Beach in Sihanoukville -Volunteering Abroad

We give ourselves two weeks to make a difference, and we expect ourselves to change someone’s life.

Walking through the sandy beaches of Sihanoukville, I was swarmed by tiny hands and big eyes with every step I took. They patted my thighs, pulled on my shorts and shook out hand-woven trays of bracelets, anklets, earrings, wind chimes, barbecued squids, sparklers… I averted my gaze and moved on swiftly, struggling to enjoy the beauties of the sea breeze, while pushing down the guilt of not purchasing a single thing.

As most of us know, voluntourism (the combination of volunteerism and tourism), is becoming an increasingly popular activity that many Singaporean students partake in. More commonly known as Overseas Community Involvement Projects (OCIP), community service or service learning, the general idea is to travel to a poorer community and give back to society. Such projects can span from 2 weeks to 6 months, or even up to a year!

Lunch - Volunteering Abroad

I was part of a similar project last December, where I headed to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for 14 days. I had lofty dreams of helping the children and believed that I would be able to make a difference, even if it meant being there for only a short while. But as the days went by, I began to reflect deeper on 4 reasons as to why volunteering overseas may not be as glorious as it seems.


1. Volunteering as a Business

My team and I went to an orphanage in Phnom Penh and were initially told that all the children there were orphans. However, we eventually discovered this to be false as most of the children were from poorer family backgrounds.

We did not realise the severity of this as we were still under our purview to do good and to serve the kids. All these changed when we actually read on more about voluntourism, not only in Cambodia but also in many other organisations around the world.

House in Cambodia - Volunteering Abroad

To note, many organisations capitalise on charitable notions to earn money for themselves. Children around the world today are being abducted and trafficked (sometimes willingly by their parents) to play with gullible backpackers and innocent tourists. What’s worse is that the more we contribute by spending, the more we will perpetuate the use of children as pawns to the syndicates dealing with such ‘charitable acts’.

Aljazeera has a pretty interesting article on trafficking in Cambodia. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the next ticket we buy to volunteer overseas. Or at least investigate the sources more closely to ensure that our efforts are channelled to the right places.


2. Children are not Tourist Attractions

“HEY, COME HERE, PLAY WITH ME THIS ONE,” a small girl yelled at the top of her lungs, pulling me towards the jumping ropes. I staggered along, unsure of what I should say, or whether they would even understand me if I said anything.

As I was tugged further into the orphanage, there were even more excited squeals as the young boys and girls ran out of their rooms armed with soccer balls and books. It was only my first day and I was already so warmly welcomed by the children.

Soon after, all of us were laughing our hearts out and fully embracing our time with the kids; it was simply blissful to be able to spend our time and listen to the sound of heartfelt friendships!

Cycling in Cambodia - Volunteering Abroad

Ending our Day 1 on a high note, we went back to our hostel at night to debrief and settle in; I then went online to reconnect with my friends, who were also volunteering overseas at that time.

Scanning through my Instagram feed, I scrolled through constant updates of my friends’ lives with the children. Going onto Snapchat, there were even more filtered snaps of kids crowding around the camera. Refreshing my Facebook page similarly revealed the same thing over and over again…

After a few days of this, I began to feel a little skeptical. It seems as if traveling to a poorer country only serves the purpose of filling up our social media feeds. We fly a thousand miles to capture the best moments with the cutest child, the best angles, the best lighting and even the best backgrounds. Sometimes, it feels as if the children are simply props to our philantrophic photos, and they definitely don’t deserve to be treated like that.

Poverty is not a pretty sight, and we should not be traveling abroad to romanticize their plight. We should also stop looking forward to volunteering as a social media treat and better empathize with the children in need.



3. Providing ‘Help’ 

Volunteer trips are considerably expensive for students, and we often don’t know whether our money truly produces rewards. Our team fundraised and spent about S$1k each (mainly on construction and Christmas gifts such as shoes, school bags, and toys). While we view these as acts of kindness, the money could actually be redirected into items they truly need, such as daily necessities or new tables and chairs.

Breadshop in Cambodia - Volunteering Abroad

In the festive spirit of Christmas, giving them gifts made us feel like really generous Santa Clauses. However, in the long run, these material gifts aren’t really constructive or sustainable items that would help them in the future. It felt more like presents that were spoon-fed as that was the best we could give at that time. On hindsight, I guess I didn’t really feel like I inspired the kids in any way other than adding a new shoe to their shoe rack. Can this be considered as ‘volunteering’?


4. Lack of Skills

On top of teaching the children for 2 weeks, we constructed a clinic during our project in order to leave a legacy behind. We believed the clinic would be meaningful and useful to the children and families living in the area. During the construction however, it became evident that our team lacked the skills that were needed for construction work. Most of us couldn’t even place bricks in a line, much less master the skill and execute them as quickly as the Cambodian locals.

