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Gap Year Programs: Volunteering Abroad

Written by: Natasha Stein

Volunteering in a developing country on gap year programs can be a valuable, life-changing experience, giving you new skills and perhaps shaping your future career. You’ll have the chance to learn about a different culture and gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that face people living in poverty; something you may not have been so aware of if you had just travelled in same region.
There’s an increasing range of gap year programs available in developing countries. Conservation, wildlife, building, teaching, childcare, community projects, the list goes on…. so where do you start?
How about looking at your motivations to begin with? Most people considering volunteering gap year programs will have a mixture of altruistic intentions and the desire for some sort of personal gain from volunteering. Do you want to gain some specific experience which could be relevant to your career plans or do you have any skills or experience that you could share? Are you interested in volunteering with local people or wildlife and environmental work? And is there a country or region that really attracts you? Now you have some idea of what kind of gap year program you are interested in and where you are hoping to go, the next step is to identify the right project for you.

There are a myriad of organisations offering volunteering gap year programs. These are a mixture of companies and charities or not-for-profits.  Most organisations will usually charge you a placement fee, which covers accommodation, food, transport, insurance and support whilst you are on the placement.
The fees can vary widely so it is worth researching how this money will be spent and how much ends up in the country where you are volunteering.  A good way to do this is to compare the costs of similar programmes operated by different organisations.

The safety net issue

Some of the biggest organisations offering volunteering gap year programs are owned by big holiday companies, and this means you have the additional security and protection offered by these kind of companies if something goes wrong. Many of these companies have a long history of sending young gap year volunteers on their projects, and working with local organisations in developing countries to set up volunteering projects which are beneficial to communities.
However, if you choose gap year programs run by a charity or not-for-profit organisation, more of the money you pay will go towards the local project you volunteer with and the organisation will often have a stronger focus on long-term development and poverty reduction in the areas they work.
What kind of gap year programs interest you?
If the cost of volunteering on gap year programs is a barrier for you, look into going with a charity as you can then fundraise to cover some of the placement fee, which is also a great way of raising awareness of the charity’s work and getting your friends and family involved.
Another option is to apply to take part in the UK government-funded International Citizen Service scheme, which has 7,000 placements available for 18-25 year-olds over the next three years. The scheme is being run by six organisations, including VSO, Restless Development and Raleigh International. Projects are developed with local organisations and based on local needs and also give you the opportunity to team up with young people in the country of your placement.

Important choices to make

When choosing which volunteer gap year programs to take part in, try to think about how their values and goals fit with your own. Ask lots of questions to the organisation about the project, how it will benefit local communities, what your role will be, what skills and experience would be useful. There should always be some sort of matching process, where the organisation helps you to identify the right placement.  It should not be like booking a holiday!
You should also find out how much training and preparation are offered by the organisation, as well as the level of in-country support. Check what happens if something goes wrong while you are overseas, what kind of insurance cover they offer and their emergency and security policies.
One of the main challenges of volunteering in a developing country is the reality of what you can achieve compared to your expectations. Look at the language some organisations use to describe their gap year programs, telling you what a difference you will make to needy people or how you will be putting a smile on children’s faces; the reality is that if you are only volunteering for a few weeks or even months, the impact of your placement may be quite low.  You may encounter real poverty for the first time, as well as complicated political and social situations, overwhelming levels of bureaucracy and an inability to get things done.
Gap year programs should be fun, but challenging
This is the reality of working in a developing country and most volunteers will suffer from culture shock and frustration. The best things you can do to overcome this is be prepared for it, research the area you are going to as much as possible, speak to volunteers who have been there before and keep your expectations in check. The other thing that will really help you is learning the local language. You don’t need to be fluent, just learn enough to be able to get around and communicate with local people.
Another thing to consider is how long you are planning to volunteer for.  Generally, the longer you can go for, the more beneficial the placement will be for both you and the project, especially those that involve working alongside local people.  If you can only take a few weeks, think about doing gap year programs which involve a doing a specific task, where you can contribute even if you can only stay for a short time.

