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From funds raised by volunteers the centre now has an important piece of physio rehab equipment...a tilt table

Volunteering Abroad – a Debate

Volunteering abroad can produce remarkable experiences for volunteers and the community in which they offer their services but is it a simple decision on the correctness of the volunteering gesture? I have spent a long time debating the issue of volunteer work in foreign countries and have found it really difficult to come to any fixed conclusions.

I am therefore presenting this blog post by way of opening a debate on the subject and canvassing your valued views….

There are so many factors to consider relating to volunteering abroad and to list some in no specific order we have:

  • Pros cons
  • For against
  • Right wrong
  • Paid volunteering
  • Cost to the organisation
  • Locals should learn to help themselves
  • Cheap labour
  • Help for those who cannot help themselves
  • Teaching English to raise standards
  • Should we just leave them to their own ends
  • Benefits to locals
  • Benefits to volunteers
  • Altruistic or selfish
  • Living in the community can generate local economy
  • The volunteer activity encourages empathy and compassion in our youth or other volunteers
  • Volunteering can develop a mutual understanding of differing cultures

From the points above I have distilled a number of searching questions and ask that you consider each in turn before drawing your own conclusions regarding volunteer work in a foreign country.

Some of my recent posts relate to volunteering abroad and my search for deserving causes to support in some way; this has led to me questioning the true value of volunteering; both from the volunteers point of view and the organisation with whom they are volunteering.

Sadly I have found it really difficult to come to any solid conclusion so instead I thought I would present this post as a set of debate type questions with a little clarification and my own thoughts thrown in.

This is a very emotive subject and one which may divide many current, past or potential volunteers and so I welcome your thoughts and points of view and hope that we can encourage an online debate by adding your comments in the comments box after the post.

A constructive, active forum may just help others make their own choice based upon YOUR considerations.

For those who do not know me; I have been a wooffer volunteer in New Zealand and Greece, have been an overseas volunteer in a number of other countries and as of late have been involved with many volunteer organisations throughout Nepal.

It is the interface with the great bunch of volunteers along with the knowledge gained as to the fruits of their labours which has led me to question some aspects of volunteering abroad…..just question…..not decry!!

And so to the Debate points

(I will number them to allow easy identification if you wish to comment on a specific point)

1    Is it so simple to say that ALL volunteer work is valid, worthwhile and to be encouraged?

Sounds like the answer here is YES until that is, you consider that a volunteer may be taking potential employment from local individuals.
Could the organisation or charity afford to pay for local employees?
Would local employees have the same enthusiasm as some volunteers undoubtedly possess?

2    Can paying for the privilege to volunteer ever be justified?

If you as a volunteer work, teach or help in a fashion which would otherwise have to be paid for by the organisation then perhaps just being and doing  and saving these cost is all the payment that should be required

3    If a volunteer is asked to contribute by a volunteer agency is the price you pay justified?

There are associated costs of course; food, accommodation and internal transport to name a few….but does the volunteer fee reflect the often very cheap local cost of these or is profit being made at your cost?

4    Can volunteering with good intent ever by completely right or completely wrong?

There will always be pros and cons but can we actually say the situation is completely black or white?

5    As a volunteer worker are you simply unpaid labour?

Perhaps the volunteer is seen as a form of cheap labour, or free labour….and in certain countries where the one abundant commodity is “cheap labour” …. is volunteering either justified or even cost effective.

6    Are you bolstering an already in place team and bringing some unique talents?

If so then this could mean that the organisation is looking after itself and just wants to inject much needed diversity from outsider influence.

7    Is the volunteer programme a structured one and can you easily determine what your objective will be?

Many paid for and free volunteer work programmes simply have no real structure or a project plan into which a volunteer can fit and understand what their role is AND what they might be hoping to achieve and gain from their volunteer period.

