Like black leggings under jean skirts, hand-painted canvas shoes and lop-sided mane-like hairstyles, overseas volunteer service has become a trend among the nation's youths -- and the NGOs benefiting from a blossoming social consciousness hope the fad is here to stay.
According to Ministry of Foreign Affairs statistics, Taiwan has more than 35,000 nonprofit organizations, the majority of which have sprung up in the past few years. Taiwan may still be struggling to gain official recognition at international bodies, but its humanitarian work is being lauded in many countries.
In May 2005, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt wrote a letter to then WHO director-general Lee Jong-wok praising Taiwan's contribution to the fight against AIDS in Africa and South and Central America.
Taiwan also received positive feedback from Thai officials for social work there helping descendents of Chinese refugees pursue studies and live a drug-free lifestyle.
The government has also encouraged relief work and other aid projects abroad, with some analysts saying such efforts increase the nation's visibility more than official diplomatic efforts.
The government has called on the nation's youth to learn about life and the world by joining volunteer projects. In response, the National Youth Commission has launched programs abroad to create volunteer opportunities.
This year, the commission has also provided grants to more than 30 volunteer groups on trips to Indonesia, India, Malawi, Thailand, Myanmar, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
"Those in the 18-to-30 age group are the future leaders of this country. It is imperative that they have a global perspective on life to compete on the emerging globalized market. Overseas volunteer work is a great way to let our youth see the world and let the world see the strength of our youth," Commission Chairwoman Cheng Li-chun (
The opportunities to travel and help abroad have attracted enthusiastic applicants, but participants should be prepared for a challenging experience. Whether it be building houses or teaching English in an isolated village, humanitarian work in a foreign culture is not all fun and games.
"It goes without saying that our youth are full of compassion and energy. Many of them are very hardworking and dedicated," said Jimmy Wu (
However, Wu said that young Taiwanese volunteers -- although good at hands-on projects -- lack confidence in English and knowledge both of their home country and the outside world.
Wu said he had often seen volunteers freeze up when talking to locals or volunteers from other countries.
"Some of them can't even discuss or introduce Taiwan at great length because they don't know enough about their own country, let alone what's going on in other parts of the world," he said.
Other volunteers become a "burden" for the group because they "haven't done their homework" before setting out on the trip, Wu said, adding that ignorance led to volunteers making wrong assumptions about what is best for the community they are helping.
"Of course we want to encourage more young people to participate in international volunteer work, but we also need more volunteers who are prepared and skilled. It is a matter of quality versus quantity," he said.