Volunteering in Asia is fast becoming a worldwide bucket list item

When it comes to volunteering, it can be difficult to know how, when, or where to begin looking for open opportunities. Not only do you have to consider your schedule and figure out if any volunteering opportunities in the area of the world you are interested in are available during that time, but you must be willing and able to adapt your normal lifestyle for the duration of your time volunteering.

Volunteering is also one of the most rewarding things that a person can do for themselves. When you volunteer, there are a literal world of opportunities and locations you can choose from. With the world at your feet, where is an ideal place to put your efforts in and volunteer your time and energy to? Again, the ideal answer is different for everybody, but there is one destination that is fast becoming the go-to area of the world for eager volunteers.

In Asia, not only do you see the gratitude of the locals on their faces and feel the intense sense of pride always throughout your experience, but you get to see the incredibly beautiful natural landscapes that surround you every day. You will meet some amazing people – some of which will become lifelong friends. Other factors that make the region favoured are the relative political and social stability found in many Asian countries, rich local cuisines, economic flights in and out of Asia, and close organizational linkages to countries such as Australia and the U.S. In addition, Asia is a great place for language students to base themselves in an environment of a major language such as Bahasa or Mandarin. What is there to lose?

The advantages and ongoing benefits of volunteering speak volumes for the power the experience can have for an individual. It might sound obvious, but it pays to learn at least some of the language’s most basic phrases and words. While English is common enough there, you will likely be volunteering in one of the lesser-developed areas of Asia, and thus having a handle on some of the local language not only is handy for yourself, but subtly tells the locals that you genuinely care, that you want to immerse yourself in the experience and the country as much as possible. They will love you for it (plus, it never hurts to break down the language barriers). Set goals for yourself during your volunteering trip – work towards them, aim to achieve them.

Volunteering in Indonesia

Asia is also an ideal volunteering destination because it has such limitless opportunities that can be accessed right now. Currently, Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia, and it is projected to balloon to be the world’s seventh largest economy by the year 2030. Australia is currently the largest bilateral grant-based donor to Indonesia. This means that Australia provides a steady, constant stream of support to the area. Indonesia is rising right now, and as it expands more over time, the many links and opportunities that have been afforded to the area are quite likely to blossom into fruitful partnerships that can benefit both parties.

For Australians, a great place to start is ACICIS. As Thomas Sullivan for Asia Options has recently posted, Indonesia offers students the opportunity to do an internship whilst completing a semester exchange program with organisations as diverse as think tanks, local businesses, schools and even internationally recognised organisations such as Save The Children.

Doing your research

In terms of getting started, doing your research before deciding on a destination and a volunteering organisation is crucial. Familiarising yourself with your destination: if you’re going to China, get equipped with VPN use so you can still connect with loved ones back home. In Indonesia and most other Southeast Asian developing regions, prepare vaccinations and charcoal pills. There is nothing worse than making a rushed decision, boarding the plane, and then realising that you are in a place that you do not feel comfortable or supported in. While they are all places of good merit, every volunteering destination (and its programme) is different than the next. That naturally means that destinations will fit differently with volunteers, depending on who the volunteer is and what they want to get out of the programme – not only for the benefit of others (which is the heart of all volunteering efforts), but for themselves.

Going with no set plan is fine, but it is far more rewarding to know why you want to go and what you want to achieve while you are there. And asking questions and being flexible will show your interest and genuine care about the project – which could lead to network connections and future volunteering (or otherwise) opportunities that are valuable beyond your wildest imagination. In a part of the world that is rising in economic prowess, there is no telling where your work will lead you. Of course, helping others is the primary objective when volunteering, but having an action plan for your own progression in life is never a bad thing. As an example, I undertook an unpaid internship for Oxfam in Jakarta with two core goals. First and foremost, I wanted to learn something new and perform impactful work that provides positive benefit to society. The internship consisted of a research project on foreign policy initiatives to reduce income inequality – so I covered my first goal. My second objective was more personal: to discover whether working in an NGO office environment was something I wanted to pursue as a career. The internship was fun and the team at Oxfam were amazing, but I discovered that my passion and career trajectory were better pursued outside the non-profit sector. I now work in a tech start-up and I love it – but I never would have made the shift without volunteering in Asia. 

How long to stay?

Finally, it’s important to weigh up how your participation impacts and interrelates with the local community. The biggest consideration here is time. Short-term stints tend to be better suited for experience-based opportunities such as caring for endangered elephants in Thailand, but a longer period of time is recommended when working with children or in the field of human rights. Although it can be difficult to free up time in between studies and part-time work, you ideally want to try and maximize the value you can bring to your host organization—and also the more you’ll get out of the experience at the same time.

Non-commercialized volunteer opportunities administered by international government agencies or NGOs generally have a set timeframe which takes out the guesswork in deciding how to long to stay. Assignments with Australian Volunteers for International Development, for example, generally run for six to twelve months.

With the stunning landscapes, the incredibly kind locals, the rewarding experience that comes with volunteering in the first place, and even the awareness that volunteering in Asia means being a part of a rising economic force in the world. When volunteering, it is important to first decide where in Asia you want to go and if your availability aligns with the programme. After this is sorted out, the rest is relatively easy to flesh out. In the end, there is nothing in all the world quite like the experience of volunteering, and it is something that everyone should endeavour to do at least once in their lifetime.

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Anton Lucanus is a New Colombo Plan Scholar who has lived, studied and worked in Indonesia and Singapore since 2014. He is the Co-founder and CEO of Neliti, a software platform that helps Indonesian universities create digital libraries.

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