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.
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”?
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.
Of 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.
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.
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!