When we told people we would volunteer abroad in Central Asia’s second poorest country, Kyrgyzstan, the most common response was to ask if we would either build houses or help orphans.
Our answer? None of the above.
As young professionals, taking care of kids and doing construction labour aren’t exactly our strongest points.
At one point early on in our research, we too thought these were the best options, funny enough, despite any sort of skills in these fields. When you think of people going abroad from first world countries to third world countries, the most striking image for decades that comes to mind is a “Westerner” posing with a group of impoverished kids for a candid photo. But we weren’t going out there for the best Instagram-inspiring photo. We wanted to really help. Through countless hours of research, going through ups and downs, we realized the answer was simple: in order to make a real impact, just ask the locals of the country what they need. And then look inside ourselves for applicable skills that can help towards those needs.
The Journey Towards Volunteering-Abroad Enlightenment
Through our research, we learnt sadly of the potentially harmful and negative consequences of volunteering. For example, orphanages sometimes hire foreign volunteers to take care of “fake orphans”, and how sometimes volunteers abroad build houses and schools that never end up getting completed, creating a situation even worse than if they never started, despite their best intentions. We learnt that sometimes the actual volunteering work is not as helpful as the money they paid the organization which is used to start construction. Isn’t that the same as donating from the comforts of our home then? We almost lost hope and didn’t volunteer, thinking it may be more impactful to just travel responsibly contributing to the local economy and family-run businesses as we go.
But it didn’t all add up for us. We thought, there must be something we as business professionals can offer in a responsible and sustainable way that could help local people in a developing country in a long-term and sustainable way. We began our search again, enlightened by our newfound approach and researched knowledge, but this time for skill-based placements and direct emailing to local organizations that were doing good in their communities.
We wondered for so long how we could help the locals. But the answer was simple. Just ask them. And so we proceeded to do just that.
We found two wonderful local organizations in Kyrgyzstan by cold-emailing them, a country we originally didn’t even plan to go to in Central Asia: the Babushka Adoption Foundation, and Kyrgyzstan Community Based Tourism, both non-profits that are locally run by Kyrgyz people. By discussing with them our skillset, our time commitment, and listening to truly understand their need, we knew whatever we do for them, big or small, will work towards their long-term goals and the long-term work they are doing. In the end the work we did was in fact different from what we originally thought they need – but what do we know? How could we know what they need? Through researching these organizations, we learned that the amazing locals on the ground were truly making a difference in their country. Babushka Adoption Foundation even had local educated volunteers, Kyrgyz people who wanted to give back and help those less fortunate in their own country. We as foreign volunteers brought some overseas skillsets the organization lacked, which we learnt in university and several years of professional work in Canada.
In this way we aimed to help make a small footprint in that ocean of footprints that the local team and other volunteers like us are making. Combined, over time, and together, we collectively have made a difference.
So how do you go about finding a volunteer experience abroad to really make an impact?
First, understand the need of the country, listen to the locals, and then ask yourself what skills you can offer that will help in a long-term sustainable way.
Lastly but possibly most importantly, curb your expectations and be humble: Don’t expect to change the world. Instead, choose a local organization that is.
If you’re interested in giving back and volunteering abroad in general, or specifically in Kyrgyzstan, we’d be happy to share our experience, advice and learnings. Feel free to contact us through the Contact section of our website.
Learn about How We Volunteered with Two Local Non-Profits in Kyrgyzstan
Community-Based Tourism (CBT) Sary-Mogol, Kyrgyzstan (Southern Kyrgyzstan, Alay Region)
We volunteered with the expansive network of Community-Based Tourism in Kyrgyzstan, in a small remote mountain village called Sary-Mogol in the South, a poor farming village that relies on herding animals and growing potatoes for a livelihood. There was so little information about it online that before we went we didn’t know if there was running water or electricity there. When the coordinator (a local who was born and raised in the village) told us what he really needs is help with their online platform, for us to go on the most popular excursions in the area and then make videos for them to post online, as well as help with their website, this at first surprised us but in the end made sense. We hope with our online marketing work, we can help others in the world discover the beauty of Southern Kyrgyzstan, and help the community build a long-term sustainable income, in a way that is focused on retaining the local culture, protecting the environment, and maintaining the traditional ways of life, three important aspects of Community-Based tourism. Check out the excursion videos we made as part of our volunteering work.
Babushka Adoption Foundation (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
We volunteered with an established charity in the capital city of Bishkek which matches impoverished elderly people with sponsors to provide financial support. The charity also works with the local government and multi-national organizations to gain international funding to build long-term sustainable day care centres for the elderly in rural areas which serve as a clean and warm place for elderly people to gather, when many do not have running water, heating, or flush toilets at home. Through this organization’s amazing work, we were given the opportunity to help on long-term projects that will work with the local government to impact societal change such as building accessible infrastructure to support elderly mobility in the cities leading to higher-quality of life for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished elderly.