We are now in a 'global village' primarily due to the exponential increase and speed of international travel over the last 50 years and also because of the ease and speed with which we can now communicate electronically worldwide.

Volunteers working in a refugee camp
  • These changes have increased awareness of the poverty and the health inequalities of so many of the world's population as well as serious environmental and climate change issues. Consequently, especially the young, look to short-term volunteering as opportunities to see these issues at first hand and find out if there is some way they might be able to contribute to change.

  • Carefully planned voluntary work can be immensely satisfying, life-changing and enriching for the volunteer, although the impact on the host community can be less clear, particularly for short placements. Many young people take up opportunities during school holidays and before entering higher education.

Volunteers should choose their projects carefully, looking for those “sending” organisations that have a good track record in working closely with host communities to plan projects and offer pre-departure preparation and excellent support for the volunteer when they are overseas.

  • Short-term volunteers usually pay themselves for their flight and contribute to, or pay in full for their accommodation and other personal expenses. Some or all of the money required may be raised through personal fundraising.

The diversity of opportunities, the motivation of the volunteers and the nature of work make it difficult to generalise when it comes to offering advice. The choices may include tasks related to health care, teaching and environmental issues.

  • Since volunteers often go to areas where poverty and disease are commonplace they have to cope with situations they previously could not have imagined which can be very stressful. Ideally, experienced and empathetic support should be available while they are on their placement, but this is not always the case.

Choosing a volunteering organisation

Volunteers need to be aware of potential financial exploitation by some suppliers as well as the negative impact volunteers can have on host communities in poorly planned and supported projects.

Volunteer student dressing a wound after a bite by a night adder
  • There are opportunities for 'electives' abroad as integral components of medical, nursing, veterinary or other university courses and the institution usually takes on a role to try and ensure these electives are undertaken responsibly.

  • Commercial volunteer companies have no legal obligation to look after the health of their volunteers.

The preparation provided before departure by sending organisations and the quality of support while abroad can vary greatly. Speaking to someone who has already volunteered with the organisation concerned may be helpful. If an organisation will not agree then it would be wise to look elsewhere.

Some organisations arrange for groups of volunteers to travel with supervisors, teachers and experienced group leaders for periods of up one to three months.

  • Examples of reputable organisations where volunteers include International Citizenship Service and for those who wish to go in supervised groups of around 10 to 20 include World Challenge and Raleigh International.

  • Long and short-term volunteering opportunities are also offered by organisations such as VSO International which aim to encourage the sharing of professional skills and knowledge with developing countries. VSO International carefully selects and trains volunteers pre-departure, and provides comprehensive support for volunteers while overseas.

Health care advice for volunteers

Some well-established organisations, as mentioned above, make strenuous efforts to provide pre-departure counselling and additional support themselves, but others may refer the volunteer to a travel clinic or their doctor.

  • The motivation of those organisations that do not provide comprehensive support may be more directed towards supporting volunteers as a business and profit-making opportunity. Their advice and care may be minimal and not as it seems in their advertisements.

For those giving health advice to volunteers, the importance of a careful risk assessment related to the destination and the planned activities cannot be overestimated.

  • Pre-existing medical conditions, and how these can be managed in the context of the volunteer's placement, should form part of this risk assessment. Appropriate and good local medical facilities may be unavailable, especially for those needing mental health support.

Some volunteers return home before their posting is due to end and budgeting should take this into account.

  • Travel insurance to cover this sort of situation, including medical repatriation, is essential and this may not be provided by the 'sending' organisation.

Useful relevant websites

  • Tourism concern

  • Learning Services - short videos: e.g. on: 'How can I do Good in the World?' Orphanage Tourism and finding a Responsible Volunteering Placement

A reference for debate

  • Bauer, I. (2017) More harm than good? - in Tropical Diseases, Travel Medicine and Vaccines (2017) 'The questionable ethics of medical volunteering and international student placements.'