top of page

9 Things Every Aspiring Humanitarian Volunteer Should Consider Before Traveling Abroad

By Daniel Farber Huang

Haiti. Photo by Daniel Farber Huang
Haiti. Photo by Daniel Farber Huang

It’s good to do good.

Fortunately for the world, there are many altruistic individuals (possibly yourself since you are reading this article) who want to help others. Unfortunately for the world, there are any number of challenges and hardships other people are living every day that would benefit greatly from humanitarian volunteers and aid.

If you are a novice to volunteering abroad as a humanitarian or service supporter, here are some practical things for you to consider before heading out. These points are based on the practical realities of volunteering in complex situations where people with means and resources want to help people with less.

Be warned, you may not enjoy the results of this self-assessment but isn’t it better to calibrate your expectations before you board that plane? There’s a difference between being a volunteer versus a tourist, and even versus being a voluntourist. Which one will you be? To those of you who still feel compelled to volunteer after reading this article, Godspeed to you, do some good, make it last!

1. If you aren’t qualified to do it for yourself, don’t do it for others.

Sure, it’s great to build schoolhouses for poor people in remote villages. Who doesn’t like schools, right? (Well, actually you’d be surprised at the answer.] And it’s exciting to think you could play a small role in constructing that school/library/family center/women’s space/etc. in your week and a half off from school or work. Thing is, laying cinderblock, erecting walls, and other construction tasks take certain skills.

The simple philosophy of “do no harm” should apply to all aspects of volunteering. If you’re not qualified to build a shed in your backyard, you probably shouldn’t be building structures for poor people. That being said, however, if you are qualified to move wheelbarrows of bricks, dirt, gravel or whatever else from Point A to Point B (and most people probably are), by all means get in there. Just understand what your best and highest contribution realistically is.

2. Put the camera down. And the cameraphone too.

Don’t take photos of yourself hugging the poor black, brown or other child and then posting it on your Facebook, Instagram or (for the really tacky) Tinder pages. The people you are seeking to help aren’t there for your self-aggrandization and most certainly are not there to be props in your story. Unless you are an actual photographer whose role is to document the situation/crisis/story, ask yourself, would you be willing to go on your volunteer trip if you couldn’t tell or show anyone what you were doing? Ever?

3. Be willing to actually work.

During a project in Greece during the hot summer days in July, a group of U.S. photographers visited a refugee camp to take portraits of the camp residents. The group was able to augment their team of 8 with 5 international volunteers who were helping a local organization. The goal was simple, the volunteers were needed to help with crowd control for 5 hours while the photo team printed photos for hundreds of people. The 20-something-year old volunteers were briefed on the harsh weather (which the residents endured daily) were told to bring lots of water and ways to keep cool.

On-site, while the picture-taking process was in full swing, with excited camp residents waiting patiently in line for their turn (under the same hot sun), some volunteers decided it was too hot, complained incessantly and then asked a non-team leader if they could leave. The team leaders after a while realized in astonishment and frustration that the volunteers who offered to help had disappeared.

To put it in perspective, the refugees were living in that blistering heat every day and dealt with it. The U.S. team included a 14-year old girl and several older individuals who worked without hesitation, knowing that it was going to be uncomfortable, sweaty and likely exhausting work for 5 hours.

Self-care is certainly important when working in stressful situations. As a volunteer, know what you are getting into in advance and decide if you are the person for the job.

4. Learn to drive a stick shift and rent your own car.

If you’re reading this from the U.S., be aware that automatic cars are not common in many other countries. Unless you are specifically restricted to riding in a group bus or caravan, it’s a great advantage knowing how to drive a stick shift car. All it really requires is one or two lessons from the comfort of your hometown with a local driving school. Plus, manual rental cars are often significantly less expensive and more readily available than automatics.

Even if you don’t end up needing to drive during your trip, simply having the ability to do so increases your options significantly as plans, itineraries or the on-the-ground situation changes. It also increases your independence from others, and that’s always helpful because it means you can, in turn, help your team more.

5. Stay home.

This next point does not apply to volunteers with a specific set if valuable skills, such as attorneys, doctors and other specially trained professionals. Nor does it apply to people who are hired to work.

