Written by Junanto Xu
Co-written by Beverley Lennon
Edited by Beverley Lennon

Have you heard about “voluntourism”? Maybe not; but you might well be unintentionally contributing to this unethical trend.

Put it simply, voluntourism is when the primary purpose of your trip is to travel, but includes a volunteering experience. For example, you travel to Bali for a holiday but spend time — from a few hours to several days — at a local orphanage to teach and play with the kids.

Though we understand that your intention is to help local communities in need, the sad truth is that you could be doing more harm than good! Not only is voluntourism a million-dollar business for travel companies and unregistered organisations, but you might also be stealing jobs from the locals, among many other issues!

So if you intend to sign up for a volunteer programme on your next vacation, we strongly recommend you to read through these 5 sad truths behind voluntourism. We don’t mean to say that you can’t make a difference to the world but it is important to remember that your help should be effective in fulfilling a need without causing more damage to the local community.

Read More:

8 Things you need to know about Bali’s dog meat trade and animal abuse problem

Bali’s environmental and pollution crisis: 5 lesser-known issues you are actually contributing to that are more than trash problems!

15 Ethical and sustainable restaurants in Bali that care for the planet and local community and fight food wastage!

1. Know before you go – Volunteering in Indonesia may be illegal!

First and foremost, you have to know that volunteering as a tourist in Indonesia is illegal! Yes, volunteering is considered a crime when you enter the country on a tourist visa (See Article 38 and Article 122).

So even though you have good intentions to help the local community say for education, conservation or other, you could be fined millions of Indonesian Rupiah or worse – get deported back to your home country or face jail in some instances! And that, even if you are volunteering for free (unpaid)!

Trust us, you don’t want to be stopped by the police while trying to do good at an orphanage and teaching/playing with the kids! In fact, the Indonesian Immigration Police makes regular visits to certain communities to check the legal status of ‘volunteers’ so why take such risks when you now know that it can be considered illegal?!

The reason behind such restrictions is that volunteering has long been used as an excuse by illegal workers to enter the country and steal jobs from the skilled locals who end up missing out on employment.

💡Here’s what you can do instead:

Of course, it is still possible for you to volunteer if you’re equipped with a proper visa like the Social Budaya (social visit)” or “Work and Study Visa”.  Simply check here to find out if your visa makes you eligible by law for a voluntary work! If not, we highly recommend you to apply for the correct visa before getting involved.

We would also highly recommend you to consult the local Indonesian embassy back in your home country to make sure you understand the laws.

Alternatively, why not collect materials, clothes and other necessities from your friends and relatives to donate?

2. Helping orphanages? You might actually be breaking up families and contributing to child abuse!

Did you know that out of eight million children who are in orphanages worldwide, up to 90% are not actually orphans? Sadly, this is the case in Bali and around Indonesia too!

Although, it is common and admirable to want to help “orphans”, unfortunately in many cases, children are leased from their parents with the promise of a better life and better education so it’s crucial that you thoroughly research on the organisation you want to help.

In fact, one case that shocked the world is Jodie O’Shea orphanage in Bali. It was reported that out of 94 children, only 6 children lost both of their parents. A former worker even confirmed that children whose parents are still alive were brought from other places like Sumba to help solicit donations. That is, the more ‘orphans’ in need, the more tourists donate or pay to volunteer in their orphanage, and the more profitable the operation.

Photo by lenedahlslier

It was also highlighted on how easy it was to adopt one of these orphans – one day you volunteer with the kid, the next day he is yours!

Even worse, some orphanages have made it to local and international news for being accused of child sexual abuse. Put it simpler, orphanage tourism helps perpetuate the trauma and suffering of those children. Tourism companies who place volunteers in orphanages rarely run police or background checks ,  making it a perfect target for convicted paedophiles!

Listen to this shocking BBC investigation on Bali’s orphanages being used as a way for owners to make money and how children are being abused and exploited:

💡Here’s what you can do instead:

We highly recommend you to do your research prior to helping an organisation. It’s better to donate or volunteer with ethically driven organisations who are working to keep children in families. We believe orphanages should only exist where there are no alternatives for children without families, and they should only be their very last resort.

A one-day volunteering stint might do more harm to kids who get easily attached! Vulnerable children shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of disruption in their lives.

As a volunteer, you have a responsibility to think of the long-term impact of your actions. Of course, there are some ethical institutions and NGOs that are genuinely helping the children in Bali and around Indonesia. They may require some help in terms of donations (but make sure you are not transferring money to a personal bank account!).

3. Short-term volunteering isn’t what the host community needs!

Certainly, there are times when volunteers are crucial, but resource support or long-term engagement with skilled individuals is often more helpful than a short-term volunteer whose skills translate poorly in context. In many cases, you might presume, despite lacking qualifications and time, that you can “do it better” than the locals.

