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How To Volunteer Overseas Without Hurting The People You're Trying To Help

Make sure all those good intentions have a truly positive impact on the community.
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Over the years, there has been a growing number of Australians who are paying thousands of dollars to volunteer in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia. Although their hearts are in the right place, this demand is fueling a thriving industry that is placing children at risk.

In Cambodia alone there has been a 65 percent increase in the number of orphanages since 2005, despite a decrease in the number of vulnerable children and orphans. Tragically, often little or none of the money given by tourists or volunteers goes to benefit the children.

To add to this, it is believed a staggering 80 percent of Cambodian children in orphanages still have parents. The growing popularity of orphanages among tourists and volunteers has even led to 'orphan recruitment drives' in which Cambodian parents are being tricked, coerced or paid to give up their children.

Although the Turnbull government is set to crack down on schools and universities that offer volunteering in overseas orphanages, and more travel organisations are withdrawing support of such programs, the fact remains there is a growing demand for volunteering experiences.

The good news is, there are ethical and responsible options for well-intentioned Aussies looking to volunteer overseas. Many organisations offer volunteer experiences that work within communities to achieve long-term, sustainable development and build capacity, as opposed to dependency.

If you are thinking about volunteering overseas in a developing country, it is essential to make a careful assessment of the organisation you are planning to work with to ensure you make a truly positive impact.

Here are some questions to ask yourself, and the organiser, before signing up to volunteer overseas:

Does the activity respect the rights of children and families?

Make sure the organisation has sufficient child protection policies in place. Without child protection policies and background checks on visitors, mistreatment and abuse can go undetected. Remember, all families have the right to a safe and private home setting. Think whether the work you will be doing respects this, and does not violate the safety, privacy and stability of families.

Is the work developed with the communities' needs as a priority?

Volunteer projects must be developed with the local communities' needs as the first priority, and not that of the travelers' or the company's. Look for opportunities which engage with the community in a practical way.

For example, many people are attracted to short-term teaching roles despite being unskilled. These roles are easy for volunteers to undertake but students may suffer the consequences of inconsistent teaching and the emotional impact of meeting and parting with teachers.

Is the project, and your role within in it, aimed at making a long-term, sustainable impact?

Volunteer activities must be developed based on a clear long-term vision, ideally as part of programs that have a sustainable impact at a community level. For example, if you are assisting on an infrastructure project, ask how will it be supported by the local government -- who will supply the electricity and pay for services?

How are volunteers selected?

Make sure there is an application process for the activity you are undertaking, especially if it involves working with children. If an organisation allows you to walk in off the street and start interacting with families or children, then question the quality or security of the program.

What work will you be doing?

A clear outline of the activities you will be undertaking for the duration of your stay should be provided before your departure. For long-term volunteering, make sure there is a job description available for the position you are undertaking.

Also, evaluate if you feel qualified for the activity you are undertaking. For instance, many opportunities may not require special skills or provide onsite training however, others may put you in a position that you may not be skilled for example teaching or health care.

Are there clear guidelines on volunteer conduct?

Every organisation utilising volunteers should have clear guidelines on expected behavior while working with local communities, particularly around respecting their rights, needs and priorities.

How are costs broken down?

Make sure the organisation you are signing up to support has a transparent cost structure and can tell you exactly where your money will be spent, from donations to administration costs.

How will you be supported?

Volunteering overseas is a big commitment and it's important that you have support along the way. Ask what assistance is provided not only before you leave but on the ground. Ensure there's adequate communication and you have a briefing before you leave. Make sure you're introduced to a local contact in country. Also look for clearly outlined itineraries, handbooks and manuals.

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