“Voluntourism” – why do we do it? And who does it help?

A fellow volunteer was musing recently about voluntourism and together we pondered its positives and flaws – why do foreigners come to places like Nepal to volunteer, mostly for short amounts of time, and do people do it for selfish reasons, or genuinely for the good of the communities in which they volunteer?

There is certainly an egocentric motivation to volunteering – the idea that you can make a difference drives those who set off on a particular project to a disadvantaged or developing country. It makes you feel good; to implement change or bring a smile to someone that has fewer opportunities than yourself. But is it that Western affliction of self-importance – that we can waltz in and change the world?

I refuse to label it as that. When a person drops something on the street do you chase them down because it makes you feel good? I don’t think we can ignore the aspect of altruism in the act of giving your time for an experience that can help someone else, even in the smallest of ways. Buddhist Monks queuing for a Blessing

In Nepal there are various organisations and groups that offer volunteering programs, many who run programs with attached tourism elements. Foreigners (and of course, Nepali people) can choose a particular project that interests them and gain a taste of life in a rural Nepal community, in a school or medical centre, or in Buddhist monastery to name just a few whilst seeing the country, learning the language and gaining experiences so different to what their usual life offers.

I have a positive view of volunteering, and I see the relationship between a volunteer and their project community, school or organization in a light less cynical than that of many people I have met. Who’s to say that the experience gained by the foreigner is not equal, or greater in value than the good coming of their actual volunteering work? People in privileged societies need exposure to the sort of world that millions of the world’s people live in every day. A teacher, a doctor, a businessman or a stay at home mum can return to their own country with a perspective that so many Westerners will never acquire if they don’t take the time to explore a life outside their own.

Observing great poverty, brings great perspective, another friend of mine said to me. Is that perspective not a wonderful by-product of volunteering or “voluntourism”?

Boudha Temple Nepal

A person who has been lucky enough to have never been starving or never been without clothes, and steps out of their comfort zone for even a small amount of time, can be humbled by the plight of so many others. A young person witnessing the life of a Nepali child who has no access to clean water, or no hoard of school books and pencils, has as much power to bring about change in the wider world’s consciousness than a high profile government official. Perhaps not in the form of Aid policy or international relations, but in their conversations and actions that follows their return to their society, where wasteful attitudes and ignorance are so prevalent.

Hanging with the localsOf course there are projects and organizations in Nepal that might use the majority of volunteer fees in administration costs and fancy website caretaking, and do not pass much on to the communities they claim to be helping, but people can be reassured that there equally exist groups with transparent systems that openly share where the volunteer’s money goes, and what is spent on running costs and advertising.

Working with the team at Volunteers Initiative Nepal, I have great faith in the work they are doing to help empower marginalized communities, with their focus being on women and children. There are success stories, but director Bhupendra Guimire concedes that there are also programs that have been less successful. But every occasion is a learning curve. Operating since 2005, VIN have implemented various programs in their project community – such as finance management, organic farming, education and sanitation awareness – with the goal of leaving these programs governed by the locals, with no further aid and guidance needed.Kathmandu school where VIN volunteers work

I beseech any individual who is intending to volunteer to investigate various groups and programs, and find one whose motives match your expectations for the work you wish to be involved with. Is it run by locals, who understand what is needed to make the greatest amount of difference? Do you trust that your money and work is assisting in long-term solutions, not just a band-aid fix that foreign money can often bring?

I have only encountered goodwill towards volunteers in Nepal. There seems to be appreciation and respect for the teachers, students and professionals that visit. Hopefully the future political climate will bring about a Nepal that is in less need of volunteer work and aid, where the government and infrastructure will allow communities self-reliance to improve welfare and education of their constituents.Buddhist nunnery doors

In the end, from teaching orphaned children in a rural school, or doing work placement in a medical centre, whatever you are doing, if your work is helping to improve the welfare or education of a child, adult or community, how can we see this as a negative? Although most volunteer groups would rather have volunteers visit for more than a brief few weeks, when you return to your own country, and you tell your friends, your family, and most importantly your children what you saw and what you did – if this brings some appreciation and humility to their view of the world, than society may be a tiny step closer to a world-wide view that can lead to greater equality to education and quality of life.

*I wrote this a long time ago, and have recently started up a sister organisation to support Volunteers Initiative Nepal in their endeavours to empower marginalised communities in Nepal. I say this as a disclaimer of my relationship with the group I write of, and for purely plugging purposes!

You can find VIN at http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/

And check out Friends of VIN Australia at friendsofvinaus.com

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Day One: Pre-departure Paranoia etc etc

“It will be an adventure,” I keep telling people, and myself, about this trip to Nepal. That makes me feel better, I guess, because adventures are supposed to be uncomfortable. If trips were easy and there was no sense of the unknown – then what makes you learn? Where do you get your funny stories from – the ones that were laced with danger but left you with a valuable lesson, worth the retelling?

I’ve never understood people who have never been on an adventure.

It doesn’t need to be overseas. It could be around Australia. It could be a camping trip or a drive up the coast. So in fact, perhaps there is actually no one who hasn’t been on an adventure. Big or small, short or long, near or far, I guess we probably have all done something that takes us out of our comfort zone.

My mum asked me how I was feeling last night.

“A bit anxious,” I said.

“Then why do you do keep doing this!” I could hear a mother’s concern, tinged with some exasperation at the last child to settle, the last one to stop moving and stay nearby. The one yet to buy a house, have some kids, get married.

