By Sherlyn Seah
Overseas volunteer work is altruistic at heart. National Youth Council (NYC) and an enhanced Youth Expedition programme (YEP) offers 6000 volunteering and engagement opportunities in Asia each year, aiming to nurture resilient youths who desire to make a difference.
But often, these Overseas Community Involvement Programme (OCIP) trips are too short for participants to witness the fruits of their labour. Right after constructing buildings, teaching kids English or providing proper sanitation to a village, the trip is over and everyone returns home.
Participants cannot witness the impact they have made, or evaluate whether the solution they provided could have been improved.
On the other hand, they receive tangible and intangible gifts from the locals. Be it in the form of food and shelter, or through the experience of warmth, gratitude and an eye-opening experience.
This disparity sometimes leaves volunteers wondering if they could have done more on these trips, because the actual “value” of their contributions is so hard to ascertain.
Perhaps a mindset change is needed for overseas volunteers to feel more positively about their contributions – by focusing more on the quality of their exchanges with the local community, rather than just the outcome of their efforts.
Speaking from experience, I came back recently from an OCIP trip to Laos feeling conflicted about what overseas volunteerism meant to me. Slowly, I realised that even though we might not have changed the world, the lessons we learnt could be steps to help us build a better one.
My team travelled to the village of Nuang Long in the Vientiane province for our trip. We replaced the local school building by constructing one made out of concrete, and taught the children dance, sports, and arts and craft.
Over our two weeks’ stay, we received so much warmth from the locals. We were even invited to stay over with a local family for one night, where they cooked dinner for us and laid out extra mattresses for us to sleep on. Though communication was a challenge, they were welcomed us without asking for anything in return.
Even from our short interactions, I learned so much about spreading compassion and being contented with what I have.
While we provided a sturdier school facade for them, I came back feeling heavy-hearted — partly from the emptiness of bidding goodbye to the children, but mostly from the guilt of receiving so much from that community.
Looking for answers, I consulted Mr Sahari Ani, director of Red Cross Youth, for his take on the overseas volunteerism scene, and he enlightened me about the purpose of serving.
“It is too ambitious to go overseas with the mentality that we can change lives in a few days. For change to really happen, you need consistent involvement for an extended time period,” he said.
Mr Sahari also reinforced the importance of setting clear objectives. “For such short OCIP trips, rather than helping people per se, we should go overseas to support the people there and try to contribute to their welfare.”
Rather than a mission to change lives, these trips can serve as more of a learning journey, with the hope that we can leave behind some sort of positive impact along the way.
On equal ground
We should not see ourselves as saviours to the less fortunate, but learn to empathise with them and put ourselves in their position.
To have a messiah complex — a state of mind where an individual believes that he or she is responsible for saving or assisting others — prevents us from learning from and engaging with the locals.
“The mindset Singaporeans should have when going for these overseas trips should be one that’s ready to learn about the local culture. Not seeing them as more inferior, but simply different,” said Ms Nicole Tan, who studies social work at the Singapore Institute of Management.
“By remaining humble in this way, we will be more open to interact and find out more about these people.”
As guests in a foreign land, there is an exchange between both parties as we learn from each other. While we provide resources, build infrastructure, and introduce the locals to our culture, we attain life skills and broaden our own perspectives.
Beyond just an experience
It is difficult to say if the OCIP truly has a long-lasting positive impact on the overseas communities. Long-term measures of success are rarely implemented after the trips.
However, as participants, we know how we have been personally impacted. We have learned, experienced, and gained. These learning journeys are beneficial for us to mature as global citizens.
Casimir Lim, the co-chair of Hall of Residence 1’s OCIP, Project Ohana, said: “OCIP is for self-exploration and to learn how to serve a new community.”
Lim went to Laos last year, and will lead another group to Thailand this year. He recognises that OCIP is as much for personal development as it is for service.
Travelling to a vastly different environment from our usual urban lifestyle is stimulating and reflective. We experience different ways of life — walking around a village barefooted, playing with chickens, bathing in well water, or enjoying the night stars with no light pollution.
While these activities seem so plain, we learn to appreciate the smallest of things that often go overlooked in our busy metropolitan society.
Volunteering abroad shows recognition that a world exists beyond our own country’s borders. It demonstrates a willingness to become part of a global community. It encourages interconnectedness and embraces difference and positive change.
When we no longer see ourselves as saviours who can change the world, but as individuals keen to broaden our perspectives, we can stand to gain new skills and make the most out of the OCIP journey.