“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

The Toilet Tour and Nepal not Flushing its Resources

We, in the West, in the developed countries, take our toilets for granted. We take for granted the fact that they are within our houses; an easy dark stumble in the middle of the night. We take for granted the flush; in a second we can summon litres of water to flush away our waste. We take for granted the cleanliness; the hygienic nature of our toilet culture. We take the ‘easiness’ of getting rid of our bodily waste for granted.

In Jitpur, just outside of the Kathmandu valley, I went on a toilet tour. Yes, a toilet tour. Volunteers Initiative Nepal has been constructing toilets in their project community, with the aim being a toilet constructed for every household. There are still many to be built, but already so many have been constructed by VIN volunteers, with the help of the community and household family members.

As we approached a house on our walk up towards Tinpiple, a man positively leapt down the path towards our group. “Come and see my toilet, come and see my toilet!” he was imploring in Nepali. His grin was wider than the sides of his face as he showed us with great pride the toilet that he had helped construct. We visited his, and many others on our tour of the community, and talked to some families about the help of VIN, and how their new toilets have improved their daily lives.

The system of having each household contribute both labour and materials to the construction of the toilets results in the upkeep of and accountability for its development and use being appropriately placed on the community members that use it. One family had used their own resources and money to produce a stunning tiled toilet and bathroom area that was the talk of the town. Most however, are simple stone constructions, no bells and whistles, and to the average Westerner – a frightening sight. A trip to a squat toilet with no toilet paper or hand basin, and nothing but a bucket of water to flush can humble even those from a simple, non-luxurious upbringing.

The importance of access to a toilet and the spread of sanitary awareness in Nepal cannot be overstated. Unclean water causes immeasurable health problems, and human waste in the same water ways that are used as sources of drinking water completes a vicious cycle of illness and death. The people of the community that we visited told us that pre-toilet construction they would go to the toilet in their neighbours’ fields. This caused tension between households, and contributed to the unhygienic lifestyle of the community. Now, with toilets attached to their house, the families we visited were ecstatic with their creations that gave them healthy, easy access to a toilet, as well as eased the strain on inter-household relations.

Something that might surprise some Westerners is the growing use of toilets that separate human waste into solids and liquids to produce compost. To grow fruit, vegetables and crops, organic matter is needed in the soil, and families and farmers in Nepal that cannot afford to keep a buffalo or cow are more and more beginning to use human waste as compost. This practice has long been popular in the country by some castes, and waste can also be used to produce Bio-gas. These practices fit in perfectly with Nepal’s predominantly “Organic by default” state – the land is still largely uncorrupted by chemicals or pesticide use. Many a Westerner might screw up their nose at the thought of eating vegetables grown using human waste as compost – but I personally cannot see why this would disturb someone, when we happily eat food every day that has been grown using cow, sheep or chicken manure.

The practice is literally saving lives – providing small farms and households with the means to grow and sell organic vegetables or feed their family and community, whilst effectively removing waste from nearby schools and other households – thereby stopping the dumping of the waste in a public area or waterway. It is a system that reduces the need for water – which we in the West waste litres of every time we flush. What’s more, human waste compost grown vegetables are rapidly becoming renowned as the best quality vegetables growing in Nepal.

And so the all-important Toilet Revolution is underway in the land of the Himalayas and Lord Buddha, and the work of groups such as Volunteers’ Initiative Nepal and others spreading sanitation awareness and constructing toilets in marginalised communities is the front line of the battle for the health of the Nepali people. With the evolution of Organic Farming and Permaculture principles bringing to life the obvious and yet stigmatised use of human waste as compost, the future is looking good for a healthier Nepal. It is also a responsibility of us in the West to not take for granted the accessibility we have to clean water and efficient waste disposal systems – and remain open minded and generous in development campaigns in this beautiful country.

Remittance and Regret in Nepal

I feel a touch of anger in Bhupi’s words as he speaks. It disappears so quickly I wonder if it was ever there at all. It is the raw exasperation of a man with great passion about his country, and who must often feel as though his efforts are going unrewarded.

He has arrived at the part of the presentation about the work of VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal – the organisation that he founded) detailing the Youth Empowerment program that they have implemented in their project community just outside of Kathmandu.

The other programs are being well received in the community, and reaping rewards big and small amongst the marginalised there – especially women and children.

But the youth of Nepal – more importantly, the educated youth of Nepal – are leaving the country as soon as they have the money or means, or moving into the already crowded city, leaving a country, or countryside of just the very young and old. In Nepal only 30% of the women and girls are literate, and 60% of the men, and the primary industry of the country, agriculture, suffers as the young refuse to take over their family’s farms, often leaving to seek the only job and life opportunities they see to exist – overseas. Incoming remittance to  Nepal is credited as a major factor in the development of the country over the past 40 years. (UNDP’s ‘Human Development Report 2010)

How do you keep young, educated people in their country of origin? If you have a person trained to be a doctor, a nurse or a teacher, how do you make them stay? The government is in limbo here in Nepal, politics is just politics – vote for me, vote for me – and no care is being shown for the state of the nation. The writing of the constitution is years and years overdue, and infrastructure, education, jobs and welfare are in trouble.

