If you’re traveling in a country different than your own, don’t assume that what applies to your country is ‘de rigueur’ in others.
Check the political situation and the stability of the government in place. It’s never good to be in a country that could collapse while you’re there. So know what you’re stepping into. It does not mean that you should avoid a trip, it means that you know the risk that you are taking and have escapes routes in mind.
⚠ For example: We traveled once to an African country under the ruling of a very old dictator. Few months before going, his health deteriorated. Never have we followed the news about a president’s health so closely (even less of a dictator). Here is the thing: being in the country when a long-lived dictator dies, means power grabbing battles among the packs of potential new dictators who might fight tooth and nail to grab that empty seat… In all cases, this can mean a quick shift in allegiances, and an outpouring of long-kept frustrations. Not a good time –Just that… What did we do? We evaluated the risks, made sure they were low, then went. And we’ve been long back. We took that risk knowing the potential outcomes (and planning for the ones we could plan for).
Is the country you’re going to a known corrupt country? If so understand the ramifications on the venue and project itself from an ethical standpoint (where does the money go, etc.).
➭ Public Health
Check the general Public Health situation of the host country –here we refer to something different than checking what vaccines to get (which you must do as well). We’re talking epidemics, outbreaks. One way to access this information is to check with the travel health branch of your country. We also recommend that you get acquainted with the IMAT (International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers) which has a section focused on Country Health Advice.
⚠ For example: one of us had a travel planned to Uganda in 2012. Few months before traveling, an Ebola outbreak was rapidly spreading. We decided to go after inquiring about the path of the outbreak (it was going north and diminishing and we were traveling south-west), and making sure that the risk of catching (and therefore spreading it) was close to non-existent. Did we take a chance? Yes definitely as there is no way to eliminate totally any risk when it comes to Ebola (aside from not traveling). But we knew of the risk: we made sure it was low where we were traveling and that everybody was safe around us.
➭ Are You Taking the Job of Someone?
Are you volunteering abroad? Fine, but ask yourself if you’re taking the job or an opportunity from a local? And ask yourself how is the project going to benefit directly the local people. It is a bit of a neo-colonialism issue (and of concerns to researchers). Indeed many conservation organizations are centered around benefiting the volunteers, with minimal to no benefit to the locals.
⚠ For example: An EwA friend once told us, that she had volunteered in South America. She was there with a group of young westerners to help build a school. Every day they were driven from the sleeping quarters to the school, and passing along the way big lines of locals waiting for a daily job… No need to comment -is there?…
➭ Living Conditions
Be prepared. Because you will be directly talking to the in-country team, their level of English (or of your language) may not be extensive. Also, realize that levels of organization for volunteers may not be as structured as with a well known or an established NGO. generally no matter how rustic the accommodations or the daily life, this will not stop you from having a meaningful experience –maybe you even prefer being immersed like a native.
⚠ Here’s an example of one such Indonesian NGO –Friends of the National Parks Foundation– that has been doing some great work. Whilst the in-country managers and staff try to make volunteers as comfortable as possible, you essentially live and work like the staff, sometimes down to 6 people sleeping on the floor in the staff hut in a remote site. At the time we visited them, the learning opportunities and a chance to spread awareness of deforestation and palm oil issues, as well as physically helping, were endless.
However, if that type of rusticity isn’t for you, then you can use volunteer agencies (middle men organizations) to search for the project you want. However you choose to pick your project, do your research to make sure they are ethical. Once again we can help you there. And remember that just because one staff member visited that site a year ago and thought it was ethical, this doesn’t mean that it was indeed ethical (as showcased in the EwA article ‘My Journey to Becoming an Ethical Volunteer’) or that the organization still is.
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◊ The references mentioned on this page are listed in the Extended Bibliography.