Tammy and Chris always knew their calling was to help improve the lives of others. The couple hail from the UK and Germany and after years of working behind a desk in Civil Service they decided to leave their jobs in October 2011 to contribute longer and more hands-on in South East Asia. Tammy shares her experience volunteering with NGOs and how she turned her passion for international development into a long-term career.
You’ve been volunteering in Cambodia now for nearly 2 years. Why did you choose this particular country to volunteer in?
With its scenery, Angkor Wat, and the Mekong River, Cambodia was one of those countries I have longed to visit for a long time. It seemed not as overly developed as some of its neighbouring countries, yet offered enough comforts to live there for an extended period of time. The organization that arranged our voluntary placements gave us three job options: Mexico, Kenya and Cambodia. At the time, there were quite a few political troubles in Kenya and Mexico, so we decided on Cambodia.
What type of volunteering do you do?
There are many different types of volunteering, from teaching English, to working with animals or helping out at orphanages. Most of these placements tend to be for short-term volunteers, who would like to combine traveling with volunteering. My placement is a capacity building placement.
What is “capacity building” volunteering?
Capacity building focuses on understanding the obstacles an organization or specific member of staff inhibits from realizing their development goals, while enhancing the abilities that will allow them to achieve sustainable results. It is basically strengthening the skills, abilities and competencies of the people, communities or organizations in certain areas. In my case I coach the organizations about communications and fundraising, such as how to write a strategy, manage a project effectively, write a funding proposal, or set achievable targets. Because staff are better trained they, in turn, can help the community overcome causes of their exclusion or suffering. They learn how to advocate for their rights and, more importantly, what their rights are.
Why have you chosen this type of volunteering over other types?
We were keen to do a long-term placement. I think it’s more sustainable and you can get to know a country much better the longer you are involved. It was also a choice of comfort. Moving to a different country with a completely different culture and working with new people can be a bit daunting, but having worked in a similar job back home I knew I could use my current skills to adjust to my new challenge.
How can someone get involved in volunteering with NGOs?
You can either contact NGOs directly and ask if they take volunteers or you can go via an organization who arranges placements and pre-departure trainings. Organizations I recommend are 2WayDevelopment or VSO in the UK, Peace Corps (US), or AVI (Australia). VSO, AVI and Peace Corps don’t charge a fee and arrange everything for you from flights, to training, medical insurance, and a living allowance to pay rent and meals. They normally give you one country as an option, based on the need for a specific skill in that specific country at the time.
We finally decided on 2Way. 2Way charges a fee for searching suitable jobs and you will need to cover all other costs, but the advantage is that you can be selective with your preferences such as country, length or type of program. You get three placements to choose from and they can find you a placement much quicker than others.
Are there skills you might need to get involved with an NGO?
NGOs look for all kinds of different skills such as finance, IT, communications/marketing or fundraising. For these kind of jobs you don’t necessarily need prior NGO experience, although it can help. If you would like to work in the field or as a program manager, who runs certain projects, then you usually need a degree in international development and a few years experience. If you haven’t done anything like this before I recommend that you volunteer with an organization in your home country, then do a voluntary placement abroad to get practical experience. By that time you will have gained a few years experience to apply for paid jobs.
Which has been your favourite part of the experience?
My favourite experiences are always field trips to local projects we are funding. These places are often really remote, which means you get to see the real Cambodia, how people in the countryside live and how our projects are benefiting them. The hospitality of the people is overwhelming and I always feel so inspired after my visits. Quite often locals have never seen a Westerner before, so I regularly get poked on my skin to see if I am real.
How has this experience changed you personally?
Before I came to Cambodia I have done a lot of volunteering in the UK but seeing poverty and suffering first hand made me more humble. It made me realize how lucky I am to have been born in a country with access to things like social security and democracy. I am more careful about criticizing social services in the UK, as I know that what they have got there may not always be perfect, but it is a hundred times better from what you get in some developing countries. I am also much more content with what I have. Possessions that used to interest me back in the UK, such as clothes or fancy gadgets, don’t interest me at all anymore.
What is it about Cambodia others may not know about?
Cambodia has had a very tragic past with the genocide in the late 70s and civil war in the 80s and 90s. People there have suffered greatly, but that doesn’t stop them from being one of the most positive and forward-looking people I have ever met. Cambodians have the warmest and brightest smiles in the world. If you decline a tuk tuk driver’s request to drive you somewhere he will still smile at you, even though his lost business could mean he is not going to eat that day. Cambodians are also very honest people. Sure you have to haggle at markets and you may pay more for items than locals do, but when you negotiate a deal with Cambodians they are true to their promise. For instance, when you agree on a price with a tuk tuk driver in Cambodia he won’t try to charge you more money at the end of the journey, which happened to me in both Thailand and Vietnam a few times.
What advise would you give to someone who wants to start their journey in voluntourism?
You need to be clear what you want to get out of the placement. What areas are you interested in? Is it animals, children, teaching or other area? How much time are you willing to commit? If your priority is traveling but you still want to contribute, a shorter project might be your best bet. If you want to gain work experience and turn international development into a career then long-term placements are a good way to do that. Your impact during a long-term placement can often have more lasting affects.
You also need to realize that you won’t change the world through a voluntary placement. International development is very complex and there is no simple solution to a lot of development issues. To change things for the better, whether that is behaviour or attitudes, often takes years if not decades. That doesn’t mean that your contribution as a volunteer is not valuable. NGOs are often desperate for volunteers and they rely on them because of restricted funding. Think about what skills you can offer to help a local NGO.
When researching NGOs and placements, I recommend choosing carefully. Unfortunately there are some organizations that take advantage of tourists and charge a lot of money for placements, which sometimes goes into their own pocket while beneficiaries don’t see a penny. Ask questions. Find out how much of the funds actually go back into the local community. Learn as much as you can about the country they operate in and the country’s development challenges.
Consider the conditions. Know that volunteering is not very glamourous. It is hard work and depending on where you are placed you may not have things like running water, electricity or mobile phone reception. You may inevitably become homesick or overwhelmed by your new chosen journey. However, despite the challenges, you will feel that what you are doing is important work and the rewards will overshadow everything. If you have an inherent desire to make a difference, then I say go for it!
What items are a must-pack for a volunteer trip?
Mosquito repellent, tiger balm to treat mossi bites, a hat to protect you from the sun, all kinds of medication to do with bowel movements and a means of communicating with your loved ones back home (mobile phone or laptop with skype). In terms of clothes it really depends on the placement you are doing. You will need different clothes working in an animal sanctuary than you will need working in an office. Check with your organization beforehand. I didn’t and I had to buy two smart pairs of trousers, as I wasn’t allowed to wear cargo pants in the office.
And just one final thought. Volunteering can be the most frustrating and the most rewarding thing you will do in your life. It really is what you make out of it. Although I had many hard days I don’t regret leaving the UK to volunteer in Cambodia. It is the best thing I have ever done and it completely changed my life, personally and professionally.
Tammy is a former civil service worker from the UK who left her job in October 2011 to work on justice and human rights issues abroad. She blogs about her voluntary work, travels, and misadventures at Tammy & Chris on the Move. You can also follow her journey on Twitter or Facebook.