Moving abroad and learning about other parts of the world is one of the most satisfying things a human being can do. Seeing spectacular scenery, travelling difficult paths and meeting new and interesting neighbours: there is nothing like an adventure to set the spirit soaring.
What if you could combine your life in a new country with the chance to make a real difference to the world? A double whammy of the feel-good factor could see you volunteering your time, effort and expertise around the world.For all expats, but particularly for those who have moved abroad to follow a spouse’s job opportunities, volunteering can be a great way to integrate into the local community and make friends whilst helping people.
There are elephants in Thailand that need a helping hand and kangaroos in need of care in Australia. There are orphanages all over the world that need teachers, carers and energetic people to liven up the lives of some of the world’s poorest children.
Whatever your expertise, there will be an opportunity for you to help somewhere in the world. Charities need engineers and bloggers in equal measure; hospitals need surgeons and translators; and there’s always the need for strong arms on building projects.
Before setting off with ambitions to save the world, do your research. There are many programmes out there that charge an arm and a leg for ‘volunteering’, but the money doesn’t always go to good causes.
The reverse is also true: many schemes use your money to invest in the local economy and to provide volunteers with safe accommodation in unsettled countries. Make sure you know what you’re signing up to.
If you need a little inspiration for your altruistic adventures, take a look at the list below.
Recent unrest in the country may put many volunteers off spending a stint in there, whilst others are seeing it as an opportunity to make a difference.
Schemes exist for volunteers to teach English to youngsters in schools and community centres. Cairo has shelters caring for abandoned or disabled children. These programs are often poorly funded and can benefit from experienced volunteers.
It’s a chance to make a real difference in the lives of young people at a time when their country has other things on its mind. But do make sure you follow the travel advice offered by your government as terrorist attacks and general unrest can present a threat.
The Asian country spent much of the 20th century ravaged by war and is still coming to terms with its legacy. Sadly one of the most long-lasting of these is the ongoing threat of landmines.
There maybe as many as six million undetonated explosive devices in the country, with disposal operations slow to make a dent in the massive stockpile. It’s estimated that the bombs have caused 40,000 casualties, a third of these being children. Voluntary organisations help victims of landmine blasts to get back onto prosthetic feet, learn new trades and access work.
Cambodia has a large number of children in no formal education, destined for a life of poverty. There are free schools and community projects teaching children English, crafts and skills, as well as other subjects from the curriculum.
There are several charities focusing on training street children for roles in the growing tourism industry; these opportunities are centred mostly around the bustling hotspot of Battambang.
© SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget
Russia may be the biggest country on the planet, but it also has some giant-sized problems for volunteers to help with.
Since the collapse of communism the economy has been unstable and successive governments have ignored many issues. Chief among these was care for vulnerable young people. Alcohol consumption is ten times higher than in the USA, with a massive divorce rate.
Combined with one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates, the country has 600,000 orphans in care, thousands more on the streets and very little in the way of social support.
Orphanages are in dire need of people with experience working with children, especially those who may have been victims of sexual abuse. Volunteers are also needed to provide the basic support children need and to teach to kids who may never have sat in a classroom before.
It isn’t easy to set up placements in Russia and the paperwork can require some wrangling. Be sure to set up your volunteer time with a reputable agency to avoid costly scams.
Thailand’s national animal is the elephant, an intelligent yet hardy gentle giant that symbolises the nation’s calm stoicism. Sadly this has not protected the giant animals from exploitation and abuse.
Elephants have been used as beasts of burden by farmers and loggers, as well as giant performers in circuses and in tourist shows. The creatures are trained using violent beatings and are often chained up for years at a time.
Thankfully, a growing conservation and ecotourism movement is helping improve the elephants’ lot. Charities and sanctuaries now rescue these working elephants and care for them.
With only 3,000 wild elephants left in the wild in Thailand, these protection efforts could make all the difference for the future of the species. Volunteers at the sanctuaries will feed, wash and help with medical care for the elephants, getting to know their personalities.
These programmes are a chance to escape from the tourist trail and spend time living in the Thai jungle alongside these gentle giants.
© VISIONS Service Adventures
It might seem odd to head to two of the world’s richest nations to volunteer, but the Native American populations of both nations are in need of a helping hand.
Reservations may represent a safe haven for these ancient cultures to be preserved; they also cut the communities off from the outside world and the support that it affords.
Volunteers are needed to teach in schools and build community buildings. Engineers may find themselves improving the infrastructure of these neglected settlements and health workers may be able to improve the conditions in which the people live.
These schemes offer a rare opportunity to live, work and be part of communities that are somewhat removed from the modern world yet boast a proud history and strong spiritual tradition.
There are a number of agencies that will arrange placements in Native American communities and a structured support network to ensure that you and the population get the maximum benefit out of your time there.
