Living overseas is a great way to experience other cultures, feel like you’re on permanent holiday and reduce your living costs.
How do you make this dream a reality?
One option is through volunteering.
But if your reason for going overseas is to live in a cheaper country, then you’ll want to be a ‘paid’ volunteer rather than being self-supported.
The high cost of a self-supported volunteer
By definition, being a volunteer means you freely offer your services to do something.
Yet with no income and many expenses, being a self-supported volunteer overseas can be costly.
There are costs such as flights, medical insurance, rent, food and leisure activities. Then there’s mobile and internet credit, dining out, and travel.
These expenses can build up over time, especially if you volunteer for many months or more, forcing you to dip into your savings.
The affordable way to volunteer overseas
A more financially-viable method is as a supported volunteer, where all the costs are fully or partially covered by the organisation or a volunteering program.
For Australians, the best opportunity is through the government-supported Australian Volunteers for International Development program.
The program supports skilled Australians, aged over 18 years, to volunteer in aid projects or non-governmental organisations in developing countries.
Volunteer assignments range from six months to two years.
The program has assignments available in more than 20 countries including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and South Africa.
As a volunteer, the program provides the following:
- pre-departure training
- flights to and from the country
- a monthly tax-free allowance to cover rent, living costs and your dependents (if approved by the program)
- medical insurance
- in-country support
- access to a 24-hour support helpline.
Sounds great, right?
Is it as good as it sounds?
Being a volunteer abroad can be challenging.
By virtue of being in a developing country, you’ll often face a lower standard of living than back home.
When we volunteered in Timor-Leste (the half island nation to the far east of Indonesia), we faced regular electricity outages, drove in chaotic traffic on potholed roads and had to visit three or four shops to buy our groceries for the week.
We lived a simple existence, in a large one room shack by the beach that had just five lightbulbs inside and metal bars on all the windows to keep intruders out.
It suited us, but that style of living isn’t for everyone.
We also had to adopt to a different work culture, which was much slower than Australia, and had to deal with excruciatingly slow internet speeds at time.
As part of the volunteer program, we were expected to abide by the rules and regulations set by the in-country team, which were intended to keep us safe and alive.
But as well-travelled adults, with previous experience living abroad and with a mortgage to our name, the rules felt claustrophobic at times.
We had to get permission to travel out of the capital city, couldn’t be on a motorbike after 9.30pm, and couldn’t travel between towns after dark.
While the rules were sensible, and created according to the risks present in Timor-Leste, there was no consideration given that we, as adults, could make rational decisions for ourselves.
Another quirk was that we received our monthly allowance in Australian dollars into an Australian bank account, which we then had to exchange into the local currency (US dollars).
But during our time in Timor, we saw the AUD go from parity with the USD right down to around USD 0.70. This effectively reduced our money by one-third.
Why we loved our volunteer experience
Yet despite these small annoyances, we had a great time and would highly recommend the program.
I volunteered at a large and well-funded agricultural research project with well-qualified colleagues, making my time at work easy and enjoyable.
I was able to visit almost all 13 districts within Timor on work trips, giving me a chance to see the true simplicity and real poverty of rural life.
Brad came with me as a supported dependent, meaning I received an extra AUD 500 allowance per month to cover our additional costs as a couple. Eventually, he too got a volunteer position with a local health NGO.
Our living allowance of AUD 24,000 for the year enabled us to live a very comfortable life. This amount was much more than the local Timorese are paid, including directors of large local NGOs, and Brad and I were able to save a good chunk by living frugally.
At the completion of my one-year assignment I was fortunate enough to continue working with the organisation as a paid contractor.
We also met loads of new peoples and formed friendships that will last a lifetime.
By far, the benefits outweighed the cons.
So have I convinced you? Do you want to become an AVID volunteer?
Finding a volunteer assignment
The volunteer assignments are managed and implemented through two agencies – Scope Global and Australian Volunteers International.
The agencies regularly post new volunteer assignments on their websites every month or two, which remain open for applications for three weeks.
In October 2016 alone, AVI had 39 positions open and Scope Global had 86 positions.
What’s the difference between the two organisations? Not much. Besides operating in different countries, both organisations provide the same support and pay the same allowances.
As you’ll see there’s plenty of positions and lots to choose from, ranging from the ‘normal’ to the more obscure.
Of course there’s English language teachers, hospital trainers, IT advisors and fundraising officers.
But there are also assignments for cricket coaches, diagnostic plant pathologists, bread baker trainers and meat processing advisors.
So no matter your skills, whether you’re a fashion designer or a police officer, you’re almost sure to find something for you.
Once you’ve found a position you like, in a country you’re interested in, the next step is to apply.
Recommendations for your volunteer application
Both websites have plenty of information on tips and process for applying, so I won’t include it here. But here’s tips on what to consider when applying.
If you have your heart set on a particular country, organisation or role, and can afford to wait until it’s advertised, then do so.
New jobs are posted every month or two, so you won’t have to wait long for your dream assignment to be advertised (assuming it exists).
When choosing which assignments to apply for, be strategic.
- choose a country that you may want to live in after you assignment
- choose a country that speaks a language you want to learn
- choose an organisation that is well-funded and may be able to contract you as a paid employee after your volunteer assignment ends
- choose an assignment that allows you to do field trips or learn new skills.
You may continue to live in the country after your assignment ends, so it’s best to be somewhere that you actually like.
Be prepared for competition
The most popular jobs are in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where food is great, local flights are cheap and the weather is warm and balmy all year round.
But competition for jobs in these countries is often high.
Likewise, assignments with the United Nations or large international non-governmental organisations such as Plan International, CARE or the Asia Foundation also receive a large number of applicants.
For popular roles, there may be applicants who have already completed a volunteer assignment, have local in-country experience or can speak the local language, making them a hard candidate to beat.
So don’t get your heart set on a job until you’ve at least made the shortlist or the second interview stage.
If you just want an adventure, then just go anywhere
If you’re willing to go anywhere and do anything, then you’ll have the greatest opportunities to choose from.
The least popular roles and less desirable countries also receive the least number of applicants or, in some cases, no applicants.
No matter where you choose to go, even if you’ve never heard of the country or organisation before, you’re bound to have an adventure.
So put your assumptions to the side and be ready to be surprised!
Hope you have as much fun as we did
Volunteering overseas often seems like a romantic dream: helping in an orphanage in Thailand, caring for elephants in Botswana, or teaching kids in Cambodia.
While the reality is often much different, there are many benefits to be gained from volunteering.
You can experience a new culture, gain stacks of new friends, get a taste for living overseas, save on living costs and learn new skills.
We had a fantastic time as volunteers in Timor-Leste and hope that anyone that follows the same path does too.