If building houses for the poor sounds appealing, you could give Habitat for Humanity a try. They offer numerous opportunities to actually build houses for the poor in many parts of the world. Their short term programs usually last 1 to 2 weeks, some longer. Their web site is www.Habitat.org . The program that involves overseas volunteering is called Global Village volunteers pay a fee to participate, depending on location, length, etc.
If you're more adventurous, you could consider looking up local affiliates in other countries, and going there on your own, and asking if you can volunteer by basically just showing up on your own. They may or may not let you do this, but if they do they often charge you just for room and board so it can be less expensive than going with the Global Village program. I did this in Costa Rica several times, and a friend did this in Bolivia. If you choose this route, you can search for affiliates on the Habitat site. Keep in mind that if you go on your own you should speak at least some of the local language, and remember, you're on your own. But it is more flexible and cheaper than going with a group, if you have an independent streak like I do it's an option. Note that volunteering with Habitat often (usually) involves physical labor you get in there and pour concrete, set concrete blocks, haul bags of concrete, etc. Outside of the states most of the world is made out of concrete or bricks. The programs vary from country to country, so it isn't all the same, and volunteering with Habitat overseas is much different than volunteering in the states. I'm not endorsing Habitat, but my experience with them has been good.
There are several reference books that are full of programs and ideas. Alternatives to the Peace Corps, edited by J.S. Willsea is a great book in this book I found a program in India that I spent some time at, volunteering among tribal people in a very isolated area. The experience changed my thinking about a lot of things, and it also got me to India, a country which I probably wouldn't have visited otherwise.
The International Directory of Volunteer Work by Victoria Pybus and Volunteer Vacations :Short Term Vacations That Will Benefit You and Others by Bill McMillon are two more excellent references.
How Do You
Separate the Good From the So-So From the Bad?
You will generally find that the locally-run programs charge less than programs run from Western countries, and sometimes are more in touch with the local people. The above references will give you some local programs to choose from. You can find all sorts of volunteer programs on the internet, but keep in mind that you should do your homework, not just pay your money and fly overseas. It's a big commitment for you time, plane ticket, cost of the program, etc. Do it right and have the best experience possible.
If you find a program that you like, ask for references, contact information for other people who have volunteered in the program. They may have glowing references on their web site, but you'll get a better low down by taking a little time to correspond directly with former volunteers.
You may want to shy away from programs that cost a lot - $800 or $1000 a week or whatever, unless they include plane fare. If the locals are making $5 a day or less, why should you pay $150 a day to volunteer? Believe me, room and board in a poor country is not expensive, and for most projects that will be their only expense on your behalf, apart from local ground transport. One possible exception is if they are using a large part of your program fee to fund some particular local program like building a clinic, etc. It's a fair question for you to ask how much of your program fee will go to the actual work of the project and not just to home office salaries, advertising, home office overhead and so on. Just because they charge you a lot doesn't necessarily mean all that money is going to the work of the project. If you want to spend a lot of money, better to find a project that doesn't charge a lot, and offer to help them fund some need that they might have like school books or a well pump or whatever. Your money will be doing a lot more good.
Do you have any special interests you would like to explore as a volunteer? I'm not a medical professional, but I've been interested in village medicine, and medicine in poorer countries in general. I organized several of my volunteer trips around that, had an amazing time in parts of the former Soviet Union. If you have a special interest, explore it, find out what you can volunteer at that would fulfill your interest. Maybe you want to work with handicapped children, or teach refugees English so they can get jobs in the tourist industry.
As an aside, an excellent reference if you plan to spend any time in a very poor country is the book, 'Where There Is No Doctor' by David Werner. It's for people living in area that lacks a doctor an amazing book. You may not have to deal with childbirth, tuberculosis, snakebite or appendicitis, but it's all covered in there, symptoms, treatments, etc.