I do ask myself the same question – why? Why do I leave my happy life, my wonderful boyfriend, my cute dog and steady job? But I know the answer.

I am addicted to adventure, and change. I get bored. I’ve been like this since I was a teenager. It’s the same addiction that is probably responsible for the demise of many a relationship – mostly unimportant flings of youth, but some that held great gravity in my life.

Luckily I have found the best life partner for me – who understands my need to upturn my life every now and again to stay sane – and because I understand myself better now, I don’t feel guilty for my need for a change of scene. He knows that if he tried to stop me leaving, I would just go anyway. I know that sounds unbelievable to some people – why would you leave the person you love? But I think, why would you short change yourself – if I don’t go, then I won’t be myself and I won’t be happy. And the last few months have been wonderful, because life is great when you are waiting for your adventure to start.

And so Day 1 has begun, as I fly over the great Australian outback. It stretches so clear and flat out my window that I feel like I should be able to see the sea, but I cannot. I am excited and exhausted simultaneously, happy, and yet a little lost.

(The sadness I felt when I left you Troy, struck me hard as I walked through those doors.)

But this is what an adventure is! It’s about how you deal with those mixed up feelings – it makes you stronger. I don’t like depending on people, and so maybe in a sort of masochistic way, I like to stretch myself and test myself.

Suddenly, as I write this, the plane is crossing some coastline of the North of Australia. What a clear, beautiful day! I can see every river, every crocodile – infested estuary, every nook and cranny of beach. And then we cross part of Indonesia, or Timor, and I feel like I am being taken on a tour of a World Map, hovering, in slow motion – like in and out-of-body experience, from South to North, crossing continent and ocean to really give me perspective about how big this world is. Clouds dot the blue below, and soon we will be above Asia… It is a massive world, and I am a tiny organism, being carried in a vehicle whose mechanics I don’t understand, to a country far from where I was born.

Adventure – already worth it.

(It totally smells like someone is smoking in the toilet. If the plane crashes. That’s what it was. Sorry friends and family who have put up with my pre-departure paranoia that I would die this trip –  but seriously, just saying.)

It’s that time again, I’m going back… and need your help

There’s an incredible guilt that comes with my upcoming trip back to Nepal.

I’m going to undertake a Volunteer Internship writing with a magazine. Now, I want to be a writer. This will allow me to get some pieces published in an international context, and experience life working for a publication.

But this is an overwhelmingly selfish choice that I have made  I feel like I should be doing more. Getting down and dirty, being helpful within the volunteer group that I have organised this internship through, and by whom my last volunteer placement was also organised.

Last time I was in Nepal I was living in a Buddhist Nunnery, teaching English to the nuns there. And because of the part of the year that I went, I hardly taught any English at all! I know it was useful for the nuns to have an English speaker around, and I was available for tutoring if they wanted it, but I don’t feel like I was overly very helpful.

Volunteers Initiative Nepal are a wonderful organisation, run internally – it’s not some foreign group throwing money into the country – funds are thoughtfully and systematically used to empower communities and disadvantaged people, especially women and children.

And so I feel that I should be being a bit more hands-on in their work. Teaching or building toilets or working with the people. But instead I’m working for a magazine – but in my head, I’m hoping that I can contribute something worthwhile both within Nepal, and then after I return, using the knowledge and experience of seeing the ‘real’ Nepal through a journalist’s eyes.

But anyway – while I’m there, I ‘ll be doing the Annapurna Base Camp Trek. I’ll be ascending to 4145m.

Do you want to help me, help VIN, to help the people of Nepal’s struggling communities? Where only 2 thirds of men are literate, and a disgusting 1 third of women? Where so many do not have access to clean water, and so few have access to heath services? Even the simple addition of toilets in communities can save lives – people die of bugs that would see us out of action for a few days due to poor hygiene awareness and lack of infrastructure.

How? I know it’s obvious.

Money!

Money to help VIN build their orphanage/school, to help with their programs that empower women in growing their own food and managing their own finances. Helping to educate young people, who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise.

So – I promise to walk 14 days to one of the highest walkable points on Earth, breathing in that thin air, struggling with the altitude and the exhaustion, walking walking (okay it’s actually going to be amazing but I’m just being melodramatic to gain your sympathy) until I reach the Base Camp. Actually though – last time I was there, I went to Everest Base Camp – and for all the beautiful scenery and magical people – it was a CHALLENGE. It’s no walk in a park… well it is a walk in a National Park, but you know what I mean.

So – would you like to sponsor me? Yes, you. No, not that person behind you – you, reading this. You got a cent? You wanna give me a cent for every metre in altitude I go up? Or even HALF a cent? Or a tenner? You got a tenner?

Think about it. Then think about what that tenner could do in Nepal.

And then go to this link:

http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/index.php

And then have a scroll down over the page and check out all the amazing stuff that VIN does.

And then tell your friends, who want to sponsor a child, or donate to a great cause, or want to do some volunteering themselves (their programs are VERY cheap compared to others you will see), and then if you think you can spare some money, click on the DONATE NOW button in the top right of the page.

And then think about me sweating it out as I trundle up through the Himalayas, knowing that with every step, I am earning your money… And then you can sit back and feel great, and I’ll feel great, and VIN feels great because they can use that money, to do something great, which makes countless Nepali feel great.

I’ll never ask for anything again. I never ask for Christmas or Birthday presents anyways – seriously, I don’t.

Think about it.

And thank you – even if you don’t sponsor me – tell your friends about Volunteers Initiative Nepal.  : )