Huge variety of options

There are a wide variety of gap year programs available, which tend to fall into particular categories. Conservation and wildlife gap year programs are ideal for anyone who doesn’t have specific skills or experience, as you can contribute to valuable scientific research and protection of endangered animals and ecosystems. If you’re considering a career in science or the environment, you will also gain valuable field experience.
Look out for projects where volunteers will be working alongside actual scientists collecting data for their research, as this is means it is a legitimate conservation project and an opportunity to learn from a real expert. There are many gap year programs which involve cuddling animals in a wildlife park for a few weeks in a wildlife park but think about the long-term conservation aims of these kind of projects and how effective they are.
Also look out for organisations which demonstrate how they involve local communities in their conservation projects, as it can be a real issue if the presence of the volunteering team and conservation activities are not supporting local people.
Other types of gap year programs involve teaching English to children in schools. If you don’t have a teaching qualification, make sure your role will be as an assistant to a permanent teacher rather than taking the classes yourself, as this will be more beneficial to the children and ensure locally employed teachers are not displaced by volunteers.  You should also find out from the organisation what you will be expected to teach and how this fits in with the wider curriculum – you don’t want to end up teaching exactly the same English lessons that previous volunteers have taught.
Sporting gap year programs are popular
You could also teach English and care for children in a home or orphanage. There has been a lot of negative media coverage about these kind of placements and it’s important to consider the ethics of this kind of volunteering very carefully; especially the impact on the children. The charity UNICEF has highlighted some of the issues with orphanages in countries like Cambodia, where the number of privately owned orphanages is growing, despite the numbers of orphans in the country decreasing, and many children are being placed in institutions by families living in poverty, hoping that their children will be better provided for.
However, research has shown that it is more beneficial for a child’s development to remain within their family and community.  One of the reasons that privately owned institutions are opening up is the number of volunteers and tourists who are willing to pay good money to spend time playing with the children. Another issue is that vulnerable children who have been abandoned by their families or orphaned can grow extremely attached to volunteers who spend short periods helping out in an orphanage, and this can cause further feelings of abandonment when the volunteers leave.

Building the right foundations

Building projects are popular volunteering gap year programs. This could involve anything from constructing homes or community buildings, painting and renovating a school or building energy efficient stoves and rainwater collection tanks. These projects often don’t require any previous construction experience, but will be physically challenging.
One of the real benefits of building placements is the tangible impact you can make, especially if you only have a short period of time available to volunteer. However, it is important that what you are building is actually going to be of use to a community. There is an often-told story of a group of volunteers building a school in a small town, but the building was ultimately used for storage as there were no teachers in the town and no money to buy books or pencils. Look for programs where there is plenty of information about why the building project is beneficial to the local community and where information is specific and up-to-date on the progress of the project.
There are also some more specialist types of gap year programs, for example sports coaching, healthcare and HIV / AIDS programs, agricultural projects, helping local small businesses and micro-enterprises and journalism. The list is endless! These more specialist programs would suit someone who already has relevant experience or if you are looking to gain experience too – some programs are classed as internships for this reason.
There are so many opportunities out there to volunteer on gap year programs and the options are growing all the time. It can be an extremely fulfilling experience and shape the direction of your future plans so get out there and do it!

Further Information

Interested in gap year programs? Find out more about volunteering
Read The Gapyear.com Guide to Choosing a Volunteer Placement
Check out Becky Khalil’s article on why people volunteer on their gap year

About the Author: Natasha Stein

Marcus Sherifi
Natasha Stein is a specialist in volunteering in developing countries. She has worked for the international volunteering charity VSO for six years as a Volunteer and Programme Adviser, as well as recruiting volunteers for conservation and scientific research projects.
She previously worked in the travel industry as a Product Manager for a holiday company and a Sales Advisor for an adventure tour operator. Natasha has taken two gap years and has also visited many countries for work purposes. She is particularly interested in responsible travel and is currently studying for a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management.

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