Volunteering abroad: a message to youth

Don’t volunteer abroad because you have time during a gap year.
Don’t volunteer abroad because you want to build your CV.
Don’t volunteer abroad because you want to travel too.
Why volunteering abroad is largely nonsense.

Recently my sister asked me, “what do you think about travelling to volunteer??”

After a wave of delight at being consulted for travel advice passed through my mind I sat back to think about the question. I began to float back and forth in a kind of socratic dialogue.


Let’s get this out in the open first. I’ve never volunteered abroad. I briefly volunteered at home.

One year I volunteered to sort and repack Christmas Shoeboxes (where people fill shoeboxes with gifts for kids in poor countries). For years I’d seen how much care my mom put into filling those boxes. We filled them with hair-ties, hair brushes, toothbrushes, colouring crayons, books and some toys.

I was excited all the way to the warehouse and this joyful feeling lingered up until I opened about twenty boxes. I’d understood the nature of the role — we’d been told we’d be assigned to opening boxes to check the contents were good for children — but some boxes…. Some had toys that were so ratty they wouldn’t be fit for any child. These sad attempts at providing charity went straight into the bins beside our workbenches. We were instructed early on to take good-box objects and disperse them among bad-boxes—filling the empty spots with cheap donated prize toys from fast-food organisations.

As I sliced open boxes and dismantled good selections to balance the cringeworthy ones I learned two things:

1) A lot of people want to participate, but many didn’t contribute to the true nature of the charity. They don’t research what the charity needs or consider whether they would give the item to their own children.

2) What you put into an organisation isn’t what will arrive before the people its intended for. This is true for money, objects and actions.



Upon entering university I kept that experience in mind as I passed the smiling, white faces caught mid-laugh and headlined by some form of the question what are you doing to make the world a better place?

It later came back to the forefront of my thoughts when I noticed a rise in bloggers posting candidly about their expected experience versus the reality of volunteering abroad. I was in Thailand at that point and considering a lot of volunteering opportunities.


Working with animals

When a friend asked if I wanted to go to Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua temple, or the Tiger Temple, I thought about how much I could learn about tigers from seeing them up front.

Then, after looking more into the location I politely declined.

I simply didn’t like the way they treated the tigers — keeping them chained up and allegedly sedated so tourists could see them up close.

On the same strain of thought I decided then-and-there it would never be wise to volunteer at an animal organisation. I am not trained as a vet. I would be useless to improving the well-being of these creatures. Even for mundane tasks like cleaning cages, by the time I could be trained to do something properly and efficiently I’d be leaving again.


English schools

On my latest visit to Southeast Asia I found myself with free time and thinking, how about dropping in at an English school? I’m pretty good at English aren’t I, as a native speaker?

Then my thoughts floated back to my university Spanish classes. What was most helpful about that class was the fact that I could talk to my teacher in English to ask questions about and build my Spanish.

I can’t speak Thai. If a Thai child couldn’t understand me how could I help them without a translator? Wouldn’t the translator then be a far better teacher than I?

What about if the children knew advanced English and could hold a conversation? What could I teach them then? Their teacher would be showing them adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and a whole bag of building-block academic terms that’d long faded in my memory. There is a reason why western English teachers have to earn a degree in English and then train to teach. Why should I expect to teach youth when I demand my teachers have an experienced teaching method and deep grasp of the mechanics of language?

And, if the students wanted to practice talking in English there are an estimated 948, 608, 782 English-speaking people to talk to online. Or they can talk with friends or among themselves even! They have that power! I don’t need to go disrupting their class for my own ego.


Schools, libraries and wells

Ok so no language schools. How about building something then. You are good with your hands.

I know the difference between a wrench and a screwdriver, how to hammer a nail, and use a level—but does that make me qualified to create a building? HELL NO.

One girl, Pippa Biddle, wrote about working on a library in Tanzania:

“Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

I am not a trained brick-layer or carpenter, so why should I assume trained locals can’t build something I shouldn’t? If I wanted a new library in my hometown would I ask just anyone to build it? Nope. Would I be allowed to by law? No. And for good reason.

