Voluntourism – a combination of volunteering and tourism-is an increasingly popular form of international travel that allows travelers to contribute towards sustainable development initiatives while dually exploring a new country and culture. In Bali, there are many organisations that arrange opportunities for students and young professionals to volunteer their time overseas and make an impact in local communities.  

Recently, however, the voluntourism industry has come under scrutiny for their ‘superficial engagement’ with problems faced by developing countries due to ‘voluntourists’ lacking the required skills required to implement systemic change. Additionally, the criticism has been made that such programs are merely photo opportunities for volunteers as opposed to an opportunity to contribute towards alleviating social issues.

Recent criticisms are valid and raise the question of what purpose the voluntourism sector plays in international development initiatives. So, before you sign up to that overseas placement, make sure that you check a few things first.     

What are the credentials of the organisation you are looking at?

 It is important that the organisation you are looking at has local people that are employed within the structure of how it operates. This point is crucial. Without local experience, knowledge and networks, it is very unlikely that an initiative is able to make a systemic and ongoing difference in the communities that it serves. Knowledge transfer from international volunteers to local community members is a two-way process and each side should listen to the other so that initiatives may be delivered with both efficiency and effectiveness.      

 What do you want to achieve?

No one voluntourism experience is the same. Some voluntourists are looking to contribute towards the normal day to day operations of a current program, whereas others may want to look at initiating their own cause on a more long-term basis. Keep in mind, volountourism is a great opportunity to meet like-minded people who are interested in similar areas of work as you may be. When choosing the type of initiative you want to be a part of, be mindful of the type of impact you are looking to make, how long-term that might be, and whether or not the organisation running the project you are participating on could potentially lead to future opportunities in that space. 

 What skills do you have/ Does the organisation provide training?

As skill shortage has been identified as a major problem in legitimizing the activities of the voluntourism sector, it is no surprise that many organisations have increasingly required a more identifiable skillset on behalf of volunteers. Identifying what skills you have is an important part of preparing your application and understanding what initiative best suits you to make a meaningful impact.

That being said, volunteering dually provides an ample opportunity for those interested in international development to up-skill and provide valuable in-country experience. If you are in the early stage of your career or want to become involved in an initiative separate to your skillset, make sure that the organisation you go through provides training so that you can make the most of your experience, and further develop your personalised skillset.