May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Australians volunteer

Peter Britton

In 1950, at an international student conference (World University Service Assembly) in Bombay, India, the Indonesian delegation challenged the Australians with an interesting idea. The Dutch had departed. Their colonial educational policy had left independent Indonesia desperately short of skilled graduates. Indonesia, the students said, would welcome Australian university graduates to make their expertise available. They would live and work alongside Indonesian colleagues, deliberately crossing the barriers of expatriate life in favour of solidarity. This would allow genuine understanding to flourish.

The idea inspired a group of people at the University of Melbourne to develop it further. They wanted to share their skills on the same rates of pay as their Indonesian colleagues, whilst learning more intimately about the people and their lives. Herbert Feith was a member of the committee. He became the first Australian volunteer that same year when he sailed to Jakarta to work as a translator with the Ministry of Information. His assignment marked the beginnings of Australia's international volunteer program, now known as Australian Volunteers International. Indonesia became the birthplace of international volunteering.

In the last fifty years more than 5,000 Australians have volunteered to live and work alongside local people in nearly seventy countries across Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands, Latin America, the Middle East and in indigenous communities in Australia. Most go for two years. They work in an amazing range of occupational sectors. All are placed in response to specific requests from host employers.

During the 1970s, volunteer programs started to be seen as service providers to foreign aid programs, and volunteers as a source of cheap technical assistance. Many volunteer agencies reacted to this quandary by ensuring that their volunteers were better remunerated such that the distinction between volunteers and other expatriate experts became blurred. Australian Volunteers International sought a different remedy, recognising that volunteers were privileged in other ways. Living and working together is a powerful tool for experiential learning - to establish common cause and exchange skills and understandings.

For Australian Volunteers International, a volunteer is a person who, at some personal cost, moves outside the comfort zone of familiarity. Through their actions they make a commitment to connect to their new community and try to make a difference. They challenge fundamental ideas in their home society, eg that people will only act if there is a promise of financial reward. They help build true partnerships across cultures, breaking down stereotypes of nationality, profession, and gender.

What motivates a volunteer is a complex mixture of factors. Altruism and self-interest can be important, not in the narrow sense, but in that personal growth represents valid self-interest, an avenue to participate in a sense of global community that crosses borders. When receiving Life Membership of Australian Volunteers International (University of Sydney, 19 January 2001), Herbert Feith preferred to call it 'curiosity': 'Curiosity can also be mischievous, but I think it is a pretty healthy thing that people with one set of cultural "baggage" should learn about people with a different cultural, social and economic background.'

The Indonesia program has always been a cornerstone of Australian Volunteers International. The experiences of the first Australian volunteers in Indonesia have done much to shape the organisation's style. Perhaps in large measure because the Indonesia-Australia relationship is one between neighbours, it is subject to a great deal of scrutiny. Over the last fifty years there have been tense periods in the official relationship between the two countries. Despite these difficulties a vibrant people-to-people relationship has always continued, helped significantly by the Australian Volunteers International program.

Many former volunteers, starting with Herb Feith, have gone on to influential positions in academia, government service, the corporate sector, the judiciary and the community sector. There they committed themselves to the relationship and became significant interpreters of Indonesian developments to the Australian community. Similarly, Indonesians who have worked alongside Australian volunteers have learnt that Australians do not fit the stereotypes as projected by the media and politically motivated opinion leaders.

The relationships have stood the test of time. In November 2001 a photo exhibition in Jakarta portrayed aspects of Australian Volunteers in Indonesia over fifty years. It was remarkable how many Indonesians, whose experience of the program was decades old, made the effort to attend the celebration.

Since 1951 nearly 400 Australian volunteers have lived and worked across the archipelago in most provinces. They have been engaged in education, health, agriculture, community development, environment and other sectors. They have worked in government departments and agencies, universities, schools and other educational institutions, as well as national level and local level non-government organisations (NGOs).

Recent changes

The post-Suharto era brought a whole new set of circumstances, including an abrupt break in the Australia-Indonesia relationship over East Timor. It became essential for Australian Volunteers International to take these changes into account.

Many central government functions have been decentralised to district level government. With the latter now delivering services to the people, this becomes an appropriate focus for Australian volunteers to share their skills, as well as learn directly about the communities they serve. Responses to this approach have been very encouraging. Several district (kabupaten) governments have requested volunteers to be with them.

Indonesian NGOs have changed as well. Vast increases in foreign funding saw many established NGOs abandon their traditional activities, and many new NGOs appear. Australian Volunteers International recognised a need to be even more selective, to ensure that the organisations we worked with were driven by values rather than simply business opportunities.

Many Australian aid activities have long been concentrated in the eastern part of Indonesia. We discovered during a review that there were growing misconceptions among some Indonesians about Australia's intentions. The view was that Australia wanted to see Indonesia 'break up'. To demonstrate our bona fide intentions, Australian Volunteers International has also sought opportunities for cooperation in western Indonesia.

The phenomenon was linked to assertions that Australians were anti-Islamic and only comfortable working with the predominantly Christian communities in eastern Indonesia. By seeking to work with Muslim organisations, Australian volunteers can demonstrate that not all Australians share the Western phobia of Islam, and are genuinely interested in the philosophy and ways of life of their neighbours. Just as importantly, the knowledge these Australians develop can inform their own community. We expect this component of our program to grow.

Indonesians have responded enthusiastically to the new strategies. They appreciate the intrinsic value of exposing Australians to Indonesian issues. Similarly, they recognise that Indonesians can learn from Australian outlooks and personalities. Each 'side' has the opportunity to make that leap of understanding that enables us to see through others' eyes.

Peter Britton ( is a senior manager at Australian Volunteers International ( He first visited Indonesia in 1968, and has since then written widely about it (including 'Profesionalisme dan ideologi militer Indonesia', Jakarta: LP3ES, 1996).

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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