Responsible Volunteering Abroad: Before, during and after

Volunteering Abroad is gaining ever more popularity; more and more in terms of responsible volunteering. Margaret actively volunteers in Africa, Vanuatu and Indonesia as an educator and Midwife. Some of her memories include riding on the back of motorbikes, traveling for 6 hours on wooden boats and wading through rivers to reach patients! She feels she has helped a lot of people but she could have done much more through proper research and ensuring that the organisation she volunteered with has a local partner.

She shares her experience on how we as volunteers can ensure responsibility and sustainability especially when go as Medical Volunteers.

Volunteer abroad, voluntourism, Margaret Reid, Medical volunteering responsible volunteering
Margaret playing Ring-ring-a-rosy with children

Before you Travel

Responsible Volunteering is as much your responsibility as that of the organization you will be volunteering for. It is important that you research the organization you want to volunteer through –

  1. check that it is a registered charitable organization, and
  2. has permission to do voluntary social work in the country where you will be working.
  3. Ask to see the organizations Memorandum of Understanding, their doctor’s temporary practicing certificates and the organizations guidelines for volunteering in the country where you will be working.

I believe if all volunteer organizations and their volunteers worked with and alongside a local organization it would ensure one programme for all, patient follow-ups, patient records kept, supervision of medications and continuous care for all patients. This would also help prevent infections, incorrect use of medications and stop the spread of drug-resistant diseases in the developing world.

Vaccination & Safety:

Check with your doctor well before you are to leave for your volunteering assignment. Some of the countries have malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis HIV / Aids.  Bring Doxycycline 100mg tablets for malaria – take one tablet daily, starting two days prior to travel & continue two weeks after return. Recommend Hepatitis A & B and update Tetanus & Polio.

Register your travel arrangements in your home country. This would help them find you in an emergency, to check on your well-being and send you important information. In New Zealand, for example there is


Volunteering abroad is often very expensive. It’s not just about tickets and accommodation etc but everything else costs money like patient travel, medications, x-rays etc. If you really want to make a difference, you would need to do some fundraising!

Also remember, an emergency abroad can be extremely expensive. If you need to be returned to your home country it could cost you thousands of dollars, unless you are adequately insured. It is therefore important to have comprehensive travel insurance before you go.

General Guidelines for when you start volunteering

I believe volunteering is about the needs of the local people and not about the needs of the volunteers. Apart from ensuring that you work with utmost integrity and ethical values and follow the ethical standards of your medical profession, there are certain general guidelines that would ensure long-term sustainability of your work, local skills and infrastructure.

  1. Volunteers must show respect and courtesy at all times this is particularly so as regards to local culture and customs.
  2. The protocol and policies of all local institutions should be respected at all times. For example, any local fees charged for health or education services shall continue to be charged even when you and not the local Nurse are providing the health services. Although volunteers may wish to give their services free, they need to keep in mind that the small fee charged supplements the local nurses wages and he/she could have a family at home to feed.
  3. Volunteers must ensure that they give training to all local people they work with, whenever and wherever required. This means ‘on the job training’ i.e. observing local clinical people, pointing out any improvements they can make and requiring them to do the bulk of clinical work under your supervision. It is in the best long-term interests of the local community that outside medical staff allow local staff to do most of the clinical work. It is very important that volunteers do not undermine the local institutions.
  4. Take a Break!  Take some time out for yourself. The demands are constant and there’s a tendency to feel guilty if you take a break, but it’s really important to do so. We all got over-tired which led to some emotional situations at times which could have been avoided if we had listened to ourselves and felt okay to take time out when needed.  If that means taking a whole day off then do it.

After you return

Before you leave their country it is as much your responsibility as that of the organization you are volunteering for to ensure that all your patients will receive continuing care and have the resources to pay for their follow-up appointments  and medications. Today, I support  three young children who had surgery in Burkina Faso, paying for travel for their follow-up appointments,  x-rays, and medications. These three young children all have ‘plates’ in their legs and will require follow-up care for 12 months or more.

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