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Know before you go

By now, you've done your research on the volunteer-sending or local organization you'll be volunteering with and it's time to start reading up on the country and region you'll be living in. Here are a few topics to consider as well as some sources to get you started:

A comprehensive overview

Make an effort to learn as much as you can about the country—and, as much as possible, the specific region or community—you'll be traveling to. Explore everything from history and politics to religion and language, and from economics and cost of living to cultural norms, customs, and holidays. The more you know about a place, the more realistic your expectations will be and the more prepared you'll be to stave off the inevitable culture shock (for more on preparing for culture shock, read Chapter Nine of "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas.") Don't forget to also try reading up a bit on what if any military, colonial, or economic presence your home country has had in that part of the world; this might help you prepare for any questions or attitudes you may encounter from some members of the local community.

There are many great sources for gathering information on individual countries. In addition to almanacs, guidebooks, and travel websites (one example is JourneyWoman where women from around the globe share tips and suggestions on everything from personal safety to culturally appropriate dress), many national governments and media outlets offer country descriptions for their traveling citizens:

Unless you're already fluent in a primary language of the country you'll be traveling to, now would be a good time to pick up some basic vocabulary. Making an effort to speak to people in the local language helps to demonstrate your willingness to learn as well as a respect for the culture; it also allows others to help and connect with you more readily.

Health, safety, and security

You'll also want to delve in a bit more on topics of health, safety, and security. This includes information on issues that might be especially relevant to your own health (e.g. will the climate exacerbate your allergies? Can you find vegetarian or vegan meal options?) as well as safety issues that may or may not apply to your particular circumstances (e.g. what is the local crime rate? Is it safe for women to travel alone? How are GLBTQ citizens treated? etc.)

Also make a point of checking which, if any, vaccinations you may need to have administered before you leave in order to safeguard your health. Some vaccines can take a few weeks to be administered, so leave yourself sufficient time. For more information on health logistics, click here.

While a number of the above listed sites will also be useful in this area, here are a few more to check out:

You can also learn more generally about the current state of human rights and mobility access in the country you'll be traveling to by visiting such sites as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Lesbian and Gay Association, and Mobility International.

Lastly, you should explore any larger issues of security regarding foreign visitors. For example, is it safe for foreigners to travel there? Are any particular nationalities targeted for crime or violence? Be sure to read any existing travel warnings posted by your government.

The voluntary sector

Chances are—whether you're going abroad with a program or on your own—you'll be volunteering with a charitable organization. And whether they are called NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), nonprofit organizations, charities, or voluntary organizations, the common theme is that they are all working to do good.

Before you join their efforts as a volunteer, spend a bit of time learning more about the history of NGOs in that part of the world. Have they for the most part been welcomed as a community partner? Are they generally distrusted by the government? Are there large national NGOs? Do they tend to be small grassroots groups? Similarly, try to learn more about the country's history of working on the specific cause or issue you'll be involved with.

Knowing a bit more about how NGOs—and by proxy, their volunteers—are perceived, as well as the realities of working on their chosen cause or mission, will help you be better prepared, so ask former volunteers and search for information online, using keywords like the country name and some of the terms for charitable organizations we listed above. Also, look to see if the country you'll be traveling to has a national association of nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations as they'll likely be a great source for information on this topic.

Finally, you might want to check out these issues to consider, written by Comhlamh Volunteering Options, as well as these cultural training resources, provided by the Abroad View Foundation, to prepare for your cross-cultural experience. You might also consider participating in one or both of Unite for Sight's free online courses in Volunteer Ethics and Professionalism and Cultural Competency.

Ready to dive into planning and logistics? Read on


A brief history of international volunteers

While much of this history is still being written, there are a few good sources of information on the impact and legacy of international volunteerism; here are two to check out: