How to Accept the Challenges of Volunteering in Developing Nations

by Elsa Thomasma

International volunteer opportunities are very frequently located in developing nations, as these locations tend to have the greatest social welfare and development needs, because they lack a local infrastructure or the government may not have the resources to support particular high need projects. Consequently, there are numerous opportunities to contribute to developing countries through meaningful volunteer work.

Digging A Septic Tank through the Mud in the Philippines
Digging A Septic Tank through the Mud in the Philippines. Photo by Elsa Thomasma

Experiencing life in a developing nation can be life changing, humbling, eye opening, and also extremely challenging. 

Individuals who have spent their entire lives with certain luxuries they didn’t even realize they had, may be shocked to learn how a large part of the world’s population lives. These countries offer volunteers an enormous chance to make a difference, but to make a real impact volunteers must be prepared to adapt to a new culture and a new way of living. 

1. Keep an Open Mind.

Adjusting to the local culture will be particularly difficult if you are measuring everything against your home culture.  Open your mind, clear out your preconceived ideas, and try to live by the local cultural rules. With an open mind, prepared for continued learning and understanding, individuals can overcome the limitations that adjustments pose.

2. Have Realistic Expectations.

Before leaving home you will definitely develop some images of what life will be like. But chances are your fantasy perceptions of the destination and the actual destination will be quite different. Therefore, read as much as you can before you leave about the program and country you will be traveling to. But in the end, be prepared to be unprepared. No matter how much advance research you do, there will still be unexpected aspects of the culture or location.

3. Let Go of Stereotypes.

The more you learn about the local history, religion, and national infrastructure the easier it will be to understand why the nation’s people are the way they are. On the other hand, the more you know about your own history and culture, the more you will understand yourself and your own beliefs about right and wrong. The first critical step to letting go of stereotypes is recognizing your own biases. Be open to learning, and redefining the “rules.” 

A volunteer cooking for the kids

4. Modesty, Modesty, Modesty.

Modesty in clothing choices, in actions, and in words is a must in developing countries. Don’t flash your money, wear a headscarf if that is what locals are expected to do, don’t burp openly at the dinner table (if no one else is doing it), and ultimately make sure you are not always the loudest person in the room. Humble, respectful choices will help you fit into the new culture more fluidly and comfortably, not to mention the locals will actually want to develop a relationship with you.

5. Give up the “Necessities.”

Clinging to items from home will just remind you of what you’re missing and prevent you from living like the locals do. You must grasp that in much of the world there is no such thing as a running shower. In many countries bathing is done with a bucket of water and a ladle, and people have survived for hundreds of years doing so. Let go of your longing for a hot shower and a lazy stream of water. Embrace alternative bathing methods and you just might find yourself living like a local. Let yourself realize the true necessities of life.

6. Redefine Normal.

The desire to view cultural differences as abnormal is almost uncontrollable at first.  You must seek out new definitions of normality. Loud statements of desires to have a “normal” toilet or eat regular food won’t help the local culture accept you anymore than it will help you adjust.

7. Share Your Challenges.

When you communicate the challenges you face you will have more opportunities to learn and grow. Speaking with fellow volunteers, program staff, and even locals can provide the perfect situation for overcoming challenging situations and adjustments. Volunteers deal with similar issues when adapting, therefore they can bond through sharing stories and sharing resources. Organizational staff are experienced in what volunteers deal with during their first few weeks, so utilize their expertise. Local friends or host families can help explain why certain things work the way they do, help volunteers learn to communicate their needs, and provide a home away from home. By being open to the locals, you will begin to feel more at home too. Challenges are normal abroad, talk about them and they can become easier to overcome.

Teaching English to kids

8. You will Not Save the World, but You Can Make a Difference.

It can be extremely difficult to see so many individuals in need of help, dealing with social problems, or suffering from various medical conditions. You may lay down at night feeling helpless, like you can never possibly do enough to make a difference or help all the people who need help. The key is to ultimately accept that one person alone cannot help every single person in the world or in one nation for that matter. Without acceptance of this, the challenge to volunteer in a developing nation can become completely overwhelming. Do your best to complete the daily tasks you have, share all the love you have to give, and grow from your experiences. You will make a difference it just may not be as dramatic as you’d like.

Developing countries offer unique opportunities to connect to locals in meaningful ways and quickly become part of their lives in ways that aren’t possible in developed nations and modern cities.

International volunteering, as a whole, can be incredibly rewarding for you and for the locals whose lives you impact. Enjoy the experience of volunteering abroad, no matter how challenging it may seem, because it will surely change you profoundly and be something you remember for the rest of your life!