In recent decades, volunteering abroad has gained popularity among youth who wish to travel while boosting their work experience and cross-cultural skills. It has created a phenomenon known as Voluntourism, defined as a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for charity. And it is reported to be a $2 Billion (USD) industry, which brings a whole strain of ethical problems. 

The Dark Side of Voluntourism 

Voluntourism typically involves a short-term volunteer commitment, which brings to question the long-term sustainability of such programs. Bali suffers from what is referred to as orphanage tourism, where tourists visit orphanages to do short-term volunteering. However, this has encouraged people to capitalize on vulnerable children and poverty. To fulfill the demands of tourists, orphanages recruit children from less fortunate backgrounds with the promise of better education and quality of life, in exchange they become ‘orphans’ in these institutions. Agencies that arrange such programs typically charge a hefty rate to tourists, and in reality, leave little for these children. 

Of course, this is a problem that happens all over Indonesia. There have been countless cases of exploitation of children that capitalizes on volunteer demand. In 2023 in Medan, an orphanage was found to be ‘selling the misery’ of the children by uploading videos on TikTok to receive donations. The perpetrator kept donations of around Rp. 20 to 50 million a month for personal spending. (Utomo and Purba, 2023). 

There are also adverse effects on the local environment and social climate. As with any other tourism, people are bound to use up local resources during their stay. With scarce resources such as water or food, it makes us question whether we are helping or straining the local community. 

A larger problem is that oftentimes, being out of touch with the local culture means being unable to understand and address local needs. It has become a common trend to impose our own cultural and moral beliefs on the people – a result of the savior complex, which is when one believes in the need to rescue people because they know what the people need. Such beliefs are problematic because they neglect cultural sensitivity while assuming that the Global North (region including rich and powerful countries in North America, Europe, and Australia) is the ideal that all countries are working towards. 

This is not to say that we should not volunteer abroad. Volunteering abroad has many advantages, whether it be gaining global perspectives and learning about new cultures, or understanding that there exists other realities that can be very different from yours. However, if you do choose to volunteer abroad, these are some things you can do

  1. Pick a focus area you want to help with and research the scope of that issue in your destination country (i.e. Women’s Rights in Indonesia) 
  2. Look for local organizations that focus on your desired issue area and do not be afraid to reach out to them to ask about opportunities
  3. Make sure to do your background research on the organization to determine if it is trustworthy, reach out to past volunteers

Why Focus on Local Communities? 

Focusing on helping the people around us would be more effective because of our similar cultural upbringing. Being able to speak the local language and practicing cultural sensitivity are both bridges that bring us closer to the people we want to help. Such connections allow us to provide better care while addressing their needs.

Local projects are also more sustainable because of geographical proximity to the project. We don’t produce as large of a carbon footprint as opposed to if we were to fly, and we can also be more consistent by providing long-term support. Not to mention, it helps our community grow economically and socially, by helping them build their independence. This signifies a step towards permanent change, which is when we can truly claim the sustainability of our causes. 

What Are Ways to Support Local Communities?

Some social issues that require dire attention in Indonesia are human rights and environmental degradation. This is why focusing our efforts in these areas would be extremely effective. Human rights include different issues, from disability rights to gender equality. Such issues are most effectively addressed through information and creating a space for dialogue and reflection. 

As the second largest plastic polluter in the world, Indonesia struggles with its waste management. One way we can help reduce the production and effects of pollution is to host community cleanups, which serve as an educational experience on the consequences of large-scale waste pollution.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to support your local community, such as: 

  • Buying from your local businesses 
  • Donating to a local charity or organization to support animal conservation or environmental protection
  • Arranging clothing drives to address fast fashion 

Things to Keep in Mind When Helping Your Local Community

With all things in life, it is important to set a clear goal to determine the intention of your action. And to keep on track, we need to ensure that some rules are adhered to. First of all, we must conduct thorough research by speaking to the people, so we understand the full scope of the issue and their needs. By understanding who we are helping, we can be respectful of their cultural beliefs, because they may differ from yours. Practicing this requires you to self-reflect on the biases you hold, and even unlearn things you grew up knowing. 

It is also important to polish your skills before you use them to help others because unqualified work is harmful, and they are not experiments to test your skills. Just like how a doctor needs their certification to perform medical procedures on their patients, volunteers need to develop the skills they need for the job. 

With that being said, never stop learning about yourself and the people around you. Sometimes it is easy to get discouraged and lose sight of our goals. But every opportunity is a space for growth, and as people who help people, we need to be curious and passionate about the work we do and the people we help.