Volunteering in Indonesia
Discover volunteering opportunities in Indonesia. Learn about life as a volunteer in Indonesia and how you can make a contribution to the world's biggest archipelago.
By far the largest country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is an important friend to Australia and plays a critical role in the region.
- Geographically, Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world. It is a mountainous country, with the highest peak reaching 4,000 metres above sea level. Indonesia is perched on the Ring of Fire with over 400 volcanoes, 100 of which are active.
- Socially, it is home to one of the largest social media markets in the world, with over 80 per cent of the population actively using social media platforms.
- Spiritually, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. However, Indonesia is not a country based on specific religious law and has over 600 unique ethnic groups.
Brief look at politics and society
After decades of colonialist rule and dictatorship, Indonesia has recently enjoyed a period of relative political stability with a democratically-elected government since 1999, although not without some challenges.
A member of the G20, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous nation with the world’s tenth-largest economy.
Over the past 20 years, Indonesia has made enormous gains in poverty reduction. Since 1999, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half to 9.8% in 2020. However, of a population of around 270 million, about 26 million people still live below the poverty line, with many more living on or just above.
Indonesia also faces significant social and economic inequality between its different regions and considerable challenges remain before Indonesia can achieve its long-term development goals.
Australian volunteers in Indonesia
Australian volunteers have been supporting development in Indonesia since 1951.
Volunteers support partner organisations across the Indonesian Archipelago, with partner organisations located in numerous provinces, such as Bali, Central Kalimantan, DKI Jakarta, DI Yogyakarta, West Java, Lombok, North Sumatra, West Sumatra, South Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara.
The Australian Volunteers Program in Indonesia partners with a range of civil society organisations, government agencies, schools and universities, and small-medium enterprises, to support capacity building and locally-led inclusive development.
Volunteering opportunities in Indonesia support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Child welfare and protection
- Disability inclusion
- Economic growth
- Gender equality and social inclusion
- Good governance
- Women’s empowerment
Live as a volunteer in Indonesia
Indonesia is a large and diverse country, and volunteer experiences vary widely depending on a range of factors.
Culture, religion and dress
Attitude, observation and sensitivity are important attributes for Australians interested in volunteering in Indonesia, with a conservative approach recommended.
Modesty in dress and behaviour are respected practices in Indonesia. Excessive displays of anger, affection, laughter, frustration or sadness are not considered favourably.
Volunteers should aim to blend in as much as possible, and dress and behave in a manner that is appropriate to the local community. While Indonesian people are generally very friendly and welcoming, volunteers may be judged on how they appear and behave.
While Indonesia is a secular state, over 80% of Indonesians identify as Muslims. Consequently, many of the state's laws, regulations and social norms are strongly influenced by Islamic principles. This includes attitudes towards same sex partnerships, sexual relationships outside of marriage and alcohol consumption, even though these activities are not illegal.
Indonesians are generally communal in nature and may have a different understanding of privacy from people in Australia. Australian volunteers may be asked what would be considered 'personal questions' about their marital status, family, work, or education.
On the whole, Indonesians prefer consensus and will typically avoid a debate or open disagreement. It is common for Indonesians, particularly Javanese, to talk around an issue until common ground can be found.
Indonesians are very proud of their nation. However, like many other countries, Indonesia has had a difficult history, especially between 1945 and 1999. This period, the events that occurred within it and how they are portrayed remain highly emotive and should not be questioned or discussed openly.
There are over 700 indigenous languages in use in Indonesia, however, Bahasa Indonesia is the most commonly spoken language. There is limited use of English outside of major urban areas, so most volunteers will need to learn basic conversational Bahasa Indonesia to support their work and daily activities. Thankfully, Bahasa Indonesia is a relatively simple language to learn.
While the climate varies across locations, the weather across the country is mainly tropical with relatively high humidity and warm temperatures reaching around 30°C throughout the year. The country experiences two seasons, wet and dry, with the dry season from May to September and the wet season from October to April in most regions.
Indonesia has a range of good and affordable telecommunications providers, especially in major cities. There are a range of pre-paid telephone networks that support the use of smart phones with internet packages. Many restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, and shopping centres also provide free Wi-Fi access
WhatsApp is the most common form of communication in Indonesia often replacing more formal workplace communications such as email. Most Indonesians will have multiple WhatsApp groups for work, family and friends. Facebook and other social media tools are also frequently used for communication.
Indonesian people generally buy their food at local traditional markets or from vendors who travel through residential areas. In larger urban areas there are larger centrally located markets, as well as minimarts and large modern supermarkets, which often stock the same goods found in an Australian supermarket.
Food plays a significant role in Indonesian culture, and food stalls and restaurants can be found on nearly every street.
App-based online food ordering and delivery is also extremely common in urban areas supplying anything from American fast-food to local traditional dishes 24 hours a day.
It can be challenging to be a vegetarian or vegan in Indonesia but fresh vegetables, fruits, tofu and tempeh are readily available. Gluten-free products are still not common in Indonesia and only available in high-end supermarkets in large urban centres.
This is Australian volunteer Serly Po’s quick and easy version of Nasi Liwet, which uses a rice cooker. Nasi Liwet is a traditional meal from Central Java of aromatic rice cooked in coconut milk.
Download the recipe for Nasi Liwet
A range of accommodation types are available to volunteers, however, assignments located in urban centres offer a greater choice than assignments located in more remote and rural areas.
In urban areas, volunteers can choose to say in an apartment, private house or in a room with a private bathroom and shared kitchen area in student-style accommodation known locally as 'kost'. While urban areas offer a wider choice of accommodation, it can be expensive and the volunteer allowance will limit the choices available.
In rural areas, volunteers are limited to a private house or a room in a family home.
Accommodation is normally furnished or semi-furnished, with rent paid 12 months in advance. Volunteers should not expect accommodation to be fitted with a wide range of whitegoods such as washing machines, water heaters and ovens.
Depending on the location of the assignment, there are a range of public and private transport options available.
In urban areas, the most popular form of transport is app-based motorcycle and taxi services. These are cheap, reliable and generally considered safe.
In more rural areas there are minibus services and informal taxi and motorcycle taxi services. Larger buses provide transportation between major cities and towns.
Indonesia also relies heavily on air and sea travel to connect the islands. The only rail network is found on the island of Java, with only Jakarta and surrounding satellite cities linked by a mass rapid transit system of rail, bus and subway.
Indonesia is generally considered safe and there are minimal security risks, with most crime opportunist and non-confrontational such as theft and pickpocketing. While terrorism remains a continued risk in the region, security forces have worked to significantly reduce this risk over the past ten years.
As Indonesia is located in the Ring of Fire, there is a constant risk of an environmental disaster such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, and the wet season often sees extensive flooding.
Health services are improving across Indonesia, however, they are not on par with Australian healthcare and there is the risk of a range of water and insect-borne illnesses.
Despite these challenges, often the biggest challenge faced by volunteers is the culture shock as they adjust to the workplace and wider community. Volunteers can find themselves both physically and culturally isolated. This can be overcome with time and a willingness to learn about, understand and participate in the local community.
Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Indonesia, please do some further research on living in Indonesia and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
A reflection on volunteering in Jakarta, a city where there's always something new and interesting to discover.
Supporting a small NGO in a big Asian city