Overseas community service projects are worthwhile undertakings. Schools and educators have reflected that participants – besides bring about tangible differences in the areas they visit – return home with a keener awareness of the world, and a deeper appreciation for Singapore’s prosperity. My discussion at an “Our SG Conversation” session (here) yielded similar opinions, as my group noted that many of the kids return more enlightened after a short stint in another country. Detractors do contend: why go abroad when there are so many local causes? To me, these notions are not mutually exclusive (any form of well-intentioned volunteerism, at the bare minimum, has some benefits), and an overseas expedition presents challenges that may not be encountered in the local context.
I, however, have two issues with the status quo in Singapore: first, I question the sustainability of these projects, as well as their contributions; second, I believe we need to move away from ubiquitous self-congratulatory attitudes. Correspondingly, we should avoid mollycoddling our students, and be more critical with evaluation and reflection exercises.
My Vietnam Experience: Sustainability?
When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to participate in an Overseas Community Involvement Programme (OCIP) in Vietnam, which was organised in conjunction with Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). About thirty of us went for the trip. There, in one of the towns, we assisted in the construction of a concrete courtyard, sanded and lacquered some of the wooden furniture, and – like many school projects nowadays – conducted some English language and art lessons with the schoolchildren. With the resources and manpower we had, I think we did a fairly competent job.
As the student-leader, I was humbled by how astute and perceptive the team was, when we had frank discussions about our activities and their impact. We were concerned about the sustainability of our endeavours, and posited that it would have made more sense if our school established a long-term partnership with an overseas institution of school, so that new batches of students could build on networks and what had already been done. Year on year, different groups of participants could return with fresh strategies to engage the stakeholders, fairly determine the needs and concerns, and to implement follow-up initiatives.
I think it is encouraging that more have recognised the value of partnering an organisation or school for an extended period of time. Such a proposal makes administrative and logistical sense too. Unnecessary liaisons and correspondences can be reduced, which would then result in greater focus on substantive concerns
Beyond Self-Congratulatory Attitudes: The “Messiah Complex”?
In addition, the concept of sustainability extends to the actual outcomes of the community service projects. Though difficult to quantify, thorough processes or evaluation and reflection would allow the educators and students to think about what they have done, and – more importantly – the shortcomings. More often than not, with the desire to trumpet their “massive contributions” and “significant service” rendered, there is the temptation to gloss over the negatives, and present the trip as a “wondrous success”. These self-congratulatory attitudes worry me, because they are often inflated, which could lead to the development of “messiah complexes” (the exaggerated belief that an individual has made an overwhelming difference to a society or group of people, after a relatively short period of service).
One of the most effective ways to avoid the aforementioned would be to engage voluntary welfare or non-government organisations which have been working steadfastly in foreign countries. It helps to put the school projects into perspective, for students recognise long-term limitations and challenges present. The sharing of experiences can also inspire more positive engagement in the future, as schools and their teachers plan for more trips.
Successes from these service adventures should be celebrated, but they must be tempered by a degree of pragmatism and a healthy dose of cynicism. Otherwise, the unchecked inflation of self-importance – proliferated by convenient pats-on-the-back – could prove to be destructive.