Does your group’s mission bring enough actual, tangible aid or value to where you are going to justify the use of resources needed to deliver the aid?

If you’re not one of the above professionals, and if your volunteer group requires armed protection (such as armed drivers) to bring you to paint that schoolhouse wall, you should ask yourself what the purpose of the trip really is. Is it for the organization you’re supporting to show its donors an adventure to talk about for years to come? Is it for the organization to raise funds through service fees?

6. Shut up, listen and understand before telling the advocates how to do their jobs.

Working on relief projects is exciting. Really, who wouldn’t want to help others in dramatic need? For novice volunteers it can be hard to remember, especially in the moment of crisis, that every act or action may have implications that aren’t immediately obvious to the volunteers.

For example, an Italian volunteer in Greece was distraught (and rightfully so) at the living conditions of refugees at a particular camp (the same one mentioned above, actually). She had signed up to volunteer with an in-country service organization that provided goods and aid directly to refugees. That organization was formed a few years earlier when refugee boats first started landing on their island, and had served literally thousands of refugees for years, working within a complex, bureaucratic, often disorganized landscape with other NGOs and government agencies.

The volunteer decided the groups weren’t working fast enough (and, granted, they probably weren’t when you consider one person’s needs, but they were servicing thousands of refugees daily) so she decided to start her own initiative doing stuff.

Bottom line, she caused a lot of distraction, frustration and even heartache for about a month, then went home to Italy. Whatever efforts she thought she would create ended when she got on her plane to go home. The group she abandoned and the other NGOs are still there, doing their jobs. Every. Single. Day.

7. Understand the most valuable service work is often the most monotonous.

Volunteering is not jumping into the ocean to pull refugee boats to shore, or airlifting flood victims in a helicopter. That’s for the trained professionals, not the 2-week or 2-month volunteers. Volunteering that is impactful is helping ensure people in need have clean socks and underwear so they can live with a small semblance of dignity. It is loading boxes of supplies in warehouses so materials are organized and readily available when needed. It is spreading awareness by managing an organization’s social media consistently and communicating with constituents. It is by helping people in need obtain lasting support and there are many ways that can be done.

Humanitarian relief work is often a long-game. Let the professionals get the glory (after all, they’ve earned it). Figure out what skills you have that your organization of choice is lacking. Make a long-term commitment to help them where you can be most impactful.

8. Keep your personal agenda in check.

So, again on the refugee front, during a debriefing with the above-mentioned relief team, a team leader was reporting to the volunteers that 40 refugees from Somalia and Iraq landed on a distant beach. The relief group was able to rush to the site and, working alongside a medical team and the authorities, was able to distribute 40 bags of clothing, food, and water to the 13 men, 14 women and 13 children who survived the pre-dawn ocean crossing from Turkey in an overcrowded rubber boat.

Two children were severely injured prior to the crossing and an elderly woman had only one leg. They were fortunate to have crossed without tragedy. Had that boat capsized or deflated during the treacherous ocean crossing, there is no question several people would have drowned.

During the debriefing, a new volunteer raised her hand and asked if the group could consider switching from plastic bags to paper bags for the refugees because, you know, the environment. The group organizer, gracefully holding back the impulse to say something along the lines of “are you kidding me?”, suggested the volunteer price out the difference and see if paper not plastic may work within their severely limited funding.

9. Your volunteering isn’t meant to be the subject of your college application essays.

In a March 9, 2014, New York Times article about college admission essays, Jennifer Delahunty, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, said “We see a lot of essays about students who have studied abroad and they recognize either their own privilege or that the poor brown people are happier than I,” she said. “That’s always the ending. I absolutely hate those essays, though I sound like a cynic.”

She’s right, though, please don’t simplify individuals by saying how it’s so heartwarming to see people with so little have so much love in their lives. Just don’t.

So, if you’ve read up to this point and believe you’re up to the challenge of volunteering abroad, for good reasons, with good intentions and a good understanding of what you’re capable of, then by all means get out there and do some good. The world will appreciate it. Individuals really can make a difference. Just make sure you’ve found the right situation for your interests and skills.

Godspeed to you. Do some good. Make it last!


bottom of page