Volunteering on a humanitarian project on your gap year is one of the most worthwhile ways to spend your time. You can help reconstruct areas after natural disasters, increase awareness of HIV and AIDS in places like Africa, or build wells to help entire communities gain access to safe drinking water.
Each volunteer is sure to leave his or her mark on these projects. You’ll be using your gap year to make a difference and leave something useful and possibly life-saving as a legacy.
Working on a humanitarian project can be a remarkable experience not only for you, but also the people you work with. Not only will you experience local life that remains out of reach for those unwilling to stray off the beaten track, but you’ll be changing people’s lives for the better.
Helping disaster areas
Humanitarian projects are usually set up in response to extreme human crises that are a result of either manmade or natural disasters. Because of the suddenness and unpredictability of such disasters, it is unlikely you’ll find ‘listings’ for these projects on this site or anywhere else, simply because no one can see them coming and therefore set up proper frameworks in time for volunteers to apply to help. So keep that in mind when browsing the opportunities available and be willing to search other resources if you’d like to help.
Natural disaster areas
Natural disasters have been occurring throughout the world’s entire history, and whichever species happened to be walking the Earth at the time would have been affected by them in some way or another. These days the most common natural disasters include tsunamis, extreme weather, erupting volcanoes and earthquakes. Every country and settlement is susceptible to some degree, but some greatly more so than others.
Unfortunately it’s often the poorest countries which are hit hardest. Most recently the Philippines bore the brunt of the most powerful storm to ever make landfall; a few years ago Haiti was the victim of a catastrophic earthquake and then of course there was the Boxing Day tsunami which claimed a quarter of a million lives in Southeast Asia.
If you happen to be at home when such things happen, usually the best and most realistic way to help out and show your support is to donate some money the area which has been hit. As tempting as it may be to board the next plane out, the disaster zone will be in absolute chaos and any effective relief needs to have some sort of logistical organisation. If you happen to be in the area when it is hit you will have more chance of getting your hands dirty, but that will depend on so many factors.
Manmade disaster areas
Manmade disasters are usually not as immediately catastrophic as the ones Mother Nature dishes up, but the end result is often the same: a huge amount of displaced people and often many lives lost. It is even less likely you’ll be able to physically help in a manmade disaster area because of the sheer danger or lack of access. Recently, for example, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan leaked, causing mass problems.
And even worse was when Chernobyl in Ukraine blew it’s top; that area is still closed off and the local people and subsequent generations are still suffering the consequences of radiation poisoning. As with natural disaster areas, the best way you can show your support is to donate to relevant charities and relief agencies.
Broadly speaking, humanitarian projects are quite simply aimed at helping humans who have fallen foul of their environment in some way or another, but usually the term is used as a collective noun for relief aid in areas which have been struck by either natural or manmade disaster (see next tab for more information on this).
Not all disaster are immediate and unexpected however, such as epidemics and famines, and it’s the projects geared at battling these types of issues that you can help with.
In terms of epidemics, the spread of AIDS and HIV, particularly on the African continent, is the most serious.
At the time of writing AIDS and HIV are still incurable, so the best and only approach is to prevent these awful inflictions spreading even further is education. If you volunteer on a humanitarian project educating the local community about contraception would form the crux of your activities, and even if you get through to just one person it would all have been worth it. You would be expected to go into schools and talk to kids, and also to speak with adults at community centres.
Many children in these communities are orphaned, having already lost their parents to AIDS, and you would also be expected to mentor, educate and play games with them.
This can be a life-changing experience for both you and the people you help along the way, and you could return home knowing you have made an important and positive difference to the world. It could even lead to a career if you feel that passionately about it.