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Want to work or volunteer in international development? 4 questions to ask before you start

Volunteering overseas is a common stepping-stone for many job-seekers into a not-for-profit job. Not only is it an enriching and rewarding experience but it allows you to visit places you might not normally see, all the while developing your own career. As we heard from One Girl’s David Dixon recently,  on the ground experience in an international volunteer program is highly regarded by international aid organisations

But, with the rise of ‘voluntourism’ – short stints volunteering in developing nations – there are concerns by some people that this type of international aid can be more beneficial to the individual volunteer than the local community.

A report released by The Red Cross“International Volunteering: An Investment in Development” sheds some light on international volunteering from the point of view of host organisations.

Thankfully, what they have found is that well-managed volunteer jobs in developing countries can build stronger communities. They also highlight some of the things that make a good, impact-driven volunteer program abroad.

So, if you’re thinking about volunteering overseas in international development, and you want to make the right choice, here are some of the key questions you should ask yourself before embarking on the journey of a lifetime!

What are your goals?

The Red Cross report outlines some fantastic outcomes for organisations if the volunteer program is well managed, including;

  • A two way exchange of ideas and increasing the ability of local organisations to make an impact after the volunteer leaves
  • Empowering the local community to take charge of their own development, including inspiring increased volunteering of local community members
  • Challenging the traditional models of international development

What will be helpful when embarking on your international volunteering journey is if your goals and values align with one, if not all, of these outcomes. So, before you start, consider asking yourself the following?

  • Do you want to share what you know with others?
  • Are you concerned about making sure the work you do has a long lasting impact on the local community?
  • Are you prepared to try new things and listen to your colleagues and local community members?
  • Do you want to learn new skills so that you can land an international development job back home?

These are important questions that can help you to make a decision when you start talking to aid organisations about volunteer jobs.

Are you prepared to have your values questioned?


One of the traditional views of international aid is that it is something that the western world “does to” developing nations.

However, one finding from the report was that “international volunteering can challenge prevailing development models,” and that good programs often buck these traditional ideas of development.

At its best, international volunteers can work to enhance the capacity of the local community and encourage and inspire them to take control of their own development.  For example, one surprising find in the report was that the inclusion of international volunteers in a program added prestige and credibility that encouraged local community members to participate, and thus strengthen the aid program in the long term.

Are you willing to let go of the old view of international volunteering and embrace a different paradigm that prioritises programs that ‘empower communities to query accepted development approaches and drive their own solutions’?

What are your skills?

“International volunteering lays the foundation for a lasting exchange of skills,” says The Red Cross.

So, what do you have to offer?

You don’t have to be a 100% skilled professional to volunteer in international development, but the overall experience will be greatly enhanced if you are volunteering in an area in which you have some skills and knowledge. As an example international volunteer Pippa Biddle shares this story;

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. 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.”

That’s definitely the sort of situation you want to avoid!

So, before contacting an organisation think about your skills. Even if you are lacking in formal work experience or qualifications you can still identify your strengths. Are you an outstanding organiser, creative communicator or have impeccable IT skills? Use them to help others!

How much time can you commit?

Red Cross points out that there is a correlation between the length of a volunteer assignment and the success of the program. They say, “the immersive time spent by volunteers in their host organisation can make their work more locally relevant and sustainable.”

Immersion isn’t just the length of time you spend in a role, but what you “learn about the host organisation, culture and language and to build relationships with local colleagues.”

This includes things like

  • Building friendships by organising social outings
  • Teaching colleagues English out of office hours
  • Learning the local language

As one host organisation in Kenya said about a successful volunteer placement;

“We know she cares personally about the work, about us and what it is that we are doing here, about our community; because she does not just turn up and go home…She makes a real effort to understand our stresses.”

International volunteering, if done right, can be highly valuable to your career and to the lives of people around the globe. At EthicalJobs.com.au we encourage you to take the time to find responsible and meaningful overseas volunteering opportunities.

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