Top Five Volunteer Abroad Destinations

by Elsa Thomasma

The first, and ultimately most essential, step to volunteering abroad is deciding what you want to do and where you want to go. Opportunities to volunteer are present in every country in the world, with projects ranging from healthcare and childcare to environmental conservation and development. Making this first decision can make or break your experience of international volunteer work, so choose wisely, learn about the country and the types of projects available before committing!

1. India

Providing a unique social structure, India provides volunteers with the chance to experience a true Caste system, and all its consequences. Female volunteers should be prepared for very different gender roles than in the majority of Western nations, and possess the ability to respect and abide by local expectations of women. Males, in the same right, must be prepared to learn what is appropriate when interacting with females or risk social uproar. The country’s economy and population is quickly on the rise, forcing the locals to adapt to modernization or be left behind.

Taj Mahal of India

The world famous Taj Mahal of India. Photo by Dominic James Fusco

India has significant disparities, between bustling cities and rural villages or beautifully adorned homes and small impoverished shacks. The amount of social class inequality and class discrimination in India is extensive and often daunting. However, it provides the ideal circumstances for volunteer placements in areas such as human rights, social development, public health, and child labor recovery. Many volunteer programs in India involve working with children in various respects, due to a history of social problems faced by India's children. There is much room for personal growth and humbling experiences for volunteers in India. The nation challenges volunteers to open their minds to alternative societal structures and assemble the ability to accept and respect a sometimes chaotic way of life.

2. Peru

Locals of Peru

Locals in their traditional Peruvian dress.

Bursting with culture and beauty, Peru is a naturalist haven. The natives are known for being some of the most hospitable, friendly people in the entire world. Peruvians happily welcome visitors and provide foreigners with a comfortable environment to expand their Spanish language skills. Rural life is traditional, especially compared to the escalating modernity of life in the cities. In remote villages, locals literally live of the land and remain almost entirely self-sustainable, whether in the Andes Mountains or amidst the Amazon rainforest.

These latter two natural attractions serve volunteers, interested in agriculture, sustainability, environmental projects, and wildlife, with ample possibilities. Locals maintain a high level of thankfulness of any help given to them, providing even more rewarding experiences for international volunteers. Those interested in hiking or ancient history will also find volunteering in Peru quite satisfying, through hikes along the Inca trail and ventures to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.

3. Thailand

An elephant ride in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Kids enjoying an elephant ride in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Troy Peden

Vibrant, spicy, and inviting. Thailand is one of Southeast Asia’s most traveled to destinations, and for more reason than one. Strongly driven by Buddhism, temples scatter the entire country, providing numerous peaceful places for meditation and reflection. The food is notoriously flavorful and brings tears and sweat to unforeseeing foreigners, but when the spice is right, the food is to die for, whether it be the infamous Pad Thai or Tom Yum soup. Affordability is also a draw of international volunteer work in Thailand, a place where even the locals eat out for almost every meal because it actually is cheaper. The cities are becoming more and more touristy, but in the rural areas the old Thai ways of living abound.

Volunteers frequently find themselves teaching English in Thailand, in rural schools with energetic children of all ages. The cities bring volunteers to terms with poverty stricken areas, where volunteer work with street children or orphans can help volunteers understand the difficulties children in poverty face. The nation is not short of adventure, volunteers can dive into the crystal blue waters of the south to study marine life or work on scuba-driven conservation projects on various islands.

4. Costa Rica

Red eyed tree frog in Costa Rica

This red eyed tree frog can be seen in Costa Rica's wild forests.

Living life inspired by the phrase pura vida, meaning pure life, Costa Ricans are grateful people who live life positively. As the national language of Spanish suggests, the nation has been influenced by the Spanish throughout history. Although as a whole, the country illustrates an assortment of cultures at times from German to Caribbean. In comparison to neighboring countries, Costa Rica focuses heavily on education and over 90 percent of the population is literate. Believed to be one of the safest countries in Latin America volunteers can ease into the local way of life without worry.

Volunteer placements in Costa Rica deal greatly with the resources the country naturally possesses. The majority include some environmental component as the country is known for ecological and geographical diversity. Wildlife conservation projects and eco-friendly agriculture based initiatives are common and sprawl across the country. From sea turtles and jaguars, to healthcare and construction, Costa Rica has plenty of meaningful projects for international volunteers to choose from.

5. South Africa

Direction sign at Cape Point, South Africa

 A direction sign at Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Troy Peden

A culture of extreme contrasts, South Africa has dealt with a significant amount of struggle throughout its history. The nation as a whole has been divided racially and socially in unique ways which previously stalled its development. However, currently South Africa stands as one of the continent’s strongest economies. For English speakers, the nation provides the ability to communicate quite effortlessly, while giving volunteers the chance to experience native African cultures and dialects.

Volunteer placements in South Africa span from urban city social problems to rural areas where resources are scarce and needs are great. South Africa is not short of HIV/AIDS projects, which attract individuals from around the world to Africa consistently every year. The nation also provides many opportunities for volunteer work with nature, whether it be local wildlife conservation at one of the nation’s famous national parks or marine research in the sea with exotic species. South Africa is the perfect location for volunteers interested in a mix of adventure and diversity.