Why Hong Kong students’ volunteering may do more harm than good

Students offering to work in developing countries may seem like a win-win, but unclear objectives and poor preparation and support can mean their good intentions actually have negative outcomes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 5:36pm

Leaflets and banners promoting service-learning trips to underdeveloped countries are a common sight on the walls of Hong Kong’s universities – recruitment calls to youngsters with the promise of a meaningful and inspiring life experience. The government, NGOs and student groups also publicise these overseas community projects, which are becoming increasingly popular.

Despite their best intentions, however, volunteers may be doing more harm than good to the communities they aim to serve.

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“In the wider academic world, there is a lot of discussion about how we should go about helping people living in poverty, from small issues such as how to interact with villagers or organise projects, to larger issues including how to develop the economy,” says Leung Kai-chi, former senior managing officer of I-Care, a civic and social engagement programme of Chinese University.

“But among Hongkongers who are passionate about helping others, this kind of discussion is completely absent. That’s very scary, because you see a lot of people doing inappropriate and silly things, even though they have good intentions.”

Poor needs assessment can result in buildings constructed by volunteers becoming unnecessary burdens on communities that lack the resources to maintain them; condescending attitudes of visiting students may offend the people they are trying to help; and their services can foster a perpetual relationship of reliance. These are just a few examples of how misdirected good deeds can cause problems.

Before quitting in June, Leung was responsible for screening students who applied for funding to participate in or organise their own service-learning trips. He found that although many students are eager to take part in the projects, their plans are not well thought out, in terms of the locations they choose to visit and the services they hope to provide.

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“There was a student who thought of himself as Superman. He wanted to head off to Africa and practise medicine,” says Leung. But, he adds, the student had no idea what an African village looked like and could barely string a proposal together.

Service-learning trips are particularly popular among medical students, although volunteering as an English teacher is a more popular activity for volunteers.

“Each year we receive a huge number of applications from students wanting to organise trips to teach English in provinces such as Yunnan and Guangxi. But this is completely irrelevant to the people’s needs. The students teach English simply because it’s something they know how to do,” Leung says.

He adds that society needs to reflect on the purpose of sending students on such missions. “If we send students overseas to cultivate a compassion for the less fortunate and to become better people, the projects are a complete failure because they are just exploiting the people they’re supposed to be helping.”

Exploitation can work both ways. In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has spiked in recent years as unscrupulous operators have opened facilities to pocket the foreign donations they can attract. Even children whose parents are still living are sent to these institutions.

Student Take Initiative Rally (Stir), a non-profit organisation established by several university students in Hong Kong, visited Cambodia this year to investigate the phenomenon. The group spoke with Cambodia-based NGOs that have spoken out against the trend, and spot-checked several local orphanages.

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“We asked local children what volunteers usually teach them and they said numbers, the alphabet or basic English conversation. However, these children were actually speaking to us in fluent English,” says Stir’s Daisy Chan Po-yi. “So do volunteers really have a plan or an understanding of their needs?

“I think a lot of volunteers in Hong Kong are passionate and would like to make a contribution, but perhaps because of a lack of knowledge, in the end they may be simply entertaining themselves, rather than helping the children.”

Although there is a genuine need for community services, Stir urges interested candidates to study the projects more carefully before signing up and to be more aware of the possible negative consequences.

Chan advises working with an established NGO and conducting site visits for proper needs assessment, a step that is often omitted by student organisations because they have few resources and little experience.

To help new volunteers build on the experiences of their predecessors, the group is putting together a database of overseas community projects coordinated by student groups. Presented in the form of a map, it will feature information provided by groups that have visited specific areas, the services provided and reports on the local situation.

Stir is not the only group taking action to reform the system. AIESEC, an international youth-led organisation present in more than 120 countries and territories, worked with the United Nations in 2014 to develop a set of sustainable development goals, such as promoting gender equality and combating climate change.

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The various chapters organise community projects that target a specific goal, and assign new student volunteers to join coordinated projects in the group’s network. Exchange participants work in a multicultural environment where services are organised to serve genuine problems in the targeted communities.

Even with the best of planning, the situation is far from ideal, says Janet Chu Hiu-ling from AIESEC Hong Kong.

“The system presents quite a challenge because the project leaders are replaced each year, so you can never predict the quality of the projects the following year,” says Chu, referring to a dilemma that most student organisations are faced with.

Two years ago, Chu visited Argentina as an exchange participant, where she was assigned by an NGO to teach children English for six weeks. “When I arrived, I found that no preparations had been made. The project was completely disorganised and we were ignored by the local chapter,” says Chu.

Fortunately, the quick-witted volunteer used her initiative. Rather than teach basic English vocabulary, she gave the children a glimpse of Hong Kong and Chinese culture with playful classes that taught them about calligraphy, red packets and the traditional qipao dress.

Now a programme director, Chu is building a framework to ensure new exchange participants enjoy a fruitful experience. The Hong Kong chapter partners with other chapters that have proven themselves responsible and trustworthy, and students will be given advice by their predecessors to equip them with a deeper cultural understanding of the places they visit.

To help volunteers create a more sustainable impact while gaining field experience, Professor Emily Chan Ying-yang, director of the Centre for Global Health at Chinese University, developed another set of materials.

Led by Chan, students in the China Ethnic Minority Health Project promote public health and disaster preparedness; from basics such as the importance of dental hygiene and the hazards of smoking, to more complicated issues such as how to make an oral rehydration solution and how to respond to a mudslide or fire.

Prior to the trips, Chan and her team of professionals speak to NGOs to find out which villages they should target, conduct proper site visits and obtain the villagers’ endorsement.

“It sounds really standard but it’s not easy. We spend a lot of effort and resources to ensure that the students can actually contribute to long-term community development,” says Chan.

“Many groups doing similar projects just send students out into the field and no one cares about or monitors the outcome. But we make a commitment [to local communities], so if students do not manage to finish their work, my team and I will have to complete it for them.”

The programme is not restricted to medical students because the most important quality required of students is their attitude, she says. “Before we send students into the field, we dismiss any notion that they are there only to help. More importantly, they are there to learn, and the contribution they can make in reality is very small.”

It may be many years before results can be seen, but such is the nature of community development and poverty alleviation, says Peggy Tu, public education manager at World Vision Hong Kong.

“Sustainable work is not superficial and will not have instant results,” says Tu, who agrees that the biggest impact may be on the student volunteers themselves rather than the communities they are serving.

“We’ve also seen good testimonies,” says Tu. “When [students] return, they realise they’ve learned a lot from the poor. And they are inspired to think about the meaning of life, and whether material goods and money really matter that much.”