Town in Cambodia - Volunteering Abroad

We also struggled with the language barrier, as none of us knew much of the Khmer language. Kudos to the children for being generally fluent in English, and for being patient with us (this really made things easier for us!)

At the end of the day, volunteering is a commendable act and it’s great for students to be exposed to worldly issues at a young age. While most of us have genuine intentions to do good, we often jump into these projects with an overly naive and idealistic mindsets — to save the world or be a superhero.

Cycling into the sunset - Volunteering Abroad

We give ourselves two weeks to make a difference, and we expect ourselves to change someone’s life. That’s equivalent to saying that we have two weeks to resolve a problem so complicated, and so intricately tangled in deeper political, economical and social affairs of the state. 

Most of us would believe that doing something is better than nothing at all, but sometimes, doing nothing is better than providing ‘help’ that results in vastly contrasting effects. As such, what can we do to make the world a truly better place? 

What do you think about volunteering abroad? Let us know what you think below.

Lighting a lantern - Volunteering Abroad


  1. I wholly agree with the views presented in this article. Personally, i believe that all of us has an innate yearning to care and emphatise for those in need. Hence, the last thing that i would want to do is to doubt the goodwill of those individuals whom have committed their time and effort for these overseas community service projects. I think that what we need to do is to take a step back during the process of helping these kids and reflect whether or not we have lost the initial genuinity in wanting to help these kids. We might have, in the process, been consumed by the need to show “others” the good that we are doing through means of social media. This need, in essence, arises from our need to feel good about ourselves and in this case, these kids would then be reduced to nothing more than just tools to satisfy our own egoistical needs albeit the good intentions.

    This article highlights very key issues pertaining to the issue of “voluntourism” and does so in a simple yet emphatic manner. Very insightful and very well written, what a great read!

    • HI LUCAS!!! Thank you for sharing your opinion on voluntourism 🙂 indeed, understanding our intentions before we embark on community service will allow us to be more genuine and ‘real’ to our beneficiaries. I hope you’ll get to participate in OCSPs in the future and share this point of view with your friends! 🙂

  2. Good to see this discussion happening in SEA. It’s quite a conundrum to figure out how to help when lacking the connections to trust to be genuine… and even with connections the trustworthiness quickly decreases.

    For myself I’ve come to the conclusion that a professional approach is the best: volunteer my skills (to beat #4) to help organisations that I can trust. This may lead to indirect help, but indirect help creates a multiplier.
    Last, look at the business model of the organisation. Follow the money and you will usually know. Requires some work tho, but nobody said that paying back to society meaningfully should be easy. 😉

    Keep trying!

    • Hi Wolf, nice to hear from you again!!! Maybe we could travel the world to search for truly genuine charity organizations to work for (and play some ultimate along the way HAHA). And yes, it’s definitely true that giving back to society isn’t as simple as donating a few coins or buying some gifts – hope you continue sharing your spirit of true volunteerism! ^^

  3. Help the people around you who are in need. Friends, classmates, CCA mates, school mates or some lonely elderly or kid in the Neighbourhood. Or even your Uncles, auntie or cousins, maybe mom or dad.

    At all times there will be someone feeling down, disappointed, suppressed or anguish. Lending a listening ear or having a cup of coffee or tea with them, will go further in helping someone versus flying overseas for commercial volunteerism.

    • Hi Woon, thank you for your comment! It truly humbles me to know that you’ll be there for those in need. Kindness should be shared and we should definitely spread our love to those around us. Hope to hear from you in future articles too! 🙂

  4. Had the same thoughts about OCIP although i can’t say much since i’ve never been on one. Somehow this OCIP is starting to help the participants more than the target group. We benefit more because somehow we feel better from ‘helping’ the less fortunate and think that “hey, I taught some english and built some walls i’m glad that I did this and will start to appreciate what i have at home”.
    I’m not saying that ocip is useless, it does have some positive effects like helping kids learn english which is likely to be beneficial to them.
    It is difficult to expect a change in two weeks, maybe we should’nt expect too much from it.
    The most important part is the seed that was planted within the students and the locals. There may be some positive long-term ripples created like the one who helped out in ocip before may start up a organisation to help out the less fortunate and inspire others to do the same. All in all, maybe we should start looking towards a less material way of helping people. Although saying is much easier than doing. That is my 2 cents worth

    • Hi Haks, thank you for commenting! Yeah, OCIP isn’t useless but I guess we tend to go in with the mentality that we will be able to reduce their problem. This just isn’t possible in 2 weeks and we should always manage our expectations when it comes to such overseas projects. However, as you’ve never been on one, maybe you could try one out and have a general sensing of how they are. There are countless positive takeaways as well and the trip did open my eyes to the realities of the world. You’ll never know till you try! 😉


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