Programs to empower and assist the young people of Nepal are obviously open to exploitation by those being educated and assisted. Once young people have the skills and knowledge they need to gain security and greater wealth – there needs to be great incentive for them to stay in this country to work and settle. Of course in their situation, most of us would leave our country if that was where the opportunities lay- and with the other volunteers from all over the world we discussed similar ‘exodus’ situations in our own countries – like the ghost towns of the Australian outback where the entire town’s inhabitants have left for the big smoke.

There is just a great sadness in the loss of these trained and educated people who can contribute to their country’s future. Nothing can really happen until the government gets their ars into gear and improves the quality of the lives of people living in this magical nation.

For the moment VIN and Bhupi will continue their Youth Empowerment programs, experimenting with new ideas and strategies such as business ventures that might keep the youth of the communities within Nepal. But you cannot help but feel his regret that this aim of his – which is the backbone of his goals and work – is failing because the government and country are not supporting the generation of people that the country so desperately needs to stick around.

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.  : )

VIN: Not for Profit, All for People

Bhupendra, endearingly called Bhupi, the Executive Director of Volunteers Initiative Nepal, is a handsome man who grew up in a town at the foot of Mt Everest, and could be anywhere between 25 and 45 in age. He is always smiling, and has an infectious high-pitched laugh. He speaks English well, and always wears a funky leather jacket (he rides his motorbike to work).

We (another volunteer and I) are sitting in the VIN office, in Kathmandu, being inducted – which will involve basic Nepali classes, information about teaching English, health tips, and a presentation by Bhupi detailing the work that the organisation does, and where exactly our money is going.

I have to admit; the two reasons I chose to volunteer through VIN was a) because they were the cheapest, and b) because I wanted to go to Nepal. I did, however, find VIN came across as wholesome, and very community minded. Despite the grass roots-iness of the website, it seemed quite a large organisation, strong, and extremely professional. As I sit here and listen to Bhupi talk about VIN, I realise very quickly that it is not a large, well supported organisation. They are completely reliant on volunteer fees; to pay the salaries of the 15 workers, and complete their community goals, and their professionalism extends far beyond their website. I am immediately struck by the Bhupi’s eagerness to take on new ideas and advice that could help them in any area, and his openness regarding where a volunteer’s money goes.

VIN’s motto is “empowering marginalised communities”, and run various volunteer programs around Kathmandu. However, all money paid by volunteers that does not go to their accommodation and food, and the administration costs, contributes to the VIN Community Project in Jitpur, where the organisation is working particularly with women and children; to empower women through education and self-subsistence, and improve children’s lives through education and health awareness. Bhupi is particularly proud of their quest to build every household in the community a toilet (they have built 75 of the 250 odd needed), which will lower the rate of diseases that are so common in Nepal. In a few years, the community will take over the programs that VIN has initiated, and VIN will begin a new project in a new area, the location of which has already been decided.

Bhupi’s PowerPoint is hard hitting and frightening, and you can hear the concern in his voice for the people of his country. Less than 30% of women in Nepal are literate, vast numbers of children are not attending school (most of them girls) and Nepal is one of the only countries where women’s life expectancy is lower than men’s, due to a high rate of mortality during childbirth.

Despite this, Bhupi’s perspective remains positive, even when the rate of volunteers suddenly dropped this year, after a continual rise since the organisation began. This time last year, he had 26, this year, only 5. He muses that it could be the world economic situation, or the fact that the Nepalese government has just recently shut down the use of PayPal, making donations and payments by volunteers more difficult. Bhupi only displays some exasperation when he tells us of other organisations copying and pasting content from his website, which took him years to create.

Nepal is an amazing country – beautiful land, beautiful people – but with no welfare, rampant diseases claiming lives (ailments that we would laugh off after some food poisoning), poor education opportunities, extremely poor infrastructure that allows rubbish to fill the river, and roads to be washed away with rain, and the majority of youth choosing to leave the country to find work, Nepal is in trouble. The above is only a snippet of information about Volunteers Initiative Nepal, but I want to convey the importance of their survival, and the sincerity with which they are executing their Community Project in Jitpur. They have an in-depth website, and regular Newsletters detailing the organisation’s accomplishments in various areas of their work. Please consider VIN if you are considering any volunteer work in Nepal, or have any connections, donations or knowledge that could be of help to their endeavours.

And hopefully, PayPal will be up and running again in the future.

http://www.volunteeringnepal.org/