How to volunteer abroad (if you ask us)

The moment we made the decision to take this gap year, we also decided we wanted to do some volunteering while at it. Since we gave ourselves the gift of all this time off, it just felt right to not only be on a very long holiday. We wanted to give something back to society, and since we were travelling, it would be somewhere out in the world.

It has not been an easy search, but gave us some insights about international voluntourism…

– by volunteering you get the chance to connect differently with the local people, like this lovely lady NoĆ©mie from the poor Socos region, who proudly showed us her new kitchen she managed to build thanks to the work of the NGO Solid. –


When first searching online for a nice place to volunteer, we ended up on too many goodlooking and shiny websites that smelled like too much of the budget went into the marketing. Adding a pop-up to your website ‘how can I help’ doesn’t feel like you’re helping the right audience. Shouldn’t your focus be somewhere in the South instead of commercialising voluntourism in the West?

These organisations make a whole industry of volunteering, hence have more interest in keeping their projects ‘in need’. If all poor kids in Asia learned how to read and speak English, what would be left to make money of, right?

The fees they ask for volunteering abroad are extremely high as well. I think there’s nothing wrong with sharing some of what you have with people who have a hard time. But as with many things in life, money should be used as efficient and effective as possible, reaching the right people and projects and not ending up in expensive overhead costs or unnecessary expenses.

So our online search didn’t really get us where we wanted to be.

– city people on a quinoa farm, not exactly our ‘field’ of experience –

Figuring out what exactly we can do?

Why teach English classes if we’re not even a teacher. Or work on a biological farm while at home we have a hard time keeping our plants alive. We’re really not better at it than local people, so why would we do that?

In many occasions, volunteering abroad is taking a local’s job. We’ve often seen western students working in hostels as volunteers, in order to make their travel more affordable. But this actually is cheap labour for the hostel owner and taking away job opportunities for the locals. Not exactly what it should be about.

Over the last weeks, we also met a lot of competent people in the workplace. Unless you’re an specialist in a very specific domain perhaps, we shouldn’t think we know any better, but leave the local people the chance to take up responsabilities in their own countries. Sharing experiences and ways of thinking is always worthwhile, both ways. But thinking we know better than the people in the South only makes us very arrogant. Not the best attitide for any volunteer.

So let’s support in ‘our’ way

After working for almost 20 years, it sounded logic to us that we did something with that work experience. And that we could do something together.

So why not combine ourselves temporarily into a QHSE team (Quality, Health, Safety and Environment > often combined together into one person or department within companies, or outsourced) and offer this to a local NGO? These are domains that are rarely in the core activities of a business. And as it’s not very likely any NGO would pay expensive externals, we could be ‘free’ consultants.

And what NGO you want to volunteer for?

It’s amazing how many organisations, small or big, are helping the people in the South. We’ve discovered loads of them over the last year. Whether they’re working on health related topics, schooling or poverty, focussing on kids, women or disabled, giving psychological support or jobs, very hands-on or working to improve local laws and regulations, … there’s a lot going on. Luckily, as it’s still very needed.

We looked for an NGO we connected with.

So we contacted Solid International: an NGO with roots in Belgium, that works in domains we find interesting: social entrepreneurship, handicrafts and quinoa!

– These ladies at the Solid social enterprise knit blindly the most beautiful scarfs from baby alpaca yarn. First they were a little shy, but soon they loosened up and talked slowly enough so I could understand. –

We suggested a QHSE audit of their projects in Ayacucho, Peru.

And they accepted.

And here we are

– checking on animal welfare on the Montefino farm, another project from Solid –

Over the last weeks, we’ve done similar things to what we’ve done at home. But in a completely new environment. Nothing commercial about it, just genuinely helping an organisation that is working on improving peoples lifes in a poor region in Peru. With what we have on offer: reporting our observations and sharing our experience to improve the safety, quality and sustainability of their operations. Which they can take or leave, at their own time. Without paying nor getting money in return. Without taking the job of a local person. Without thinking we can change the world, but by planting some seeds that may help taking small steps forward.

It felt right. And we hope they learned as much from the exchange as we did.


PS: some thoughts of other volunteers that inspired us along the way:

– An article of a girl who simply regretted volunteering (the internet is full of these kind of experiences).

– A film of a guy who will maybe inspire you to go volunteer too.