If you're already in a foreign country, you can also ask around about local volunteer opportunities. You may have some special skill like a medical background, or maybe you can just teach English at a local school. If you have some time and the desire, ask around. Ask other foreigners and tourists if they know of anything particularly expatriates who've been in the country for a while. Go to an internet cafe and look for programs, maybe there's something up your alley that isn't too far away.
I've found some of my most rewarding volunteer opportunities just by asking local expatriates, and by looking at bulletin boards in the hotels or hostels where I was staying.
sign up for a program, find out what sort of work you will be doing as
a volunteer. It may come as a surprise to think you will be building
a school or painting a mural or something, and when you get there you end
up playing with children. Fun anyway, but maybe not what you had
in mind. Also keep in mind that most poorer countries have
plenty of manual laborers, they don't really need you for that, but if
you wish to do manual labor (I sometimes like to) you should be welcome.
Be flexible and do what they need you to do, not just what you want to
When you travel thousands of miles and plan for weeks or months, it's inevitable that you will have high expectations of your volunteer experience. It can be a big adjustment to be in a third-world village for the first time, or sometimes even in a relatively prosperous foreign city. Give yourself some time to get past the culture-shock stage. Don't expect too much. Long after you've left the locals will be there, living pretty much as they did before you came. If you go without a rigid agenda and remain flexible, your main intent being to learn from the locals and help as needed, you'll probably have a great time.
Maintaining good health becomes more of an issue over a long period if you don't take some precautions you could end up with some of the same health problems the locals might have. Eat right, take vitamins, and take care of yourself if you're sick you won't feel like helping anybody. Use your mosquito net if malaria is endemic to the area.
A great reference for products that would be useful in a village situation is : www.thesustainablevillage.com If you plan to spend a long period of time in a poorer country, many of the products on this web site would be invaluable. A very interesting product is their CD library of development books it's $500, but includes roughly 100,000 pages of information, from hundreds of books you'd be hard pressed to find all this information collected together in another place. You would be amazed at some of the products on this web site low tech, high tech, all geared toward developing countries. Keep in mind that the technology used in villages often much different than what you are used to, and if you haven't worked in development you probably have never heard of most of this stuff. You may find some products on the site you'd like for your own personal use, but keep in mind that some products they will ship only to addresses in developing countries. Take a look at some of the products available, and see if any of them would be useful and practical where you are headed.
If you're looking for a training program to work in development, Solar Energy International offers several class of various lengths, in addition to their main offerings of renewable energy classes. Www.solarenergy.org In any event, if you plan to be in a village situation for a period of time it can be helpful to read up on solar cooking, gardening, etc.
If you decide to volunteer overseas for a longer period, there are some foundations and charities that may be able to assist you with the expenses involved, maybe even within your own city. If you belong to a church or civic organization you could try a little fund raising there as well. It doesn't hurt to let people know what you are doing and ask for a little help if you need it. It's usually pretty inexpensive to live in a poorer country, but it can still add up if you plan to stay for six months or a year or more. Some long term programs will offer free room and board, a few will offer some sort of small stipend, but if you have your own funds it may provide you with a wider choice of projects.
If you're going to an isolated area without running water or electricity, a quick trip to the camping store can make a world of difference in your trip, for a relatively small amount of money but try not to bring any heavy stuff. If the local villagers can use it, consider leaving some of your camping gear for them you can always buy more gear at your camping store, they may not have access to what you've got anywhere in their country. Something like those flashlights you shake instead of using batteries are perfect for a village situation.
You might also consider bringing some little things for the local children. I like to bring a couple bags of balloons if it's a poor area. You can get several hundred balloons in a small package, they don't weigh anything. That way you can give a lot of children a balloon some children in poor villages really don't have any toys, a balloon is a big deal. Or a box or two of pencils if you prefer.
Be sure your shots are up to date. Few countries require anything, apart from a yellow fever shot if it's an endemic area, but a quick trip to your county health department will inform you of what kind of bugs there are where you plan to go. Try to do it at least a month before you plan to go overseas - sometimes you're tired for a few days after vaccinations, save your energy for the project. Don't freak out, just be prepared.
Reference and Background
World In A New Way