Another girl, Samantha, explained her reason to avoid volunteering in the future: all she and other volunteers were told to do was paint walls, because that is all they could safely do.

On top of all this it’s important to consider surrounding conditions. Why have the people not petitioned the government for funds to build these things? If they can’t talk to their government or access local initiatives for their basic needs they have bigger problems to tackle before they can enjoy the benefits of schools, libraries and wells.

If you build a school but the village can’t afford a teacher and supplies all you’ve given them is a glorified barn.




Fine, what about visiting an orphanage to work with children. You are good with children and you’ve worked with them over summer camps. I think that makes you qualified.

So here’s how I see it. One thing to consider deeply before signing up for any kind of volunteering with kids is language barriers. You will not be able to help any kids have a good time without being able to talk to them.

If you can over-come this barrier (you know the language), the second thing to consider is time. When I worked at summer camps I worked with the kids two-three hours a day for a week. Then they got to go home with their crafts and forget about me for the rest of the year/their life in lieu of long-term relationships with family, friends and lovers.

For kids in tourism orphanages (those open to so-called volunteering opportunities) there is a new batch of “friends” every day or week for who knows how many days of the year until they are adults. That is completely unfair for children. They deserve long-term commitment or peace.



So are there any good volunteering-travel opportunities out there?

Yes, but probably in a different form than you’ve imagined. As one woman put it—we often forget that we have to learn before we can serve. Providing services to people abroad should be no exception. Poorer countries aren’t our career training grounds. They aren’t CV builders. Our help stands on our skills.


Use your qualifications

If you are a doctor or nursing student just finishing school go for it! Go abroad and help people get vaccinated. You could work with WHO for example (you’ll note they employ or offer internships to people for the field rather than welcoming volunteers). I’d recommend language training first though.

If you are a carpenter or brick-layer with real experience or are accompanying an instructor with practical experience who will be responsible for you, then go for it! Get a work-holiday visa and work with locals rather than over them.

If you are a teacher do a class exchange! That gives your equivalent the chance to see how teaching works in your home country! Both parties benefit!


Honestly use your muscles

Well what about untrained youngsters then! Are they excluded on the basis of lack of knowledge?

Nope. There is always real grunt work.

Local NGOs that are focused on cleaning up after tourists and educating them on sustainable tourism is a good start. You don’t have to be trained to pick up garbage.

You could also try WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), though this does involve a bit of farm work-experience. Instead of asking for money this organisation asks you for work. You are set up with a host who provides room and board for you in exchange for 4-6 hours of working on their organic farm.

My favourite thing about this organisation is that it’s a global initiative. We all benefit from organic farming so this organisation exists in western countries as well as eastern ones. Plus you live WITH the farmers you are helping so there is a more fundamental interaction occuring.

Of course even this organisation is far from flawless. You have to very carefully choose a host.


“UGH. I just want to do something helpful but, like I want to go do it—I don’t want to just give money,” said my reasonably exasperated sister as I finished my ramblings.

In the end I had only one piece of solid advice for her.

If you want to volunteer. Volunteer. If you want to travel. Travel.

Volunteer locally where you recognize the problems and connect with the language and culture on a personal level. Help at home where you can commit for a long time.

“For example you could coach a sports team, help collect and sort food for a local food bank, volunteer with distributing hot food at a homeless shelter, find a local abused dog or horse shelter and help there since you are familiar with those animals (over something exotic like elephants).”

Later when you have experience you can go abroad and help others.

Travelling on the other hand is about exploring and learning—two things many youth are in search of when they consider volunteering abroad. The key difference is the participation of a destination’s citizens. Do you expect local _______ (tigers, children, elephants….) to be part of your self-discovery journey? If so you are being arrogant and should reconsider. You are a visitor to someone else’s home when you are abroad. Acknowledge and show gratitude when you are taught something. Honour cultures and people by sharing and applying what you’ve learned.

Life and journeys are about lessons. At least when you choose to just travel you are admitting you are a student without all the answers.

Which. Is. What. You. Are.


And that’s fine.










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