That is why, many think that a one-day volunteering at a local orphanage might do good but in fact, it isn’t ethical. For example, do children in remote regions really need to be taught English when basic education remains the biggest issue for them? Or can’t locals simply build/rebuild houses that have been destroyed rather than having volunteers come to do so?

What we mean to convey is that volunteering often shadowbans the major issues. Organisations create opportunities for volunteers to come and feel good about themselves. There might not necessarily be a need for volunteers but if they’re bringing in money and donations, why not?

Moreover, as a stranger, you are intruding into the community’s daily life and could also potentially cause disruption so make sure your actions are really helping in the long-term!

💡Here’s what you can do instead:

Before signing up for volunteering programmes, consider what you can achieve during your visit. We also recommend you to assess your skills and qualifications and see whether you’re the right fit to help the local community.

There are excellent alternatives to voluntourism that also raise social consciousness. For instance, supporting locally-owned small businesses throughout your travels or even joining study-abroad programmes and long-term volunteering experiences are good options.

4. Your donations might go into the wrong pockets!

When you donate money, you’re helping others. At least, that is what you think! But do you really know how charities actually spend your money? If you really want to contribute, you have to make sure your giving counts, because donations are sadly very often misused!

While most charities are responsible, efficient, and passionate about their missions, some of them sometimes misuse our donations. Those are wasted through poor management or, worse, fraud. When that happens, the needy are eventually deprived of funds that otherwise would have helped them.

What’s more, those in need often become dependent on donations, and the poor and uneducated might become passive recipients merely just sitting and waiting for money to come in while they are in good health and shape to go out and look for a job.

So in some ways, once you stop donating, there’s nothing to fill the void and the poor become poorer – all these because of the well-intentioned efforts of a donor like you!

Read this report from the Guardian that exposes how donation funds have been exploited.

💡Here’s what you can do instead:

Doing good for the locals effectively is empowering them so they could sustain their own life in the long term, instead of making them dependent. So instead of just giving out money, you could invest in a local business or give them guidance, give capital to the local to start a simple business, or donate equipment to the aspiring worker. By empowering entrepreneurs, you are lifting an entire economy!

Or in the case of voluntourism, instead of spending thousands of dollars to buy flight tickets and teach English, you can donate to build a new school in remote places or fund the village teacher’s salary for a couple of months. Instead of donating to orphanages, you could be giving out personal scholarship so they could build a better future on their own.

The key here is always knowing whether your contribution is put in the right place and could benefit the locals in the long term. Don’t blindly donate money to organisations that you don’t even know of!

5. You might unknowingly be contributing to a multibillion-dollar industry!

The idea of doing good while travelling has now become a recent trend, and many organisations and charities have seized the opportunity to turn this trend into a million dollar business for themselves.

Some of you surely have had to pay a huge sum of money for the privilege of volunteering. Ironic right?! You want to help but you need to pay to be able to provide assistance to a community that is claimed to be in ‘need’!

Worse, who knows whether the local communities are really in need of volunteers? But as long as you’re paying and contributing to the organisation’s profit, who cares, right?

In fact, some of these “volunteer organisations” have absolutely no idea of the real conditions and needs of the host community, yet random programmes are designed and offered to volunteers who wish to contribute back to the society. And the sky-high prices you’re paying for? These might never really be justified for as well.

💡Here’s what you can do instead:

We have to confess that it’s very tricky to find an organisation that is genuinely contributing to the locals and not merely turning these experiences into money-making opportunities, so it is important to back up your intention of volunteering with a ton of research before committing.

Try your best to assess the impact of the organisation on the host community through news, social media, or even through direct contact with locals and previous volunteers.

From our personal research, we figured out that it is also better not to trust online reviews as some volunteers mentioned how they were taken in by reviews but ended up disappointed once they were on the field.

It is also important to ask where the money you’re paying will be going to and if it benefits you or the locals in any way. These are usually used for your cost of living expenses throughout the volunteering programme and should in no way make it to their personal pockets! Consider assessing their financial statements to find out.

Last but not least, thoroughly analyse the organisation’s programme and make sure the designed activities are more than just teaching English or building wells. Do your own research regarding the local community conditions and analyze whether the program could contribute to their daily lives in the long run.

We understand that we have only scratched the surface of the underlying issues of voluntourism, but we hope this story has brought you another perspective on contributing back to the society. One of the rules of thumb while signing up for volunteering is that we should always ask ourselves whether we really are helping the local community or just simply benefiting ourselves and big companies!

Do you have more insights or opinions regarding voluntourism in Indonesia? Do share them with us below!

Share your thoughts with us