The paradox of volunteerism
24 July 2008
by Liu Hai

Volunteers at work in Manila - what kind of experience are they really getting?. (H. Liu)Volunteers at work in Manila - what kind of experience are they really getting?. (H. Liu)
Manila, The Philippines: We are here, supposed to help reduce inequality and unfairness, but sometimes we are just the representation of them, even if we are not aware of this.

As volunteers, my friends and I have participated in a series of volunteering projects in metropolitan Manila during the past few weeks. We managed to understand and appreciate the people and culture, and we did have a wonderful time.

However, besides enjoying the food, the scene and the work, doubts also arose in my heart when I gradually found that we were actually living in the same old way rather than adjusting ourselves to the new environment. Our life pattern here is nothing but an ironic paradox.

We go to visit the poorest areas during the day, and work hard for a couple of hours. When the night comes, we take off our dirty shirts, dress up and go to the most prosperous area of the city, killing time in nightclubs which charge high entrance fees. That is to say, we not only witness, but also experience, the extremes of poor and rich, hardship and comfort, within one day.

I cannot help but wonder if we are really able to understand the struggle, the pains and the life of those whom we want to help. We would love to join them and do what they do for a day or a week, but we always know there is another world waiting for us.

I am not saying that many volunteers lack sincerity or they are hypocritical, because I do believe most if not all of them are kind from the bottom of their hearts. What I want to point out is that while we are offering help to others, it should be more than sympathy and gestures.

An effort to erase the emotional gap between people who are divided into different groups is even more important. Otherwise, volunteerism would become a decoration or spare-time hobby of the comparatively rich. After all, it is not easy for a nice gentleman who sits in a fully air-conditioned room to understand the feelings of those who lie on the street, under the ridiculously high heat.

As I am typing these words, my sense cannot stop reminding me that I myself am a person who loves a comfortable and convenient life. It is not wrong or evil of you to enjoy some material comforts and have entertainment if you can afford them. Therefore, I cannot find enough reason to force those, including volunteers, who lead an easy life to turn into ascetics.

Now, it seems I have come back to the cliché of whether the rich could really help the poor, but I don’t want to give an arbitrary judgment. I think what matters most is the willingness to open our minds to another different world, no matter to which extent we can actually change ourselves.

Paradox is somehow inevitable, but we volunteers should at least recognize it, and remind ourselves of it.

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