How to make sure your overseas volunteering is worthwhile

Overseas gap year volunteering has become a lucrative specialism for unscrupulous tour operators, with well-meaning young Brits looking for fun and fulfilment in foreign lands often ripped off, while the ‘work’ arranged for them can sometimes be seen to actively damage host communities. And you may find the more savvy among your friends and relations look askance at the opportunity to make a ‘charitable donation’ toward the cost of your extended foreign holiday.

‘Orphanage tourism’ in Africa and Asia has been found to create a ‘cultural oasis’ within a community, with vulnerable kids looking exclusively to western visitors for both gifts and affection – a process destined to damage them emotionally as friends and carers constantly move on. And there’s always the danger that your character-building manual task has been provided for you at the expense of a local’s livelihood.

If you’re aged 18-25 and want to do something genuinely useful overseas, help is at hand. International Citizen Service, funded by the government’s Department for International Development, was set up in 2012 to provide 7,000 opportunities a year for constructive work within reputable projects in 24 developing countries.

Co-ordinated by VSO with eight international partner organisations, the scheme offers community work like peer education or outreach activites focused on issues like poverty reduction, sexual and reproductive health, civic participation, environmental conservation, access to education and disability rights and support. There may also be a few chances to learn practical skills and create infrastructure, but you can guarantee you won’t be stealing someone else’s job or digging a pointless ditch.

VSO ICS volunteers organising a community action day in Tanzania on sanitation and hygiene. Photo courtesy of ICS

Typically a volunteer gives up their western home comforts to live ’embeded’ as a local with a host family, and works consistently beside a volunteer from within the community. Chances to travel around and generally behave like a tourist are deliberately limited to just two weekends off across the whole 10-12 week placement. You can expect your total involvement to last around a year including advance training and fundraising activities and follow-up awareness-raising work in your UK community.

Flights, visas, accommodation, food, insurance, and basic living costs are covered by the scheme, but each UK volunteer is asked to prove their commitment by raising £800 in funds for ICS, who are keen to stress that this does not pay for the placement, but is used to make opportunities available to other young volunteers from both the UK and host countries.

If you get involved to boost your CV, you’re likely to find you gain much more in terms of broadening your world view and getting to meet challenges and make friends within a completely unfamiliar culture and situation. And you can rest assured your efforts will be genuinely welcomed by your hosts, because you’ll be constructively meeting an identified need rather than being found something to do. The scheme, currently funded until 2015, is already open to applications for placements from June 2014.

If you’d rather stay in the UK this summer, of course, why not visit the festival volunteer page and register to work at some of the best events of the year.

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