Eli Orzessek finds the answers to your travel questions.

My wife and I want to do something different and take a career break/gap year. We are interested in travelling to different locations, but apart from seeing places, want to do some voluntary work. Can you suggest who we should approach for starters? We'd prefer to do it in the developing world. Also do we require a work visa if not earning a wage? Please share pros and cons. Thanks.
Aspi Bilia

Volunteering while travelling — or "voluntourism" has come under scrutiny recently, as some programmes may not actually be as ethical as they sound. There are particular concerns around working with children, especially in the short term, as a constant stream of "teachers" can be disruptive. It's generally recommended to avoid orphanage placements for this reason.

An organisation like Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) is a great place to start when looking for voluntary work. It develops volunteer assignments based on the needs of the people and organisations it works with and recruits people with the right skills to share. Unlike voluntourism, VSA funds assignment travel, living and medical costs.

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I asked Stephen Goodman, VSA CEO, about the work they do and how to volunteer ethically — here are some tips you might find helpful.

Volunteering is a rewarding experience

"Volunteering overseas is a really generous thing to do, but all our volunteers tell us they get more out of it than they give. So of course we'd recommend it to anyone who has the required skills and is keen, and we encourage all of our volunteers to get the most out of it by being open to new experiences, really getting involved in the local community, and taking their time to understand the lay of the land. It helps to learn as much of the local language as you can, too."

Asking questions is the best way to identify an ethical volunteer programme

"Can they identify really clearly exactly how the volunteer programme benefits the community? Have the projects been designed by, or in consultation with, the local community? Will you be involved in the local community, or just with other volunteers?

Could the work you'd be doing be done by a local — in other words, are you potentially taking someone's job? Will you leave the project/community in a stronger position than before you went?"

Spending a longer time in one place will help you engage with the community
"Understanding the local culture is vital to the success of the assignment, so connecting with and taking the time to get involved in the local community, and understand the local culture will allow a volunteer to achieve so much more."

Sometimes you may require a work visa
"For VSA assignments, yes. We facilitate and cover costs for visa applications."

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Travel where there is a demand for volunteers
"We work throughout the Pacific and Timor-Leste, and there's huge demand in all the countries where we work for volunteers."

If you'd like to learn more about taking your skills on adventure with VSA, check out their website at vsa.org.nz.

Email your questions to askaway@nzherald.co.nz
Eli cannot answer all questions and can't correspond with readers.
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