In a recent post I shared with you why it’s a fantastic idea to live and work overseas with the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID). Here are the nuts and bolts of how it works and what to expect.
Who can volunteer?
Anybody with relevant skills, usually at university degree level, and professional experience in their field. Assignments are extremely varied and you’ll have to search the database carefully to find the one that matches your skill set. There is no typical volunteer profile; professionals who chose to volunteer for international development are as varied as the assignments and countries you’ll be send to.
My cohort included a retired school principal, a Canberra based mid-career bureaucrat and a bubbly primary school teacher at the beginning of her career. At our induction meeting in Melbourne, a few weeks prior to leaving, I met people from a very wide variety of career backgrounds. Some were retired (plenty of teachers, school principals and librarians among this group), looking for meaningful ways to stay engaged. I was surprised to see so many mid-career professionals looking for new challenges, seemingly keen not to feel stuck in a rut (I met lawyers, accountants health workers, bureaucrats on sabbaticals, PR and marketing managers). And there were plenty of young volunteers at the beginning of their careers ready to conquer the world and add a competitive edge to their cvs.
We were a motley mix of young and old adventurous souls. We all shared a belief that having been privileged enough to have received a solid education, it was a good thing to give something back to those less fortunate than us.
How it works
The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is an Australian Government initiative. Scope Global is one of the delivery partners of the program, sending volunteers to host organisations in 20 countries for periods ranging from 5 – 24 months.
The turnover between sending off your application and departure is fairly rapid. You really want to be sure that you will be able to commit to the assignment for the designated time frame.
There will be a 4-day induction session, where you will meet everybody going on assignment on the same intake. It’s also a chance to meet your in-country group. Some groups are huge, assignments may be in disparate locations and volunteers may end up not having much to do with one another once in country.
There were four of us travelling on the same flight from Sydney and we remained a close-knit group as we all worked in the same field, education, in the same city, with three of us living in the same apartment building. It was nice to have the safety net and comfort of the group.
During the induction session, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the program, the rules and boundaries, what to do when things go wrong and how to get the most out of your assignment. There are sessions on health and safety, insurance, possible illnesses, including our favorite, crutch rut (luckily not very common in the Maldives) and how to prevent them. The very large and very handy first aid kit every volunteer needs to carry, contains everything you could possibly need (including a couple of condoms!).
What to expect
Accept that it will be an adventure and try to go with the flow. You will never really know what to expect, because every assignment and host organisation will be different, just as every country will be different. That said, the mandatory four day induction session is your best source of information and you’ll have the chance to quiz returned volunteers. We got a fairly good idea of what life away from the resorts in the Maldives would be like by speaking to a returned volunteer who had been on assignment working at a school on a small local island in a remote atoll. She did warn us that our experience in the capital city would be very different from hers.
Trying to figure out in advance what life might be like in the capital of the Maldives, was difficult. There simply isn’t much information out there, because until recently tourism had been confined to resort islands. I didn’t get much further than finding out that Male is one of the world’s most populated and smallest capital cities with a small artificial beach. Would there be anywhere to go for a run? Would there be yoga classes? Would I be able to swim before work? How strict was the dress code? Should I pack a dress?
I had felt very confused and erred on the conservative side. My in-country manager smiled when I presented in a Muslim-friendly outfit for our weekend outing to the local airport island. In my free time it was ok to wear short-sleeved t-shirts, dresses to the knee, even board shorts to the knee; she pointed at her own short sleeves. Liberated from too many layers of clothing in sweltering tropical heat, I set out to buy something a little more relaxed. The only problem was, there really isn’t anywhere to shop in Male unless you are after polyester or ill fitting, expensive and low quality imports from Thailand and India.
I was lucky that my assignment was a clearly defined project. I had to devise a 4 year university curriculum for a brand-new BA degree in Visual Arts. There were 32 units in total to be written, complete with weekly lecture outlines, tutorial questions, assignment topics, bibliography and rubrics. It was a huge job, for sure, but at least it wasn’t vague. I had to create something out of nothing.
But not every assignment will be this clearly defined. Often assignment descriptions are vague and counterparts can be unresponsive, because they also might not be totally clear on what you are supposed to do and what they are supposed to do. I soon accepted that my counterpart’s assistance would be restricted to sending me relevant forms and making phone calls on my behalf. We got on splendidly!
Many host organisations are mired in bureaucracy and politics and there were examples amongst my cohort of volunteers who struggled with unhelpful counterparts, vague job descriptions and lack of opportunity to effectively apply their professional skills.
Intercultural differences are the salt and pepper of a volunteering assignment. It’s what gives it kick, but ad too much, and it can be hard to swallow. Every country will have its very own challenges, but it’s probably safe to say that developing countries run at a different pace and things may be less structured than they are at work back at home. We learned within minutes of arriving what was going to be the biggest intercultural difference between us and Maldivian culture.
Bleary eyed and slightly confused after a long flight followed by a speedboat ride from the airport (I felt like I’d arrived in a James Bond film), we stood late at night in a small lobby, crowded with our suitcases that contained what we thought we would need for a 5 month-long stay. There was no record of our reservation and the hotel was full, except for one room. How could that be? The reservation had been reconfirmed that afternoon and our organsiation was a repeat customer.
Shehe, our in-country manager remained remarkably calm and composed and after a series of phone calls a solution was found and we were moved to another, more expensive hotel (though my windowless room hardly seemed to justify it).
