Voluntourism: a combination of volunteering and tourism. It’s an increasingly popular form of international travel that allows travelers to contribute towards sustainable development initiatives while exploring a new country and culture.

Initiatives often revolve around education-based programs as well as participating in community work with locals to help facilitate one’s understanding of the local operations and ways that people interact. There are many organisations that arrange opportunities for students and young professionals to volunteer their time overseas and make an impact in local communities.

Personally, I have have had the privilege to participate on several voluntourism initiatives in Nepal, Indonesia and India, and have found them all to be enriching experiences that have facilitated the development of intercontinental friendships as well as initiatives.

Recently, the voluntourism industry has come under scrutiny for their ‘superficial engagement’ with problems faced by developing countries due to ‘voluntourists’ lacking the skills required to implement systemic change. Reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC, The Guardian as well as a short report by Save the Children have highlighted some negative sides of the industry. Key criticisms have argued that programs are merely photo opportunities for volunteers, as opposed to an opportunity to contribute towards alleviating social issues. They’re valid criticisms and raise questions about what purpose the voluntourism sector plays in international development. But the industry still does a lot of important and worthwhile work.

Deciding whether or not to participate in a program is a personal choice. But, before you sign up to that overseas placement, I would suggest that you have a think about at least these three things beforehand.

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

It is important that the organisation you are looking at has local people who are employed and embedded within its operations.

Without local experience, knowledge and networks, it is very unlikely that an initiative is able to make a meaningful and ongoing difference in the communities it serves. Knowledge transfer from international operatives to local operatives is a two-way process and each side must listen to the other so that initiatives may be delivered efficiently and effectively.

Whilst no overarching third party certifications exist to verify organisations and their practices, Australian Volunteers International is a great organisation that only partners with voluntourism-based organisations that meet certain requirements, so it’s a good start. Look out for their logo on the websites of organisations you may be thinking about volunteering with. The Department of Foreign Affairs website also has tips on Smart Volunteering here.

What do you want to achieve?

No two voluntourism experiences are 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.

Voluntourism is also a great opportunity to meet like-minded people who are interested in similar areas of work and impact. 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 could potentially lead to future opportunities in the space. For example, many providers such as International Volunteer HQ and Involvement Volunteers International provide a flexible range of programs where you can either apply your current skill sets or look to build new skills.

Personally, as time went on and I got to experience more overseas opportunities, I found that I increasingly desired a more hands-on approach in the experiences I was looking for, so that I could get more out of my travels and develop the skills required to launch my own initiative one day. This led to me participating in the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP). For a period of one month, we as participants were tasked with conceptualising, developing and implementing our own community-based development initiatives.

What skills do you have or does the organisation provide training?

A skills shortage has been identified as a major problem in legitimising the activities of the voluntourism sector. Therefore, 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, good voluntourism organisations should provide ample opportunity for those interested to upskill and provide valuable in-country experience. If you are in the early stages of your career or want to become involved in something entirely separate to your skillset, make sure that the organisation you choose provides the training you need so you can make the most of your experience.

The voluntourism sector has the capacity to contribute greatly to the objectives set out by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I believe that young people who wish to use their careers to assist the development of overseas communities is a good thing. However, there have been some examples of where this hasn’t been done well, particularly when the community involved isn’t at the centre of making change. As the voluntourism industry grows and practices develop, I believe it is important that consultation and community-led engagement are prioritised so those who are most affected are leading solutions.

After observing some of the short-sighted practices as reported on in the voluntourism sector, I find myself wanting to contribute towards reinvigorating the industry to ensure programs are geared towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals through adopting proper practices. This has led to me starting my own organisation in collaboration with some friends in Australia and Indonesia that aims to provide students and volunteers the opportunity to teach sports-based education programs in high schools in Bali.

After consultation with local high schools, we found many of the children wanted to participate in sporting activities but didn’t have the capacity to do so, largely due to a lack of supplies and teachers present to teach them. Our program aims to combat this issue by providing sports programs and using sport as a vehicle for cultivating healthy lifestyles and building a sense of community. Importantly, it is a solution that meets local needs as opposed to being imposed upon a local community.

Whilst we are still in the early stages of our organisation’s development, I have found this experience to be incredibly rewarding and exciting, as I have been able to take all that I have learnt from past experiences and criticisms of the sector to create an organisation we feel will be capable of creating systemic change.

Alexander Horton manages ViaSport, an international social enterprise that enables volunteers to run sports-based impact programs in local communities of Bali. Find out more here.