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Rethinking volunteerism

May 30, 2016


To most of us, volunteering is not an unfamiliar concept or subject, not if you have been within the education system of Singapore for a few years. We all know how it works- you go to someone whom you deem as ‘needy’ and you shove your so-called help in his face- a crude way to put it; but yes, that’s what we are all doing and subjecting others who are in a less privileged situation than us through. The cold, hard truth is that we have never reflect upon if the people we labelled as ‘beneficiaries’ truly needed our help and if ‘help’ we offered will actually be of any use to them.


This traditional model of volunteerism that we adopt, demonstrates an unequal power relation between us, as the volunteers, and the beneficiaries. We measure their plight based on their social status and material wealth- objects that we deemed as important- to define if they belong to the ‘less fortunate’ category. You might not have notice that by throwing them into the ‘less fortunate’ category, you have inevitably disempowered them further. They may not be on par with you in terms of financial status, nor can their material life match up to yours, but at least before you enter their lives, proclaiming to lift them out of their misery, they are self-reliant.

Instead of spoon feeding the community, it would probably be more constructive if they had the opportunity for self-actualisation. Volunteers should adopt a reflexive approach and appreciate volunteering as a two-way exchange of assets and knowledge, carried out as a collaborative effort between the volunteers and the community (Here, we embrace the term ‘community’ in an attempt to neutralise and reduce any negative connotation with the term ‘beneficiaries’).


First and foremost, we need to recognise that the community while lacking in some essential ways, is also equipped with the potential to create changes and make a difference to improve its current situation. Volunteers act as activators who help the community to overcome the high activation energy to achieve their aspirations. Keeping this in mind, it would be possible to see that the community is in fact, not much different from us- they are people with different strengths and weakness- why not focus on their forte and help them maximise their potential?


As sociologists engaging in voluntary work, we attempt to break stereotypical notions of volunteering work from an unequal power relations perspective between ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘volunteers’. Rather we see the spirit of volunteerism being imbue with new meanings made to help the community discover their strengths and develop as unique individuals.


After all, there’s more to volunteering than just merely giving help, it is seeing the world as a vibrant place where differences exist to be appreciated and not to be snubbed at.


(P.s. Look out for the upcoming updates on the activities we are working with our children to bring to you during the carnival!)

Read this article to learn more: http://unitingforchildren.org/2015/01/be-my-friend/

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