8    By acting as a volunteer are you preventing locals from helping themselves?

If there is a constant stream of unpaid volunteers supporting some organisation there is possibly no incentive to the locals to improve the way they do things and simply rely on outside help.
There is a strong argument for “helping people help themselves” rather than simply coming to the foreign country and doing work for an organisation. There perhaps should be a programme to teach or help the locals to help themselves.

9    Is the best form of volunteer one who can specifically help those who simply cannot help themselves?

Orphans and disabled persons have specific needs and benefit from volunteer services but can and should some of these volunteer services be better provided locally?

10   When volunteers form a bond with local children or people is this a benefit or an issue?

Children often form an attachment to volunteers and can become distressed once these volunteers leave.
Do volunteers from another country bring something completely different to a society which could not be reproduced locally

11    If volunteers act as temporary teachers (often teaching English) is this a benefit or an issue?

Teaching to a syllabus in a foreign country can be difficult
Understanding between pupils, teachers and volunteers can become mixed up
Interface with English speaking volunteers must help locals improve their own English
Teaching English has the potential to help locals improve their own circumstances through education.
Arguably this is one critical arena for the improvement of a society as a whole; making it possible for them to embrace economic changes imposed by the English speaking world.

As travellers and volunteers should we be imposing our culture on a foreign country or accept the culture as we find it
Maybe it is better for a society to remain in its own bubble and not feel it needs to be the same as other nations?

12    How do volunteers benefit from their chosen volunteer assignment?

Is volunteering altruistic or selfish and if it is does it really matter?
The volunteer activity encourages empathy and compassion in our youth or other volunteers
Volunteering can develop a mutual understanding of differing cultures

Is there a conclusion?

In the time I have been researching this area I have found myself becoming more and more confused by the counter arguments for all the points above. There are so many worthwhile organisations and charities who are applying themselves with the best of intent but even so there is the chance that the seemingly good work they are doing is actually wasted or indeed, counter productive to the needs of the community they so desperately seek to serve.

I have deliberately sought out a number of organisations and have attempted to determine their worth with a view to investing my own time, energy and money in their support by returning home from Nepal and doing my own form of fund raising …. if indeed this is what’s required.

I have written a further post outlining my progress and further posts emphasising the work done by the individual organisations I have loosely investigated. These are all to be found by following the links above.

My brief conclusion therefore is that any volunteering that makes some headway in developing the capability of the recipients to better themselves or improve their lot, without doing the work for them must be considered worthwhile.

If the volunteering project involves completing work for the recipient which COULD otherwise be done by them might be better avoided….but you MUST weigh up each opportunity carefully and not put all charities for example in the same basket!

There are many who simply do not have any options open to them; disabled, orphaned, infirm and aged without families or outside support who absolutely deserve and merit our help. Especially in Nepal where Government aid is virtually non existent in many sectors.

Do not be put off volunteering

Volunteering can be fun, can be healthy, can open your eyes to so many different cultures, can be ultra beneficial to many and can certainly develop your mind along the way…I hope this post has started your mind racing and that it allows you to form a balanced opinion for the future.

Useful links:

Nepali Childrens Trust – a really well set up charity and were I have met some fantastic disabled children and equally fantastic volunteers.

Nepally Dream – This is actually run by a good friend of mine and an author on this site. She has relocated from France specifically to live here in Nepal and manage her dream of helping the less fortunate.

Khagendra New Life Centre – a very deserving cause for long term disabled and the cause to which I will personally dedicate time to.

VE Global – a No fee voluntary organisation

One World – Provides positions and jobs in the volunteer sector

IGWR – An Oz based charity which I have had many dealings with and are beyond reproach

Kind regards and look forward to your comments      Gary the Old Guy





Any questions or feedback can be directed to the comments section below and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.  :-D

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About Gary

I represent the 50+ age group of travellers and travel writers on this site. After 30yrs in the Air Force and further years in big business I have twice jacked in highly paid jobs to travel extensively...read how I done so here. In this past year alone I will have travelled to and lived for substantial periods of time in Greece, Greek Islands, Italy, India, Nepal and Thailand and will be posting articles about these places on this site. I am very open to any questions relating to travel, wwoofing, housesitting, house renting, art and spiritual matters so feel free to contact me directly

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  1. I have done volunteer work myself in the past in a hospital on a palliative care ward and also as a youth worker at a youth club for young children. This work was within the UK.

