I get requests from many people who want to volunteer to do
humanitarian work overseas. But there are some issues that may not be
obvious at first glance:
(1) There is a very large investment up front by the agency, which can
include everything from training (in addition to what the volunteer
brings), airfare, subsistence, insurance, logistical support for the
mission, communications, etc. If the agency is working with a tight
budget, it's reasonable to ask that the person volunteering pick up
some of the expenses.
(2) Because of the investment, it's not feasible to send someone
overseas for a couple of weeks (and it's surprising how many people
are interested in short-term commitments). Most of the time agencies
are asking for a minimum investment of 6 months, and more likely a
(3) Also because of the investment, unskilled labor is not what's
being looked for. Unskilled labor is available locally. And yet I get
the comment all the time--"but I'm willing to do whatever's necessary.
And I'm a quick learner." What's needed are people with highly
developed technical skills: medical, water purification and resource
development, sustainable agricultural expertise for developing
nations, organizational development, teaching in adverse environments,
structural engineering in adverse environments, micro-loan economic
expertise, a substantial logistics background (for managing warehouses
or food/med distribution), communications (example: teams have been
set up to provide low-tech--relatively--satellite e-mail transmissions
out of refugee camps), and so on.
(4) The number of people who realize when they get someplace that it
was not what they expected or that they, in spite of the best
intentions, are not emotionally or physically equipped to deal with a
hardship environment, is immense. Even with the best screening, a lot
of volunteers either demand to come home or are sent home because they
are ineffective or cannot function in the world in which they find
themselves. This is an additional reason why a lot of the
organizations request a rather substantial investment upfront from the
individual...because it makes it more likely the person will stick
with it. It's also why one of the first couple of questions asked are,
"Do you have domestic experience in that area," and "do you have any
experience working in a developing nation or potential combat zone?"
(5) Being fluent in other languages.
(6)The other thing to keep in mind...there are almost always far more
volunteers than positions, but most of the volunteers are unsuited for
That being said, I would offer this suggeston. There are needs for
volunteers in your own country. Become a volunteer where you live, and
develop some experience and knowledge that would be useful. After a
couple of years, if you meet some of the other conditions that I
outlined above, give it another thought.
And also, don't let this dash cold water on your ambitions. Take that
zeal, nurture it, develop it, become the person who can be most
effective in what you want to do, then go for it.