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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

More young professionals volunteer abroad

But trend of short stints of manual work raises questions on their impact.
The Straits Times - August 20, 2012
By: Janice Tai
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More young professionals volunteer abroad

A GROWING number of young professionals are paying their own way to lend a hand in developing countries.

Many opt for short stints of four to 10 days and do not mind getting their hands dirty to build houses or schools. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say most of them are in their 20s and 30s, and come from sectors like finance, engineering, health and the civil service.

Two years ago, when the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) started offering shorter trips for volunteers to neighbouring countries, only 21 young professionals signed up. Today, the number has grown to 263.

At Habitat for Humanity Singapore, 700 of some 1,300 people who joined the group last year for overseas projects were young professionals. This year, it has seen a 20 per cent growth in that number, said the local chapter of the global body that builds simple houses for the needy.

The NGOs attribute the trend to young Singaporeans becoming more adventurous; some also feel they can make a bigger difference in less developed countries.

There are also those who see it as a good way to travel and do something meaningful at the same time - an arrangement that has been dubbed "voluntourism".

Retail executive Cheong Zhiwei is one of them. He joined four other Singaporean volunteers on an SIF-organised trip last week to build and install water filters in a province in central Cambodia. After four days on the project, he extended his stay by two weeks to continue on a road trip to Laos.

"Initially, volunteering was just something meaningful to do on the side while touring," said the 31-year-old, who was volunteering overseas for the first time.

"But I found the experience so impactful that I will come back again just to volunteer."

Singapore's Ambassador to Cambodia, Mr Sadasivan Premjith, said a new project is started every two to three weeks in the country, and they are mostly initiated by students and young professionals from Singapore.

While more young people are keen to volunteer overseas, fewer of them are prepared to commit to long-term projects which may stretch to a year or two.

In the early 1990s, the SIF used to see about 30 such volunteers signing up every year. In the last three years, it had only five each year and their stints did not go beyond six months.

Civil servant Lim Jia Ling, 27, who also joined the recent trip to Cambodia, said: "Peers of my age have financial commitments when they get married and buy a flat, so they can't just take a gap year and delay career progression."

The trend has led some to question whether these volunteers can really make a difference in just a few days, and if their expertise can be put to better use.

The NGOs, however, say the impact goes beyond the tangible.

Mr Yong Teck Meng, national director of Habitat for Humanity Singapore, said: "It is not a question of efficiency or even the use of skills, but that the work will allow them to think more deeply about the meaning of their lives and issues like inequality and poverty.

"We think it is perfectly all right that an accountant is seen building a house, rather than volunteering to do accounts for us."

The SIF said its volunteers not only build facilities, but they also show the locals how to make use of the facilities and technology.

SIF chairman Euleen Goh said: "There are volunteerism models where people say, 'We will fly in, build buildings, teach them how to do it, then we leave and they will carry on building more buildings'.

"Our model is that we want to stay the course and make sure the facilities are working and villagers know how to use them properly."

The NGOs agree that more can be done to tap the expertise of these young professionals. For example, the Young Men's Christian Association of Singapore plans to get its volunteers to help its beneficiaries set up small businesses in neighbouring countries.

Mr Andrew Leo, senior manager of international programmes at the association, said: "We are trying to get our young working adults to do more skills transfer to maximise impact for the short four days that they are there."

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