How did you decide to apply for a volunteering assignment in Timor-Leste?

My partner and I took a long trip in 2023 and the thought of returning to the 9-5 in Wellington afterwards wasn’t that appealing! I’d been aware of VSA for a while, and luckily there were two suitable roles in Timor-Leste, in climate change finance at Oxfam for my partner, and in organisational improvement at HAMNASA (a local community health NGO) for me. We applied and six months later arrived in Dili!

Jonty Crane.

Who is your partner organisation and what are their goals at the moment?

As can happen, things changed a bit once I arrived in country. I moved to a hub-and-spoke model, spending three days a week with HAMNASA, and two days a week with the Ministry of Tourism. Donors increasingly want to directly fund local NGOs. HAMNASA is one of the largest local NGOs but are still developing their organisational capacity. Tourism is a priority growth area for Timor-Leste, as it is currently heavily dependent on diminishing oil and gas reserves. Timor-Leste is one of the least visited countries on the planet, with few people having heard of it, and even fewer knowing what there is here for tourists.

What does your assignment involve day-to-day?

Every day is different! At HAMNASA I’ve run training sessions, joined bid proposal workshops for funding, and had the opportunity to visit remote parts of Timor-Leste, documenting community activities. My remit with the Ministry of Tourism is broad, and includes developing promotional materials, investigating the establishment of signed hiking tracks in Dili, training local tourism operators on social media and internet promotion, and writing two guidebooks about Timor-Leste, one general, and one hiking-specific.

Have there been any specific highlights or achievements you’d like to mention?

If you try to find travel information on the internet about Timor-Leste you won’t find much! I can think of few countries that are less well documented, with the most recent guidebook being an out-of-print 2011 edition of the Lonely Planet. To try and address this information void, I created, along with accompanying TikTok, YouTube and Instagram channels.

Jonty with colleagues at HAMNASA.

What has your experience of living in Timor-Leste been like?

Incredible, in a word. Timor-Leste is very safe, the people are lovely, and there is so much to do and explore when not working. The diving, snorkelling, and hiking here is world-class. Within 20 minutes by public transport from where I live, I can snorkel above beautiful reefs or hike up near 500m-high hills, or do both in one trip!

Dili is a wonderful city, small enough to easily get around, but large enough to have a cinema, decent restaurants, and shops. Timor-Leste has something like 18 public holidays, so there are plenty of opportunities to explore further afield. For coffee lovers, Timor-Leste grows some of the best in the world. For hikers, the highest peak, Mt Ramelau, is nearly 3,000m above sea level. For divers and snorkellers, Atauro Island is paradise, and only 90 minutes away from Dili by boat.

As a Least Developed Country (LDC, a UN classification), though, there are definite challenges. Certainly it takes longer to do things here, and the climate can be exhausting at times. You very much need to embrace Timor-Leste for what it is, and take everything as a memorable experience, whether good or bad.

Any advice for those considering a volunteering assignment with VSA?

Be clear why you are volunteering. It is not a holiday and it will be tough at times.

The recruitment and deployment process takes a while (allow 6-9 months) so consider how that fits with your life plans and any decisions you need to make.

VSA do a good job of preparing you for the reality of the assignments, but it is one thing to read / hear about something, and another to actually experience it.

If you are going with a partner, consider what they will do if you’re not both volunteering full time, though just doing the shopping, washing, and life admin can feel almost full time on occasion.

Be aware that everything takes longer and is harder to do in developing countries, patience is required!

VSA covers pretty much all your costs so if you’re able to rent out your house to pay the mortgage (or move out of rented accommodation) then volunteering shouldn’t cost you anything, and will give you unforgettable memories and experiences.