Spend a week or two in Bangladesh, and you will discover that there is nothing average or predictable about it, but that is exactly what makes it such a fascinating and dynamic place to volunteer. The fluidity of the country, however, makes it nearly impossible to pin down an average volunteer work experience as the opportunities and needs are as varied and diverse as the people and the country itself.
Bangladesh is the mecca of NGOs and is always in need of volunteers. Whatever your interest or expertise, chances are you can find an organization in Bangladesh that has volunteer opportunities to fit your agenda and particular skill set.
Length of volunteer commitment and working hours depend on the organization, but many organizations prefer volunteers that can commit to at least three months and work full-time hours. However, some organizations are willing to take volunteers on a shorter-term basis and also accept volunteers for part-time work. You should have no trouble finding a volunteer position to fit the amount of time you are available.
Access to adequate health care remains relatively low in Bangladesh, and doctors in rural areas often lack proper training. Malnutrition is a persistent problem, and Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Preventable diseases are also prevalent. Both medical experts and volunteers without medical training are needed in the healthcare field in Bangladesh. Placements are in both rural and urban areas.
The literacy rate in Bangladesh is low, hovering around sixty percent. Generally, the quality of education at the primary and secondary level is inadequate, and class sizes are often large, classrooms are ill-equipped. Access to education is unequal depending on gender and economics, and the dropout rate is high as many students leave school early due to poverty. Volunteers are needed in the field of education to teach at the primary, secondary, and university level. Placements are in both rural and urban areas.
Issues related to gender inequality have been improving in Bangladesh, but Bangladeshi females still face significant inequalities in areas such as health, education, and employment due to poverty and cultural restrictions. Females in Bangladesh are still sometimes victims of traditional or violent practices such as dowries, child marriage, domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and acid violence. Volunteers are needed in the area of gender equality to help women become empowered. Placements are in both rural and urban areas.
Practical Tips for Volunteers
Mental preparation: One of the most important things to understand about Bangladesh is that it’s a land of sudden changes and unpredictability. Be ready for the electricity to go out in the middle of your presentation, for work to suddenly be canceled due to political reasons, and for meetings and appointments to be changed at the last minute. However, if you understand the nature of unpredictable Bangladesh and go with the pace of life rather than against it, Bangladesh can bring out the best of you in terms of flexibility, creativity, and patience.
Rural versus city life: As in most countries, life in the rural areas is quite different from life in the city. If you are in the countryside, you might be a bit of a spectacle, drawing a crowd wherever you go, and don’t be surprised if you are subject of many photos, at times even the main attraction in family photos. In Dhaka, you will get the occasional glance, but will be much less of a celebrity.
Friendly and helpful: Bangladeshis are warm and hospitable wherever you go. If your rickshaw driver is lost, you can just call out for someone on the street who speaks English, and they will help you out. If you’re having trouble communicating in a store, you can be sure that the clerk struggling to talk to you will find some in the vicinity who can speak English.
Availability of necessities: You will be able to find most of what you need in Bangladesh—especially in Dhaka—so there is no need to stock up on shampoos and anti-itch creams. Books, however, are not so easy to come by, so bring your Kindle or a few novels and any books you might need for work purposes.
Language: In Dhaka, you will be able to get by in English. In the more rural areas, you might need a bit of Bangla.
Clothing: As Bangladesh is a Muslim country, dress modestly. Avoid clothing that is too tight or revealing. Men can safely and comfortably wear their normal casual and work clothing, but foreign females typically feel more comfortable wearing local clothing (shalwar kameez or sari), especially outside of Dhaka.
Health and Safety Tips
Crime: Bangladeshis are generally open and welcoming to foreigners, but as in most countries, there is a level of crime, and both locals and foreigners can be victims. However, prevention goes a long way, and you should be able to keep yourself safe by following a few guidelines. Never carry more money on you than you need. When walking down the street, hold your bag so that if is facing away from the street. When traveling by rickshaw, wrap the strap of your bag around your legs. When out at night, do not walk or take local transport; travel by car. If approached, don’t fight your mugger. Hand over your belongings. Keep a small stash of money hidden on you so that you can still make it home in the case that you have been mugged.
Food-related issues: Unlike the Delhi belly, there is no official Dhaka belly, but many foreigners new to Bangladesh experience food-related health issues even when being cautious. It is a good idea to avoid street foods, and be very careful about raw vegetables and fruit. Only drink boiled or bottled water, and make sure all bottled beverages have a plastic seal.
Health: Before traveling to Bangladesh, get routine vaccinations such Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Typhoid. Japanese encephalitis and rabies vaccinations are also recommended. Malaria is not a risk in Dhaka, but in other parts of the country anti-malarial pills are suggested. Dengue Fever is a risk in all parts of the country. Apply anti-mosquito creams or sprays and sleep under a mosquito net.
Road safety: Traffic in Dhaka and in other major cities is chaotic and unpredictable as driving is more offensive than defensive and drivers tend to disobey traffic laws. Never expect drivers to do what they are supposed to do and remain on alert when riding a bike and moving about on foot.
Strikes: In Bangladesh, hartals (translated as strikes) and blockades are recognized methods for political parties and other organizations to voice their demands. During a strike, certain services and institutions are shut down and transport is prohibited. Demonstrations and rallies sometimes take place on strike days and can become violent. Exercise caution on strike days and assess the situation before moving about.
Contributed by Jimalee Sowell