Volunteering in Vanuatu

Discover volunteering opportunities in Vanuatu - a South Pacific nation of natural wonders and welcoming people.

About Vanuatu

More than 300,000 people live in Vanuatu, a country of 83 islands, stretching across 1,300 kilometres of the Coral Sea.

Vanuatu is administratively divided into six provinces: Torba, Sanma, Penama, Malampa, Shefa and Tafea.

Port Vila is the capital and largest city of Vanuatu with a population of about 47,000. Located on the south coast of Efate Island in Shefa Province, Port Vila is the commercial and administrative centre of Vanuatu. The city is built around a bay; many areas stretch up the hillsides, offering a combination of stunning harbour views with a faded French atmosphere.

The main industries on Efate are tourism and related services and agriculture. In other parts of Vanuatu, livelihoods are centred around fishing, food crops and small livestock. On Epi, the second largest island in Shefa Province, the main industries are copra (the dried meat or kernel of the coconut), kava and cattle production.

For leisure, people enjoy swimming, snorkeling, fishing, playing team sports and enjoying Vanuatu's beautiful waterwalls.

Brief look at history and society

Vanuatu gained political independence from Britain and France in 1980. 

The nation's economic development is vulnerable, as the region is often impacted by unpredictable weather events. In 2015, Cyclone Pam severely damaged 90 per cent of buildings in Vanuatu.

The country is working hard to ensure universal access to basic health services.

Australian volunteers in Vanuatu

Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of partner organisations in Vanuatu to achieve their development goals since 1966. 

Volunteering opportunities in Vanuatu support communities across a range of development priorities, including:

  • Economic development
  • Agriculture
  • Tourism
  • Education and vocational training
  • Health
  • Gender
  • Media and communications

Read about our impact in Vanuatu in 2019-2020

Life as a volunteer in Vanuatu

Culture and religion

Understanding the culture is an important part of integrating into the community in Vanuatu.

Most Ni-Vanuatu are religious and attend church on a weekly basis. Meetings, workshops, and sports sessions commonly begin and end with a prayer.

Tanna Island, with a population of around 30,000, has a strong culture which may seem to favour men over women. This comes from the belief that women’s and children’s safety is in the hands of the husband and fathers.

Culture and tradition are very important to the people of Tanna. If they are treated with respect, they will reciprocate.   

Many Ni-Vanuatu people go to church on Sunday, or Saturday for Seventh Day Adventists. Going to church is a good way of meeting people and integrating in the culture. There is usually a collection for the church and any amount of money can be given.

Dress

Casual, modest, loose clothing is usually acceptable in the workplace and in public. Neat, conservative clothing should be worn for formal occasions.

The most appropriate dress for women is skirts and modest shirts. Skirts must be below the knee in villages. For church, women wear an island dress or a skirt and blouse.

For swimming, wear shorts with a sleeveless top, and cover up the shorts with a lavalava when walking to and from the beach.

Men can wear shorts or pants and a shirt with sleeves. When swimming they can wear shorts or pants, and a shirt.

For church, men wear island shirts with shorts. Some churches have more formal dress; for example in Presbyterian churches, men often wear long pants and a long-sleeved white shirt.

Etiquette

Be mindful that men and women often sit in segregated groups. When sitting down, women must make sure their skirt or dress covers thighs and knees.

For both women and men, when walking in between people, excuse yourself and bend down as a sign of respect.

People usually greet each other with a quick handshake; women can double kiss on the cheeks or hug. Handshakes are usually a touching of hands (not always firm) and the person can continue holding your hand. 

In areas outside of popular tourist spots, it is not uncommon for men and women to swim separately - at different ends of the beach, or in streams - men upstream and women downstream.

Personal questions

As a volunteer, you are likely to be asked if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, or if you are single. If you are married, you might be asked if you have children, and if you don’t have children, you may be asked ‘why not?’

It can be advisable, depending on the situation, to say that you do have a partner in Australia, especially if the person asking is of the opposite sex.

Body language

In Vanuatu, a nodding head and raised eyebrows means yes, and a shake of the head sideways means no. A thumbs up means everything’s okay, and moving shoulders means you don’t know or you’re unsure.

Most females do not make direct eye contact. They are most likely to look down if they are talking to a male. A volunteer can make eye contact depending on how well they know the person.

Relationships and socialising

Don’t be surprised if you are asked to be a ‘friend / fren’ if you are single or if you are approached by a local friend to find a local boyfriend/girlfriend for you. ‘Friending’ means more than a platonic relationship and entails the expectation of consensual sex. Ensure to be clear on your boundaries early and that you understand correctly that you are being asked to be in a formal relationship.

