Last July I carried out voluntary work in Sri Lanka, caring for baby turtles and rehabilitated elephants…I know…the typical ‘Gap Yah’! However, it is one of the most insightful, hands on experiences I’ve had whilst travelling.
Not only does voluntary work give you a chance to give something back to the community and environment, but it provides many opportunities to develop new skills and build on existing knowledge. It also looks cracking on your CV! However, before partaking in any voluntary programme and parting with my money, I carried out extensive research into volunteerism to not only ensure I had the most fulfilling experiences, but to guarantee my safety and awareness.
When looking to get involved in voluntary work, please carry out some research on the organisations before departing with your money. Guarantee that the organisation of your choice is reliable and well known, with good reviews. The enthusiasm of naive travellers wanting to get stuck into some fun but difficult voluntary work, has resulted in corrupt organisations and so called ‘travel companies’ exploiting this for profit, and ultimately scamming young backpackers. Meanwhile, you could also be contributing to a project that is negatively effecting and exploiting the host community. Therefore delineate which programs are doing more harm than good and which are the most sustainable before participating.
Some voluntary work may not be covered in standard insurance policies, so read the fine print, and purchase a policy guaranteed to cover the type of work you are partaking in. For example, as I was working with elephants, I was required to purchase a higher coverage due to the potential risks involved with working with large animals. For a comprehensive guide to travel head to the FCO site.
As voluntary work often requires working with animals or children etc. or in unsanitary environments, additional vaccinations are required. However, vaccinations are dependent on where you are travelling to, the type of voluntary work you will be involved in, and your vaccination history. As a result, consult with your local GP or health centre for up to date information about vaccine requirements.
More often than not volunteers will only require tourist visas. However, since visa requirements are susceptible to change, I strongly recommend checking the appropriate governments visa requirements, as well as with the volunteering organisation of your choice, to determine what applies to you. It will be your responsibility to arrange a visa. Also, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office list 225 countries and territories on their site, where you can find out about everything from visa requirements to local laws and customs in your chosen destination.
Respecting local culture
Good voluntary programmes should provide you with advise on the local culture. Make yourself familiar with this advice, as well as carrying out additional research on the country you are visiting. For example, when I travelled to the Muslim nation, Sri Lanka, women were required to cover themselves and dress modestly. If this is the case, please abide by their cultural norms. Not only will you be showing a sign of respect, but it will also contribute towards your safety.