I want to get involved in North south initiatives. How can I help?

You can either help by staying in the North or by doing volunteer work in the South. The latter option is probably the hardest but also the one that changes you most, usually for the good, I think.
Things to look out for and questions to ask
The first danger is to fall into the hands of a bad organisation. Unfortunately, you have to take that very seriously as many of them only try to gain financially from you, some who are honest have no clue on dealing with foreign volunteers and do not have a long term vision. Just going there and finding an organisation when you're there can be asking for trouble.
The safer bet is to contact an organisation in your country with volunteer opportunities in the South and ask them a lot of questions. What exactly does their local partner in the South do? What is the mission and vision of both the partner in the South and the supporting organisation in the North? Do they "give some fish" or "teach people how to fish"? This really is crucial as there are too many Santa Claus organisations that make people dependant of their aid, forever. Nobel price winner Amartya Sen once said: 'development is about increasing capacities and chances'.
Who is benefiting?
Another important questions is: how do you do this? Who exactly is benefiting from the activities? Are there only western trainers in a program are do they also work with local trainers? If they say they teach the most needy people how to fish through local trainers, it is a good sign. Of course, some projects are not on training, like infrastructure, but even then you should ask who is executing and who is benefiting and are locals involved and even trained to continue once the support dries up? Also ask a lot of questions on what your contribution can be. What will they expect from you, exactly, in detail? How do they imagine to benefit from your work? As a rule of thumb, the more money organisations ask you for allowing you to do volunteer work with them, the more suspicious you can be. However, a fee that covers your basic cost of staying at the organisation is normal but it also depends on what you have to offer. Think about the skills you can offer.
How long should I go for?
Another thing that many volunteers overlook is the basic idea of TIME. If you want to realise something as a volunteer and grow personally as a return, you usually need more time then you imagine when you start. Do not expect to follow a similar rhythm of live and work in your volunteer job abroad. It usually takes a full month to get to know the people, the way they communicate (not the language itself but just the hidden social rules), the way they learn or just do things in general. And then another month to start thinking of ways in which you can adapt to the local situation and people and to think about how you can use your skills to the benefit of the people you work for. You will probably not do this exactly how you planned to do this back at home, but if you take at least 3 months, there is a good chance that in the end you feel you are having an impact and vice versa: you will be learning from them. Of course, it is a pity to leave just when things start going well so I would advice to go longer than 3 months or at least make sure you have the space for prolonging your stay in case it works out well.
If you only have 3 weeks, do not go to help children in an orphanage because by the time they get to know you you are already leaving. I made that mistake the first time and had a much better experience the second time, working for 3,5 months interviewing locals for a research idea that originated from the partner in the South (not from the supporting partner in the North). I basically searched organisations with volunteer opportunities, applied and had a lot of conversations with them before leaving, also asking to be in touch by email with the partner in the South to have a direct talk with them on what they wanted from me. I think that really helped to create a clear goal that could be achieved within the time frame.
Just throw yourself into it
Also: just throw yourself into it. Forget about all the rest and be there, in that moment and with those people. I also had a girlfriend at home and I do appreciated my internet connection once a week but if you have the choice between staying at the head office in the city or in the field office with the staff who do the actual work with the people, take option 2 (and arrange a day off on Sunday to go to the city). And of course: learning some basics of the local language is a must to break the ice in any meeting with people in the South. If you happen to be interested in working as a volunteer in Nepal, you can contact me at the email address of the non-profitchautaara VZW I chair (as a volunteer).


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