Culturally men and women tend to socialise within same-sex groups and only occasionally will you find that the sexes do certain activities together.

Having a lone male or female visit you in your home alone can be misunderstood. Always meet outside of your home and in public settings to avoid confusion or expectations that you are interested in more than a platonic relationship.

Think carefully about engaging in a serious relationship with a local Ni-Van. Culturally there will be a strong expectation of marriage, especially if you decide to live together.

Two men, an Australian Volunteer and a Vanuatu partner, look into a ship porthole.
Australian volunteer paramedic clinical instructor Kallai Sugden with ProMedical paramedic George Jack. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
A palm tree hangs over a beach in Vanuatu.
A beach in Port Vila, Efate. Photo: Darren James
A traditional Vanuatu boat painted red, yellow, black, and white resting on grass.
Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo: Darren James
Two men in navy paramedic uniforms stand against a red door.
Phillip Kampai and George Jack are Paramedics with Pro Medical in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Photo: Darren James

Language

The national language is Bislama, and French and English are also spoken. Outside Port Vila, Bislama is most prevalent.

Climate

The climate is influenced by the trade winds. Vanuatu is equatorial on the northern islands - hot and rainy year-round. In the central and southern islands, the climate is tropical, with a hot and rainy season from December to March and a cool and drier season from May to October.

Vanuatu is one of the most natural disaster-prone countries in the world. It experiences several cyclones each year, mostly between November and April. Vanuatu has seven active volcanos and tremors and earthquakes are frequent.

Telecommunications

Vodafone and Digicel both provide a mobile phone service, with free sim cards at the airport. You can approach a seller in town to buy credit. You can also go into the Digicel or Vodafone stores to top up credit or for Digicel, you can download their app and buy credit that way.

Once you have purchased credit, you apply the credit to a plan. If you buy a plan, the data, calls and texts are cheaper. If you don’t buy a plan the phone company charges you a much higher rate.

There are a variety of internet packages available through Vodafone, Telsat, Digicel and Wantok.

Internet in Vanuatu is slower and more expensive than in Australia.

Food

Supermarkets and restaurants are available in many locations, as well as vegetable markets where you can enjoy fresh, nutritious foods.

In Port Vila the supermarkets stock gluten-free food and non-dairy milk alternatives.

Transport

Walking, taxies and buses - in the form of mini vans - are the most common modes of transport. The bus is recommended as taxis are unmetered. If you do use a taxi, always agree on a price beforehand.

Bicycles are not recommended in most areas, but a quad or motor bike can help move about easily.

Security, risks and challenges

Vanuatu is in a high-impact zone for tropical cyclones, with the area receiving an average of two-to-three cyclones per season. It is important that you are familiar with cyclone terminology and the type of tools used to communicate information about storms.

Earthquakes occur frequently in Vanuatu, as the country lies above a tectonic plate boundary. While events occur regularly, most are small-scale and are rarely destructive.

Occasionally, earthquakes cause damage to infrastructure but rarely result in serious injury or death. Participants may experience an earthquake while on assignment in Vanuatu. After an earthquake, there may be the risk of aftershocks and tsunami.

Gender-based violence is widespread in Vanuatu. Statistics show that 60 per cent of ni-Vanuatu women experience physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and domestic violence has been publicly acknowledged as a key concern for the country.

While incidents are rare, women travellers and foreign residents (including program participants) have been subject to sexual harassment and sexual assault in Vanuatu. Program participants (women and girls) may experience opportunistic stalking, unwanted opportunistic attention and verbal sexual harassment, particularly when walking alone.

Port Vila is home to a modern public hospital and several private medical centres and clinics to meet any medical concerns.

Malaria is very contained but it is advisable to use a mosquito net and repellent when travelling into rural locations. Open wounds can quickly flare up so it is good to cover any cuts and take antibiotics.

Dehydration is another concern so keep bottled water by your side. Outside Port Vila and Luganville, medical services are basic.

Accessibility

We’re committed to ensuring that international volunteering is inclusive and accessible to Australians from a range of backgrounds, with diverse perspectives, identities and abilities. 

To support this, access and inclusion plans are available for volunteers with disabilities to assess their needs and ensure their living and working requirements are fully considered. Indigenous Pathways is an Indigenous-led program that focuses on providing culturally safe, flexible and tailored support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander volunteers.

Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Vanuatu, please do some further research on living in Vanuatu and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.