We had just witnessed three important traits that define the national character. Things would always change at the last moment, Maldivians are naturally relaxed and, perhaps unintentionally, unreliable. This was how things were going to roll and it was a good thing we found out straight off the plane.
How to prepare for your assignment
There isn’t much time between receiving your acceptance letter and the start date of the assignment. Time will fly and you’ll have to be quite organized to get it all done in time. There will be an extensive medical check-up including vaccinations, paperwork, a first Aid course at your own expense, you’ll need to find a house minder or store your belongings, your banking arrangements will need to be worked out…it’s going to be a long list. Make sure you begin preparations as soon as you accept the assignment and start ticking things off that list. Don’t run out of time, as happened to me.
I was busy visiting family in Germany over Christmas and only returned to Australia in time for the induction in Melbourne, followed by a whirlwind trip back up to Mission Beach in Far North Queensland to pack up the house and pack for my five months away from home.
I also had very noble intentions to prepare for the actual work assignment. I requested copies of curricula written by previous volunteers. I never found the time to even open the documents, but I managed to speak to my future boss at the Maldives National University by phone a few weeks before leaving.
Making contact with your host organisation before you leave
This is a good idea, though be mindful that intercultural communication is also in the non-verbal cues, so make it a Skype call if you can. Mine was by cell pone and it had me slightly confused but also very amused.
“We have been waiting for a lovely lady like you for a long time, hmm, yeah” Mr Absy Ali, the dean of Arts said. Was he hitting on me? What about working hours? I asked. “We start at 8am and go to 10pm, but if you are like me, I like to sleep a lot, so maybe you start at 10, Dr Pilz? And then you rest again after lunch.”
Who would be the potential students, I asked. “All the lazy students and the bad ones who don’t get high marks to study anything else.” I couldn’t be sure if he was serious or not. It turned out that Mr Absy Ali had a wicked sense of humor and a cheeky grin. We got on like a house on fire and there was never a boring day at work.
Napping after lunch, as he’d suggested, turned out to be impractical, unless I wanted to nap at my desk; and Absy (short for Abdhullah) despite his love for sleeping, turned out to be a workaholic. He left me free to organize my time any way I wanted. All he cared about was that the assignment got completed in time and that I worked my allocated daily hours. He never checked, but he didn’t have to. I often worked extra hours, not because I needed to impress anybody, but because I wanted to get the job done. Flexible working hours meant I could design my workday around my daily visit to the gym, without wasting too much time in exhausting Male. It was a win-win.
During that initial phone call he also offered to try and find me room with hot water, and send me to an inexpensive resort occasionally, “Because you will need to drink alcohol. You are a foreigner.” He seemed to know us too well, but he never did follow through with either offer.
What to pack
What to pack for 5 months in a strict Muslim country became the very first challenge of my assignment. I managed to take only one large item of check-in luggage weighing 25 kg and a small trolley that converted into a backpack for weekend trips. My suitcase contained coffee for a couple of months (everything in the Maldives is imported and very expensive) and a plunger, a top sheet (not used by Maldivians), a yoga mat, snorkel, lots of sunscreen and mozzie repellent, a towel, runners, and a bag full of Australiana souvenirs (ie. printed tea towels and koala bear key rings), and a map of Australia to show where I lived (which I never had to use, because everybody just opens up Google maps on their latest edition smartphone).
The formidable Carly, with whom I shared an apartment for 5 months, had the good sense to bring a blender, a yogurt maker, external speakers, a selfie stick (that never got used), a foldable laundry basket, laundry bags for her knickers (our washing machines was not gentle on our clothes), a small reading lamp, Tupperware containers for her packed lunch, all of which I would bring on my next assignment in addition to a teapot and a good chopping knife.
I was at a complete loss regarding an appropriate wardrobe for a steaming hot tropical Muslim country. I bought a few items at the local op-shop and figured I’d buy the rest on arrival (which turned out to be harder than expected, but I managed).
On arrival, our suitcases were smaller than most of those dragged by honeymooners staying for a week or two in fancy resorts where everything from toothbrushes to slippers is supplied. Just goes to show, that we don’t really need all that much stuff.
What’s in it for you
You won’t be doing it for the money, that’s for sure, but the allowances are adequate to get by if you budget carefully. The allowance for the Maldives was among the highest, due to the very high rents expats and locals expect to pay. Whilst the local currency the Maldivian Ruffiyaa is used for everyday transactions, our rent was quoted in USD at the time when the Aussie dollar took a nosedive.
I shared an apartment with another volunteer, which meant we both had someone to debrief with at the end of the day and I got the benefit of living with an energetic person half my age. Best of all, we both saved a fair bit of our allowance, which helped finance our weekend getaways and dive trips in a country where nothing is cheap.
Everybody will take something different away from their experience – there will be struggles, the intercultural communication barriers can be huge and very frustrating – but not one person will come away without having learned something valuable. Living in a developing country away from home is challenging, and that’s why we do these things. To expose ourselves to the unknown and to learn about new cultures, about ourselves, our barriers and our boundaries.
One of the best rewards for me were the words of a taxi driver. He’d rescued me from melting in the sweltering midday heat. After enquiring what had brought Madam to live in Male’, he dropped me outside my campus and said “Thank you for serving my country Madam.”
Check out current assignments here.
Have you gone on assignment as a volunteer overseas? Or maybe you are thinking about it? I would love to hear your feedback.
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