“When we help with painting and cleaning up the school, it helps with team building and also improves the environment for the children there” (‘Voluntours’ Growing In Popularity In Singapore, Miss Audrey Tan).
It might be encouraging that the number of Singaporeans who head abroad to volunteer has more than doubled from 300 in 2011 to 750 last year (Mar. 10), but this optimism should be tempered with greater scepticism. That means frank discourse over the benefits and harm caused by the tours, listening to the perspectives of the locals who have hosted groups of voluntourists, and putting more deserving enterprises involved in sustainable ventures – which often have comparatively substantial impact – in the spotlight.
There is little doubt that the volunteers themselves benefit tremendously when they take in the sights and sounds in a foreign country, while doing some good for beneficiaries. In fact the aforementioned commentary featured individuals proclaiming who “are keen to make a difference”, that tours “help with team building and also improve the environment for the children”. Many would insist that they participate in these projects with the best of intentions, that they mean and do no harm, and that at the very least they create something tangible.
Yet the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The point is not to pass generalised judgements on these volunteer endeavours – to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of voluntours or to conveniently dismiss them as being detrimental – but to be realistic about contributions. During the construction of facilities are volunteers a hindrance, when inexperience leads to sloppy and inefficient outcomes and local workers end up re-doing the “work”? Do the children genuinely need the one-time language or art lessons, or do we inconvenience with the need for translators and additional material? What are the implications of our visits: do voluntourists objectify students and communities, create impositions, or presume (non-existent) needs?
And rather than emphasising these ad hoc undertakings why not highlight committed enterprises involved in a community for an extended period, or highlight how these transient manpower contribute to these broader projects. The ST article struck me because it failed to cast an ounce of doubt over these voluntours. In the same vein cynics like me should also realise there are good people doing good long-term work, who might value such manpower.
A balanced discourse on voluntourism – incorporating retrospective insights from voluntourists, feedback from non-government organisations and the beneficiaries, and an evaluation of the long-term contributions – will set a proper tone for future undertakings. And reduce this predilection to promote voluntourism merely as a superficial means for Singaporeans to “fulfil their wanderlust charitably”.