© Tim Dawson
Head down under for a chance to work in some of the world’s most spectacular scenery in the world. On a conservation scheme you’ll have the chance to help protect these delicate ecosystems.
Australia is regularly ravaged by wildfire, and in the months or years following a big burn the landscape needs help recovering. Volunteers can help replant trees or conduct surveys of wildlife.
There are chances to work in sanctuaries, caring for injured animals and nursing them back to health. Kangaroos with concussion and wobbly wombats all need TLC to get them back out into the bush.
New Zealand too has programmes to protect its landscape, managing the damage done by tourism in the iconic National Parks or monitoring the health of coastal conservation areas.
© The Jewish Agency for Israel
Arguably this country was founded by the efforts of volunteers. Leading up to Israel’s founding as an independent state in 1948, Jewish communities sprang up across the landscape, working in communes known as kibbutzim, establishing permanent Jewish presence in the disputed territory.
The volunteer tradition is still strong in Israel today, with one third of all Israelis volunteering in one way or another. The kibbutz movement is also strong in modern day Israel, with nearly 300 active communes.
Jewish volunteers from around the world travel to lend a hand in these self-contained societies, working six-day weeks on farms or construction. The pioneering romance of the kibbutz is still strong, but some have become semi-industrial and the villages account for a significant slice of Israel’s economy. Kibbutzim generate 40% of the state’s agricultural output and some have branched out to produce high-tech products or military technologies.
Kibbutz life is supposed toe be tough and physical, with communal living meaning shared work, meals, and often dormitories. Everyone is expected to pitch in equally and even those with specialist skills in healthcare or teaching may find themselves digging the fields in work hours. With volunteers from all over the world, Hebrew is used as a common language and Jewish traditions permeate the working day.
Kibbutz life is not for everyone; it’s designed to give Jewish volunteers a taste of intense communal living and to keep Jewish tradition alive. The kibbutz movement is intricately tied to Israel’s national identity, so be sure about your political feelings on the Middle East before signing up.
It is possible to turn up at a kibbutz and jump right in, but it helps the commune to know in advance who is coming and also helps you manage visas.
© oneVillage Initiative
The West African country of Ghana is rapidly becoming a hotspot for volunteering, with short or long-term placements available across a number of projects.
Travel across the country is easy and cheap, so there are volunteers moving from one program onto another, starting in the capital Accra on legal aid schemes and moving on to teaching projects in the Akuapem hills.
Ghana is a particularly good place for gaining medical experience. The country’s medical services vary, with modern hospitals in urban centres and remote, poorly equipped clinics in rural areas. After a decade of National Insurance funded public health initiatives, the Ministry of Health has begun to improve conditions across Ghana.
Consequently there are opportunities for volunteers with medical training to gain experience, both in high tech hospitals and on the frontline of remote clinics.
Dentists, midwives and nurses are as in demand as physiotherapists, pharmacists and junior doctors. The country is also waging a battle against AIDS, with community projects and schools needing specialist health educators. Medical staff can deal with all the conditions seen in Western countries, as well as malaria, malnutrition, worms and leprosy.
Programs are open to volunteers as young as 16, while more specialist roles are open to postgraduate students with experience in their field.
Ghana has 11 official languages, but English is a common lingua franca across the country.
© Arnie Papp
Ecuador is a biodiversity hotspot, a veritable Noah’s ark of rare and at risk species. The country’s mainland is packed with fascinating creatures, but the Galapagos Islands contain the unique species that inspired Charles Darwin.
This biosphere is becoming a popular tourist attraction and it takes an army of volunteers to protect the islands from invasive species which could decimate the natural inhabitants.
Not only do volunteers clean up the beaches from washed up garbage, they patrol the undergrowth ripping out plants that would take over and choke this delicate ecosystem.
Other schemes allow volunteers to work with the iconic giant tortoises indigenous to the Galapagos.
© Doni Ismanto
The United Nations Volunteer initiative seeks willing workers from around the world, young and old, with a range of skills. With schemes active in over 140 countries, there is likely to be a good fit for you somewhere in the program.
Both the UNV and its sister scheme UN Youth Volunteer, which offers placements to those aged 18 to 29, run programs for between three and twelve months at a time.
Places on the prestigious schemes can be hard to get, but if you show an interest in international development or have specialist skills, the placements can be extended to suit you. A knowledge of languages will be beneficial, with working fluency in at least English, French or Spanish being essential.
Volunteers pitch in with humanitarian work, health crises and peacekeeping operations. Anyone with experience in human rights law, child protection, community development, journalism or water and sanitation will find themselves in demand on the UNV database.
Currently UNV staff are deployed mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but postings are available in Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, the Arab States and Europe.
Volunteering with the UN offers a unique chance to be part of international aid operations and also to gain valuable experience for civilian jobs.
Have you volunteered during your time as an expat? Share your experiences in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield