Mahatma Ghandi once said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I have traveled to and volunteered in many developing countries and something that will always touch me wherever I go is when I get exposed to sheer poverty. Whether it is children working on rubbish dumps, old people begging for money on the streets because they don’t get a state pension, or girls ending up working in prostitution to feed their hungry children.
As a responsible traveler I don’t just want to witness these things and forget all about them once I get home again. I want to try and support local people as much as I can whether that is through choosing local tour operators, engaging in cultural exchanges through home stays or by volunteering for a local charity.
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As a traveler I don’t just want to take something from locals, I also want to give something back to them. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life. After I visited a developing country for the first time, almost some 10 years ago now, I developed a deep desire to support charities both in the UK and abroad.
I was the co-founder of a local UNICEF branch in a town where I used to live; I became a trustee of another charity that dealt with refugees’ rights and I volunteered with Amnesty International. When I decided to leave the UK to travel abroad I had the deep desire to volunteer for a local NGO, where I can be directly involved with the local people.
Providing skills instead of money
While giving money to local people might help them in the short term, it doesn’t help them in the long run. When I volunteer I try and do capacity building type placements where I use my professional skills, pass them on to local people, and that way provide them with a means of lifting themselves out of poverty.
This Chinese proverb describes it pretty well: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I am a communications and marketing specialist and during my two voluntary placements in Cambodia I coached NGO staff in the areas of fundraising and communications, for example how to write compelling fundraising proposal.
While giving money to local people might help them in the short term, it doesn’t help them in the long run.
I could just write a proposal for them, but as I mentioned above it won’t help them in the long run, as I won’t be volunteering with the NGO forever. They will need to have the skills to write their own funding proposals once I am gone.
No glamor, but a life-changing experience
Volunteering is hard, gritty work. It is not glamorous and there will be times when you just want to quit.
However, volunteering also changes and enriches your life forever.
Volunteering has always been and will always be a huge part in my life and is an integral part of all my travels. Everybody needs to make their own decision whether they would like to volunteer during their travels or not. It certainly shouldn’t be done because it is the done thing during a gap year, or because it is something you can boast about to your friends. If you are choosing to volunteer during your travels, you should have an inherent want to do it.
Tammy Lowe hails from Germany, but has been living an expat life for the past 10 years. In 2011 she and her hubby quit their cubicle jobs in London to travel the world and work and volunteer along the way. Tammy is currently in Cambodia volunteering as a communications advisor for a human rights NGO. She blogs about her experiences and misadventures on her blog Tammy & Chris on the move. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest or Instagram.