Sustainable Volunteerism: More Than Just a Pipe Dream?

I have always felt strongly against volunteering overseas. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll find it saturated with self-indulgent selfies of volunteers and village kids, coupled with feel-good captions patting themselves on the back. I just didn’t see the point. 

I’m not against volunteers forging connections with the community that they seek to help. After all, volunteering is inherently a social activity — staying on the ground and feeling for those you help are sources of motivation. But children who grow attached to volunteers may experience abandonment when they inevitably leave. This problem is compounded by the fact that these village kids are typically tended to by multiple voluntary teams who waltz in and out of their lives.

But it was two years into my university life when I realised the bigger issue with these overseas community involvement programmes (OCIPs) — they were not sustainable. Thousands of Singaporean students were flying overseas to volunteer, but not many understood the impact of their actions, and fewer continued to volunteer upon returning to Singapore. 

Volunteering needs to be sustainable, and we should divert our attention to the groups of people in Singapore who need help. This inspired my friends and I to start a volunteering group, the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information’s Volunteer Programme, better known as WeeVolunteer

We wanted to work with local beneficiaries regularly, with the belief that volunteering should start at home. So I wasn’t too thrilled that WeeTrip, the school’s OCIP, would continue. Even though I was part of the executive committee, I was adamant that we do away with this aspect of volunteering. After being outvoted four to one, I embarked on my first overseas volunteering project in December 2018 with extreme reluctance. Although I was not excited like the others, I was determined to set WeeTrip apart from the conventional OCIP.

Bucking the Trend

Instead of the typical two weeks of service, we spent only one in Ban Houehin, a village four hours away from Luang Prabang by boat, to build a water filter. This gave us another week to conduct our journalism project in the city, where we interviewed locals and filmed our documentaries. These human interest stories aimed to raise awareness and bring attention to the issues locals face. 

One documentary highlighted the detrimental effects of tourists disrupting and disrespecting the alms giving ceremony, a sacred event where locals would offer homemade sticky rice to the monks for sustenance during the day. Different groups of locals, including a monk, and tourists in Luang Prabang were interviewed to gain different perspectives on the issue. Ultimately, the documentary encourages future tourists to respect the sanctity of the event and ensure that the cultural heritage of Laos can be preserved despite the boom in tourism. 

Some of our articles also urged tourists in Laos to not purchase war souvenirs as it will only drive up the demand for such relics, which ultimately forces locals to forage large areas with unexploded remnants of war just to produce such items, while endangering their own lives. Another documentary we produced discussed the negative effects of water pollution on villages in rural areas in Luang Prabang and shed light on how building water filters, as opposed to houses, better catered to the locals’ needs.

When we returned to Singapore, the hard work did not stop. While our project lasted two weeks in Laos, it extended for another two months back in Singapore. It was definitely tiring but it was important that our work would positively impact more than just one village. Producing these documentaries and stories ultimately stress the importance of highlighting pressing issues and leaving a larger impact on the communities there— one step at a time.

Ripe For Change

One year later, I decided to lead WeeVolunteer (and WeeTrip) again, this time as the chairperson. In December 2019, my team spent a day visiting other projects in other villages, where we saw half-built staircases and solar panels that no longer worked. Even the water filter we built last year had stopped working because of water pressure issues. But we only found out about the issue after we checked in with the village chief in October last year. We did bring a new pipe to help them repair it but that was nine months after it had stopped working.

This begs the question: Are volunteers responsible for ensuring the sustainability of the things we built for the villagers? I would say to a certain degree, yes. If we cannot complete something, we should be sending another team there to finish it. We should check in to ensure that the things we built for the villages are in working condition. 

Even the little things like ensuring that your school or hall of residence’s projects routinely return to the same community and continue to uplift the community before moving on to the next village can help create a more sustainable volunteering system. 

Our impact can be felt. Our impact can be real. But we should be more conscious in ensuring that our volunteering projects are both sustainable and conducted properly. For example, multiple teams go to the same village to teach English but they often repeat the same basic phrases because nobody checks if the students had already learnt them.

WeeTrip prides itself on putting in the extra effort to go back to the same community, building on what we already have established the year before. Chasing leads and shooting documentaries in an unfamiliar city with hopes of shedding light on underprivileged communities was not an easy feat but it was important that our work would positively impact more than just one village. 

We believe that while projects such as building a single water filter are great initiatives that can help one remote village, producing stories on different social issues in Laos could leave a larger impact on the communities there. We are not perfect and we will continue to change and improve our programmes. But we hope that more teams can join us in our efforts to ensure volunteerism, be it local or overseas, is more sustainable. 

An earlier version of this article was published on the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information Volunteer Website. To find out more about WeeVolunteer, please visit their webpage. You may find the aforementioned documentaries and articles below: 

  • Changing the status quo – on Trash Idol, a volunteer group that focuses on Luang Prabang’s environmental issues and cleanliness

All images by WeeVolunteer

Jerome Wong

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