I attended one of SMU’s many OCSP info sessions looking for a meaningful project to participate in when one particular session left me deeply saddened. A presenter was sharing his experience to impress upon the audience, who were already visibly impressed by the stunning scenery and constant advertisement of it. In his efforts to draw the distinction that the ethnic minority is different, he casually passed off a misstatement regarding their ethnicity and cultural roots. The student's dismissive tone and the fact that he did not even bother to clarify the ethnicity of his beneficiaries reduced their rich cultural and proud heritage to such a careless statement. The same magnitude of his statement could have might as well have been if he said that Singapore is in “China or something”.
Between the few dozen booths asking for donations to help the poor and the numerous OCSP that are heading off this winter and next summer, it appears that the notion of “community service” has not been properly addressed. Where exactly is the money going, and how exactly are we helping? Are we even helping anyone, appearing in the lives of strangers and then disappearing two weeks later, never to see them again?
OCSPs seem like a good idea. In two weeks that easily fit into a semester break you go to a place deemed needy, construct a school (lay a few bricks and mess it up), teach English (basic ABC), and of course, clock up a huge chunk of CSP hours, leaving one less item to worry about in the route to graduation. At the same time, it’s really good for taking photos to post on Instagram and show all your followers that you really do care about making a change, or to be used as marketing collaterals for the recruitment next year. Cute kids hugging an SMU student like a tree certainly looks good and increases the like count on Instagram.
Are we then contributing anything valuable to the communities that we are trying to outreach? Or have we, in our misguided attempt to try and do something good at best, added nothing of value?
I wonder how much can we really contribute in that very short time we are there. I’m sure that no one can claim to know a new language with barely 2 weeks of lessons, with no more than a few hours of teaching by university students who barely have, if any, teaching experience. In the same vein, no building in Singapore has ever been constructed by anyone with almost zero experience in 2 weeks.
Lacking a specific skill set certainly does limit the amount of work we can do, and at best makes us a little of a hindrance. Not everyone can claim to hold a degree in medicine, providing professional medical care to local communities desperately in need of such expertise. Many a times, even in our best bumbling efforts, we end up falling short of solving a problem because it requires specific expertise and time.
Maybe the main issue often not considered is how sustainable an OCSP truly is. Sustainability does not simply mean being able to go back year on year, having multiple versions of a project that runs into double digit Roman numerals. Granted, the 2 weeks of effort certainly bring about some change, but what happens to the other 50 weeks when the volunteers are not there? Sustainability should perhaps be answered in the sense of how able the local communities are to help themselves, which would help in solving the root cause of a problem. The improvement of a low level of English proficiency could then be done by engaging local teachers that are present 365 days of the year, and not 2 weeks’ volunteer teachers with a rather limited impact. Sustainability would also mean having local communities being able to provide for themselves in the case that on-the-ground NGOs pull out, instead of relying on continuous donations for progress.
Should we then condemn all OCSPs as a waste of time and money, banishing them into oblivion? My short answer with a caveat would be no. It would be short-sighted to simply disregard the amount of change that OCSP brings to a community.
The biggest impact that we do actually bring might be the money that we contribute into the local economy, using it as a catalyst to bring about change, albeit a slow one. The bigger question we should attempt to answer is the fundamental and structural causes of the very issues that compel us to be there in the first place. Can we spend all that money in a better and more efficient way?
Perhaps in all the discussion of how the OCSP can help its local community, I may have missed out a major point. Perhaps we should then selfishly consider the fact that OCSPs mainly benefit the participants and not the local communities. Maybe that in our slightly misguided moral high horse, the beneficiary of the entire project are the students ourselves. What if by going on an OCSP you do not really serve the underprivileged, but instead you come back wiser and more learned? Herein lies my grudge with the term “community service” in OCSP. We should maybe relook our objectives, and instead of claiming to improve the lives of the local community, talk about widening our own worldview and global exposure.
Let’s not miss the point of OCSP completely. Let’s not also for a moment indulge ourselves that we have drastically improved the lives of the local community. Widen your eye to a new experience and come home a wiser person than you have left. However, if you spent money and returned home with as narrow a worldview as you left, you have well and truly wasted time, money and resources that other people who believed in you contributed.