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Volunteering holidays for Singaporeans. What you need to know

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Increasingly, Singapore travellers are putting a higher value on experiences – ‘authentic’ experiences, as though an experience could be anything else – giving rise to a number of trends, some of which are not as benign as they seem.

Take ‘voluntourism’, for example. Rather than going to a destination and sitting on a beach, travellers choose to volunteer – building houses, painting schools, or helping out at orphanages.

The impetus to do so cannot be faulted – the desire to help people less well-off than yourself is a noble one. But what if you’re not actually helping?

A friend in the development sector related the story of a school in Cambodia that had been painted nearly every year by people meaning well. In one case the painting was done by senior managers from a US-based investment bank. The cost of flying one of them business class to Cambodia could have paid a local contractor to do the job (and do it professionally too).

Essentially, the school painting’s main beneficiaries were the ones doing the painting – they came away feeling good about themselves for doing the right thing, all the while oblivious to the fact they had contributed very little to the lives of the local community.

Some orphanages are run solely as business tourism

Orphanages are even more fraught with pitfalls. There’s a reason orphanages are a thing of the past in much of the developed world. “All the evidence points to them being actually bad for children, causing physical, mental and long-term emotional harm and stunting development. In fact, 80% of the children in orphanages are not true orphans, and could (and should) be reunited with their families,” according to French NGO Friends-International, which was founded on the streets of Cambodia.

Cambodia has come under a spotlight in recent times because many orphanages are being run solely as tourism businesses – according to The Guardian between 2005 and 2015, the number of orphanages increased by 60% in the country, amidst a declining poverty rate.

But the pull-factor for voluntourists is strong. A hug from an underprivileged child may make your holiday feel incredibly fulfilling.

The Better Volunteering Better Care Initiative, which campaigns against orphanage voluntourism argues that “visitors and volunteers…often feel overwhelmed by the affection, hugs and smiles of the little ones. Little do they know that these behaviours are signs of attachment disorder fuelled by a rotation of unskilled visitors and volunteers who have little understanding of how their behaviour can impact negatively on the emotional and social stability of children.”

Building houses is another popular voluntourism activity. But again – you need to ask whether you are putting local tradespeople out of business and wonder whether your skills with a hammer and saw are actually up to the task. And there are reports that houses built by volunteers cost multiples of what they would have had they been constructed by locals after airfares and accommodation are factored in.

On the other hand, if you just spent your holiday lying on a beach, then that’s a house not being built at all. Plus, your interaction with the local community could be more fulfilling than the resort pool, and perhaps seeing people living without all the luxuries we take for granted may cause a rethink of your consumption patterns. That’s a win for everyone.

 Choose your volunteering holiday carefully

Aspiring voluntourists should look to volunteer with a reputable organisation, preferably one that is transparent about how it spends money and that measures outcomes. Obviously, unless you’re a childcare expert of some sort, orphanages should be avoided.

Keep in mind that the gold standard in the NGO sector is sustainability – if you’re only making a difference while you’re there, you’re only making a short-term difference. If you can leave behind expertise or knowledge, then you’re doing something lasting.

Those paintbrush-wielding bankers may have done better by training the school administrators in financial literacy, for instance.

There are opportunities available to travel and make the world a better place in the process. Just choose carefully.

By Tony Tan

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