How to do meaningful international volunteering on limited time


  1. a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.
    “at the core of voluntourism is the desire to help others”

Voluntourism is a bit of a dirty word. The act of partaking in voluntourism is founded in good feeling – I want to see the world, I want to do something good, I don’t know how to do it. So you join up with a group of other people in the same boat, either on a dedicated trip or as part of a wider adventure package, and set off to spend a short period of your travelling time trying to Do Good.

The reason it’s become a dirty word is that often, the volunteering that gets done on these kinds of expeditions isn’t actually that useful – sometimes it’s the opposite. If you’re only planning on sticking around for a week or two, rather than several months or even longer, something like a volunteer teaching placement is generally considered to be a very bad idea – even though there are plenty of places that will offer it as a way to give back.


Teenage me, August 2012, on a volunteering trip with Thrive Africa in Ghana

Why is it a bad idea? Imagine you’re a schoolkid, and every week or two, your teacher changes. They aren’t really following any kind of curriculum – it’s just a case of someone playing games with you in English or going over the alphabet, and then that person is never seen again. While this is very enjoyable for the voluntourist and a good laugh for the kids, it isn’t half as useful as a qualified TEFL teacher coming in for a full term and doing proper lessons. Depending on the location, it can also stop a local person who is qualified to do the job from getting it.

Temporary placements as a language teacher are really, really common picks for not-for-profits keen to cash in on those who are happy to pay to go and do a good deed. But that doesn’t make them the best choice. So what can you do, in a week or even a few days, that is a truly meaningful contribution? What are the best choices for someone who can commit to voluntourism but can’t commit to a full-blown volunteer placement?
Here are three top tactics for people who want to make a real difference in a short time.

new hope cambodia tabby farrar sarah morris

1. Basic construction

If you’re travelling the world and heading off to countries where it’s likely to be boiling hot outside all day every day, construction might not be as appealing as sitting in a shady classroom. But basic construction opportunities are a really good way to lend a hand. Being around for as little as two days could be enough time to tear down a decrepit house and build a better replacement, as part of a volunteer team – I know this, because I’ve done it.

From easy-going stuff like painting new school buildings and children’s homes to pickaxing earth to make way for the foundations of a new house, construction is an area where having an extra pair of hands for any length of time can be a big help.

Volunteering choices in this field don’t require expert building skills in the manner that building a house with bricks and cement might do – under the supervision of a volunteer coordinator and local project staff, you’ll be directed to do all the odd jobs that need doing that don’t require skill. Although I have to say, learning how to make walls out of strips of palm leaf and wood felt like a pretty cool skill to pick up in no time at all!

Great places to do it: Ghana, Nepal, Cambodia, Bali, Peru, Madagascar


2. Agriculture and farming

Excuse the potato-quality image, I did not own a smartphone in 2012. The fuzzy shot above is an illustration of what a days agricultural volunteering can do – sorting and planting rows and rows of fruit and vegetable plants, which will grow to provide an ongoing source of food and income for families in a remote area.

Like some construction projects, agricultural work in hot countries can be mucky, sweaty business. But whether you’re planting fruit trees, helping to harvest crops or simply prepping land for elderly farmers who are starting to struggle with heavy lifting, blitzing in and out for short periods speeds up the work that needs doing and gives much needed assistance to those who are always at it and may not be able to afford paid help.

Great places to do it: Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Uganda, Colombia, Belize

beach plastic marine litter pollution

Photo Credit: Bo Eide

3. Clean-up Missions

This is something you can do wherever you are in the world, because let’s face it, humans don’t half make a mess. It’s rare to find a coastline now that doesn’t need regular clean-ups, and there are even options to go diving and clear undersea litter from coral reefs.

As with any of these ideas, long-term volunteering options do exist and the more you can do the better, but just as an extra pair of hands can help to make light work of building school furniture or ploughing a field, they’re also a great help when it comes to removing washed-up plastic waste.

If you don’t feel up to the physical strain that some agriculture and construction options will involve,  a leisurely walk down a tropical beach collecting litter is a much easier pick. And sadly, the work will seemingly never run out. Whatever time of year you travel, whichever country you travel to, there will be places in need of a clean-up where you can go and help to remove some literal garbage from the environment.

Great places to do it: Thailand, Mauritius, Egypt, Australia, Goa

If you’re into diving and prefer to take a more active approach than easy-going beach cleans, seek out opportunities in reef clearing. All-round awesome human Kirsty Hobson, an old acquaintance of mine, has been visiting Egypt over the last 18 months to work on her scuba skills and help out in beach and reef clearing at Roots Red Sea.

“Out there we work with kids from the local schools and kindergartens doing shore clean ups, then experienced guests and volunteers at the camp take part in the reef cleans underwater. That’s in association with Dive Against Debris, a programme connected with PADI and Project Aware.”

Check out Kirsty’s interview with Scubaverse and see her in action underwater in the video above. If you’d like to know more about Dive for Debris, and the millions of pieces of rubbish and entangled animals that divers around the world have found while helping out, head on over to their interactive world map for a full view.


Useful Links

If you’re looking to lend a hand while you see the world, here are a few places to look for opportunities:

0 thoughts on “How to do meaningful international volunteering on limited time

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