    I think before deciding to do some volunteer work, you need to look at where your own skills lie and what you can bring to the groups that you volunteer for. Not all skills are from a job, life skills are very important, so think about where you can apply these as well.

    As for working abroad, I feel that in countries like Nepal, there is just not the training and resources within this country for their own people to do the work the volunteers do from other countries. Having said this if more people within Nepal were encouraged by the organisatiosn to come and help out, they could learn new skills themselves and then, pass these on to other people and families, that way people would then be able to look after themselves. All of us in our lives have had people to look after us, so to help other people, less fortunate and with the aim to help them support themselves makes sense to me.

    I am afraid that money is tight everywhere even in the UK. The hospitals, cafes, porters and assistants run on a large percentage of volunteers. So volunteering is required everywhere.

    It is not for everyone, but, if you are out of work or travelling and want to expand on your skills or learn new things, then volunteering is the way. Paid jobs are not always available. You will provide a wealth of knowledge and help, and plus, expand your CV for your own future. By volunteering it opens up new doors for you. Teaching is a good example. You will gain experience working with adults and children. Nowadays to get a job you need x amount of years experience and won’t get a look in at home. Teaching in other countries as a volunteer, may help you get that foot in the door.

    I for one are all for it. If you feel that your role is unclear, then ask. Don’t be afraid. They may need you to help them. You may have good leadership and project management skills or simply a good organiser. Don’t leave it to everyone else have a voice.

  2. A great comprehensive response Maggie thank you and you picked up on some close to home truths which I had not covered. As soon as I posted this blog I have spoken with many more people with varying thoughts about volunteers and it seems the consensus is swinging certainly in favour of well intentioned structured volunteering. Great post thanks


    • One final area that is very sensitive is, you wrote about the bonds that occur between the volunteers and the children or adults that you are helping and caring for. Saying goodbye is not easy for either. Has anyone said how they deal with this or could you ask? This is something that happens all round the world everyday and is sometimes hard to deal with.

  3. It is really difficult for both parties (from my limited experience ) but that does not mean that both the volunteer and those they are working with do not gain a lot from the experience. In fact they both may gain much more than they would experience in “normal” life. Tough lessons are also sometimes good ones…it isn’t wrong to feel sad and it often makes the time together much more important.

    A Difficult subject and certainly welcome other comments.

    • Having worked as a play therapist for 4 years the most important thing is to be completely honest with the children. Children with attachment disorders need to learn to trust adults again. If they have a stream of volunteers who they become fond of who tell them they will return and they never do they learn to trust no one. If you know you cannot come back tell them that and do not try and soften the blow. In trying to be kind we often increase the damage.

      • Thanks Diane for sharing your expertise on this delicate matter

      • Thanks Di…I know you have actually visited many of the children in Nepal and India and so your opinion MUST be recognised as a genuine professional opinion…thank you.

  4. I have recently been teaching English in Nepal as a volunteer and I enjoyed my experience immensely, I am also very confident that the children I taught progressed well and I will be going back next year to do the same. Surely you must weigh up the merits of each individual post, organisation and person and make an informed decision on this basis. It is impossible to group all organisations and volunteers for that matter together as many have a lot to offer, but by the same token, many don’t.

    • Thanks for the response John….since writing this post I have become more and more tuned to the great benefits to both the volunteers and to the recipients and absolutely recognise the fantastic value volunteers bring to the local population. I fully agree that each post must be weighed up and evaluated … the post is meant to get the “great n good” people thinking so that they get the most from their time abroad. Again thanks both for volunteering and for taking the time to respond to this post…cheers Gary 🙂