6. Ethical considerations


Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, is an emerging trend of travel linked to “doing good”. It has been estimated that every year 1.6 million people volunteer overseas with voluntourism being considered the fastest growing ‘trend’ in travel. - Hopes & Homes, blog post on orphanage voluntourism


Most of the time, those of us who travel abroad to undertake volunteering are well-intentioned people (often gap year students or new graduates) who are looking for an opportunity to travel and make a positive contribution to the countries we visit. However, when it comes to certain volunteering opportunities such as volunteering in orphanages and other children’s institutions, unfortunately you can risk unwittingly doing more harm than good to the children there.


During my time at Global Pre-Meds, every Thursday, the volunteers and I would visit a local orphanage: Orfanatos Ninos de Cristo (Orphanage Children of Christ), to teach the children English. But obviously, we ended up bonding and really enjoying our time with them. The orphanage welcomed children from the Dominican Republic and Haiti who had been abandoned and/or abused. The conditions that these children used to live in were often dangerous, unsanitary and traumatic - with many suffering from malnutrition and a lack of access to education, forcing them to beg on the streets in order to survive. Because government funds are extremely limited in the Dominican Republic, orphanages are one of the few ways that these children have a better chance at life. However, recently, light has been shone upon the detrimental effects that thousands of volunteers coming in and out of the orphanage can have on a child's mental well-being and in hindsight, I would not have partaken in activities if I considered the effect it would have had.


I would not discourage you from volunteering abroad but I would implore you to research every aspect of the volunteering programme and organisation in depth before deciding to go. If you ever find yourself in a situation that feels even slightly exploitative for the people living there, escalate this to someone senior on the programme and refuse to partake in those activities.


Most people who volunteer overseas genuinely want to do something meaningful and have a life-changing experience, however some of the companies that arrange this type of travel may be more concerned with creating this 'once-in-a-lifetime' experience for their customers, rather than responding appropriately to the needs of the host communities.


So how can we avoid “voluntourism”?


Do your research - make sure you hit all the headings in this post

Echoing what this blog post has been about - do thorough research on your organisation, both for your own safety and to ensure the legitimacy of the organisation. You want to join a programme where you are working alongside local communities and helping them with their most pressing needs, not exploiting them or causing more harm.


Don't be afraid to contact them

Asking questions via email or over the phone about how the organisation operates and the quantifiable impact they have had on the communities they work with is essential in being a sustainable volunteer. Your aim should be to make certain that companies don’t take advantage of your good intentions, and that the money you have raised or the work you are doing is benefiting the needs of the local community directly, and not just the staff of the organisation you are working for. Be confident enough to ask where your donations are going, and always be skeptical if:

  • The organisation refuses to be completely transparent with you

  • You get different pieces of information each time you email or call them

  • You feel dismissed or the staff avoid your questions

^ Major red flags!


Recognise the value you are bringing and do you role well!

It makes no sense to go abroad in the name of 'volunteering' if you do not actually have any skills, insight or education to bring to the host country. Volunteers are often needed when there is a skills deficit in the host community or they need extra pairs of hands. Whether you’re going abroad to teach English or health care service, make sure you're competent and well-trained before you leave, or ask the organisation if they conduct training when you arrive.


Further reading:


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