Serving Overseas: Selfish Selflessness

OSL Selfish Selflessness

In all forms of service alike, I feel we are constantly standing on the blurred line in between doing it for them and doing it for ourselves. While I prefer to think our rational minds lean toward ‘doing it for them’, focusing on making the lives of the beneficiaries better in whatever little way we can, I can’t say that subconsciously we are free from the familiar drop of selfishness. So this piece, the second in its series is one about my take on overseas service learning while amplifying the little voices in my head fighting over whether ‘service learning’ is more selfish than selfless, or otherwise.

‘Learning is selfish, this is not about you’

The most common argument for ‘overseas service learning is selfish’, is the idea that having the intention of learning from your service is comparable to reaping benefits for yourself at the expense of the beneficiaries you claim to help—so you spend money on plane tickets, on arguably useless materials, to hop on to another country that ‘needs help’ only to witness for yourself how much help they need, be appalled, experience profound sadness, then hop back on the plane for a return trip home. Ultimately, at least you get to say “Wow, I’ve learned a lot”.

When I put it like that, you can sense the selfishness lurking amidst the ‘service’, as if a personal agenda had been advanced through the supposed act of serving others.

At the International Understanding trip, I had the firsthand experience of ‘learning a lot from the natives’—most memorably, our visit to the slums: the houses built amongst trash, with trash and filled with trash. The pungent smell that made it hard to breathe, and litter that made up the ground on which we walked were stark images that to today, I remember vividly. The feelings of injustice accompanied with anger and sadness are renewed whenever I recount this visit to my friends. I had learned a lot. We were told to keep these strong emotions that translated into tears of agony in the night we did reflections as a team in mind, as they were the driving force for change in the future. And herein lies the assumption that the learning from service trips would later translate into action—donations, advocacy, and more volunteerism.

The fact is that people listen more intently when these accounts are told firsthand. As eye witnesses with stories and literacy, we can potentially translate our memories into fables that could inspire action and encourage empathy amongst those around us. We potentially become the communicating link that remind the privileged of problems that are otherwise ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This learning can be unselfish ultimately.

Serving Overseas: Put your Money where the Mouth is

This is about the constant internal debate I have about the value of overseas service learning— What do we achieve from spending weeks, if not days, in a foreign (often developing) country trying to offer materials and resources or execute plans we have taken months to raise funds for or create? What can we offer, as strangers to the country, and how sure are we that we know what our beneficiaries need anyway? I mean after all, who are we to be in a position to ‘help’?

I thought I had answered this question for myself just months ago after returning from my second overseas service learning trip in a year, but the subsequent reflections of friends from the International Service Learning Enrichment Programme and having had the privilege of listening to speakers from existing international NGOs at Youth Corps training have inspired the pieces that will follow, attempting to bring together my current take on the value of Overseas Service Learning, hopefully dispelling the following misunderstandings you may have the same way I did. First in a series I am hoping to write, this one’s about putting our money where the mouth is.

‘The locals can do a better job’

My disillusionment toward the idea of bringing value together with my service to an overseas community through overseas service learning has long settled in—I realize the little things we can do in the short amount of time we spend there, rarely compare to the things that can already be accomplished by their fellow locals. Oftentimes, the locals even do a better job, and on top of that, they don’t require the engagament of an expensive translator like we do. In the words of Dale Edmonds (Founder of Riverside Project), it’s sometimes doing a “double negative” when we scramble to serve the community’s infrastructural needs through construction because we “do a crappy job, and deprive a local from doing a job that could get him a decent salary”. So in some ways, they’re better off without us there.

But that’s only the case when we choose to do things we aren’t good at: we don’t learn construction work and laying bricks in the schools we go to. We are better with English, with reading, sometimes numbers or drawing, music, soccer. There are other things we can offer besides the infrastructural construction that we were never trained to be good at.

So we should learn to value-add with our presence, with things that we can do, and the locals can’t. 

‘Just give them the money’

My earlier train of thoughts about locals possibly doing a way better job once led me to the conclusion that the one thing we could offer that the overseas beneficiaries truly needed, would be money. Then, as in earlier, they could hire someone else in the community to do the job, and allow him to get paid reasonably for it. Ideal, somewhat, it’s even in accordance with the asset based community development movement.

But in this lies the question of ‘where do we come in’? Where, then, would volunteers who want to make a difference in overseas communities be of any value-add?

Put more precisely than I ever could, also by Dale Edmonds: “If you only care about feeding them bread, your starve their soul.” My chaperone for the Cambodia International Understanding trip with Interact, James, had once shared how the friendships forged between the volunteers he brought to the orphanage and the beneficiaries were instrumental in keeping them motivated in their studies and pursuit for their future careers, and it is with that reminder of the value of these connections that I continue to endorse overseas service learning trips—if there’s one thing the beneficiaries my ‘need our help in’, it’s for us to accompany them and show we care.

So maybe instead of the checklists that include ‘Teaching English lessons’, ‘Paint the walls’ or ‘Build a Classroom’ more often than not; it’s time we take our attention off these tangibles we try to offer not-so-effectively, and transfer that to the things that matter more. You know, that’s actually the harder part because leaving tangibles and checklists aside, we are left with less that gives us the instant gratification that is food for our volunteer-egos, as sin is to the devil.

OSL money where the mouth is