Staying safe while volunteering: what you need to know

Gap-year volunteers, beware: sometimes bad things happen to those who do good.

Read on for how to stay safe while volunteering.

In 2013, two British 18-year-old girls were walking through the old town of Zanzibar City, Tanzania, when a moped carrying two men pulled up alongside them.

Without warning, one of the men lifted a jerrycan he had been carrying and, with a swing of his arms, doused the two young women with its contents.

The burning pain, caused by what investigators would later identify as a particularly nasty acid, would have been instantaneous. The scars, however, would last a lifetime.

Like many before them, the women had been volunteering as English teachers at a community project on the East African island and the attack had seemingly-come out of the blue.

Fortunately, incidents like this involving ‘gap-year volunteers’ in developing countries are rare enough to generate headlines around the world.

A good cause

Droves of enthusiastic young people apply for volunteer placements in developing countries every year, sometimes bringing crucial skills (but more often bringing much-needed money) to education, construction and infrastructure projects everywhere from Bolivia to Burma.

These projects, often situated in impoverished communities, expose these volunteers to a world they may only have seen on television: ramshackle housing, poor medical infrastructure, malnutrition and, crucially, a culture completely alien to their own.

Rare incidents like the attack in Zanzibar have an explosive impact on the public’s consciousness but overshadow much more prosaic – and common – dangers volunteers might face abroad.

Whether it’s falling victim to street crime or picking up a tropical virus, the majority of negative incidents experienced by foreign volunteers are easily preventable – or at least, easier to deal with if they happen.

Here’s what you can do to make sure your volunteer placement is not derailed by some of the most common problems.


Preparation before you sign up to a volunteering programme is key. What have former volunteers experienced? Does the programme have a reputable online-presence? Where will you be housed? How much assistance will be offered to ease you into life there?

Learn the lingo

Fluency is by no-means essential, but a few words of the native language in the country you’re travelling to can work wonders in making you seem much more confident and less of a target. Think about polite greetings, numbers, and a few crucial phrases to aid everyday tasks like shopping or getting about.

Get insured

Travelling to a country with poor medical infrastructure with inadequate health insurance is a recipe for disaster. Make sure you can access an international-level of healthcare on the rare occasion when you really need to.

Keep up-to-date with local news

Situations can change rapidly on the ground. This is especially true in less developed countries where a volatile political landscape can erupt at a moment’s notice. Knowing a little about what’s happening politically can help you make informed decisions when you’re on the ground.

Dress modestly (or like a local)

A failure to cover parts of your body in more conservative countries can draw undue attention. However, even in much more ‘relaxed’ cultures, wearing something different from locals can accentuate your ‘otherness’. Choose your attire wisely.

Keep family and friends in the loop

The ubiquity of WiFi (in all-but the least developed places on Earth) means connecting to Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp every couple of days is usually do-able. A quick message to friends or family giving your location and plans for the next day or two can increase the likelihood that the alarm gets raised swiftly if you do suddenly become incommunicado.

For more on student travel insurance, check out the article here

Previous articleMonica Axelsson in Albania
Next articleMonica Axelsson in Sicily
Jack Davidson is a nine-year digital nomad who's made his home in such far-flung locations as Cambodia, East Timor, Colombia and Hungary. He writes on a variety of topics relating to travel, travel insurance and financial matters for globetrotters and occasional wanderers alike. Jack is also the host of battleface's podcast When It Hits The Fan.