It’s said that traveling the world will open your eyes, and indeed it does. However, sometimes that means looking beyond the shiny, touristy front and realizing that not everyone is as lucky as you are, particularly in developing countries.
If you’re looking to give back to local communities as you travel, that’s fantastic! But you should also be aware of the risk of “voluntourism”, or overseas volunteer programs that are more focused on profit than actually improving the lives of those who need it. Here are the top 5 places where you can volunteer ethically:
Known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, Thailand may be one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. But step outside the usual tourist bubble and you’ll discover a more authentic side to the country. At the same time, you’ll get the chance to learn more about Thai culture and how locals live their daily lives.
In northern Thailand, many NGOs based in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot are dedicated to providing support to the region’s ethnic hill tribes and refugees from neighboring countries. There are also a number of ethical wildlife conservation and rehabilitation programs aimed at protecting both wild animals or those that were victims of human exploitation.
Check out: Operation Groundswell, WeAreBamboo
2. New Zealand
If you love spending time in the Great Outdoors, you may want to consider New Zealand. Much of the country remains wild and untamed – and that’s how the Kiwis like it! Go kayaking around fjords, hike through thick forests and meet with the local Maori people.
Join efforts to preserve and conserve the pristine natural landscape by working on projects such as planting trees, constructing trails and assisting with heritage restoration. For those who enjoy community work, lend a hand to organizations working with the intellectually handicapped, elderly people, disabled children and adults.
Check out: Conversation Volunteers, International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)
Rich in history and culture, a significant portion of India’s population of 1.3 billion people, however, live in poverty and without basic human necessities, such as clean water. Volunteer programs based here are focused on helping underprivileged populations gain access to better education, healthcare, human rights and infrastructure.
Take part in a community development program in bustling cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore or work on infrastructure development projects in rural villages, where you’ll be surrounded by the raw natural beauty of the countryside.
Check out: Love Volunteers, Kaya Volunteer
Made up of thousands of islands, the archipelago of Indonesia is home to people who readily welcome visitors with open arms. With such a variety of cultures and natural wonders to choose from, you’ll have a tough time choosing where to go.
However, Bali is one of the top choices for most volunteers, and it’s not hard to see why – the spectacular cliffside vistas, sandy beaches and lush countryside are a welcome perk. Here, you can help out at a local animal shelter or teach kids English as a volunteer ESL teacher.
Check out: Volunteering Solutions, Fuze Ecoteer Outdoor Adventures
Located in the heart of the Mediterranean, Greece is famous for its idyllic, sun-dappled islands. However, since the economic crash and the influx of refugees from war-torn countries, its NGOs and charities need all the help they can get.
If you’re keen to work with refugees, grassroots volunteer groups based on the Greek islands are constantly in need of people to help prepare and distribute food, clean up the camps and look after children. Many volunteers also opt to help out in wildlife conservation, such as sea turtles and dolphins.
Check out: Greek Island Volunteers, Global Vision International (GVI)
Tips before you go:
- Do your research to find the best ethical NGOs, charities or volunteer programs available at your destination of interest – read reviews written by previous volunteers or ask the organization about how previous volunteers have made a difference. Check out Go Overseas or GoAbroad for reputable programs and reviews.
- Avoid orphanages and be wary of animal sanctuaries, as they may exploit more than help.
- Think grassroots – look into social enterprises that work closely with the local community and focus on projects with sustainable and long-term effects.
- Figure out which is the best fit for you, based on your interests, skills and and how much time you can contribute. If you don’t have the skills needed for the job, leave it to those who do.
- Keep your expectations realistic – go in with a humble heart and open mind and you’ll learn a lot from your experience.