Want to volunteer in Nepal? Choose carefully and with knowledge
If tourism is Nepal’s number one profitable industry then the tightly bound world of volunteering and NGO’s (Non Government Organisations) must surely come a close second. They are of course closely linked to tourism and rather unfortunately often times merged into one.
Post 2015 Earthquake and Nepal has become a hotbed of volunteering which has had both good and bad results.
Prepare yourself for some realities that many people don’t like to acknowledge. People who are trying to help others often don’t see the harm they are participating in when volunteering.
They are helping people – how could anyone speak badly about them?
They are among many duped by countless volunteer job listings that include:
Teach children in Nepal – Assist Orphans – Medical Internships – Monastery Volunteer Opportunities – Local Family Stays – Medical Volunteers in Nepal – Teaching Buddhist Monks – Practice Buddhism – Volunteer Programs in Nepal – Orphanage Work in Nepal – Teaching English in Nepal – Once in a Lifetime Opportunities as a Volunteer in Nepal – Help Nepal by Volunteering – the list goes on …
What people are often shocked to learn is that many of the above positions are pay positions. Meaning you will have to pay money to participate or volunteer in them.
Paying to volunteer. It’s a profitable industry that’s thriving in Nepal.
A little background into volunteering in Nepal
Nepal is a developing country that’s also a premier tourist destination which has led to a tinder box of trouble in attaining true sustainable development.
Cash stuck Nepal has many human rights issues, health issues, education issues, racial issues, sexual / domestic abuse issues and this list goes on. There is however no shortage of volunteers wanting to help out. And no shortage of people willing to cash in on these well-meaning people.
People are often paying thousands of USD dollars or Euros to “volunteer” in Nepal (and elsewhere). Tasks range from shoveling mud to housekeeping to teaching classes.
On the flip side of things there are also people with ulterior motives for wanting to volunteer overseas. College graduates looking to boost up their resumes for example. Mixed in with the adventure of Nepal it looks great. Shame they are often under qualified and only adding to the profitability of the many sham organisations in Nepal.
Before I offer up any solutions and if you are not convinced yet then do read just these three true life examples of volunteering in Nepal gone wrong.
Names and nationalities have been changed to protect people. Nonetheless the events certainly took place. I bore witness to them and many others.
Five years of rebuilding a Nepalese Orphanage that never was
Mark only told me the facts when we hopped off the bus after an hour bumping along Kathmandu Valleys dirt roads. I’m not sure why he didn’t tell me when we were on the bus. I think he wasn’t sure if I would have jumped out early.
Now we stood on the side of the road waiting for the Nepalese man in charge of an orphanage Mark had been funding for the past five years. Mark paced nervously up and down. Though it could equally be anger. It was hard to tell considering what I’d just heard.
Like many Mark had first come to Nepal as a tourist. During his travels, like so many, he was moved by the poverty that so many people face in Nepal. Moreover the children in Nepal. So many displaced by war, tribal customs and socio-economic reasoning.
He offered to help at an orphanage. And returned the next year with clothes, school books and toys. It wasn’t enough. A plan was put in motion and Mark returned to France and fund-raised through his family, friends and employer to raise enough cash to build a new orphanage. He returned with the cash and land for the orphanage was bought.
At the end of year three Mark’s now twice yearly trips to Nepal started to see progress as building began on the orphanage. A few weeks after a return to France Mark received an email. There had been a landslide and the building had been destroyed. Fundraising had to start again in earnest.
Mark returned to see the progress of the orphanage once the rebuild had begun. New foundations had been put in place but it was taking time and more money was needed. Meanwhile more funds were continuously needed for the children’s temporary abode. Mark returned to France to begin a new fundraising campaign.
It was during monsoon season that Mark got another email informing him that a freak mudslide had knocked the new nearly completed building over.
Mark wasn’t stupid. He knew something wasn’t right. He’d met with an engineer and the builders many times on his trips to Nepal. It was only when the orphanage owner wasn’t there one day that a worker let something else slip. And that’s why we were there that day.
We visited the new orphanage site. The building had indeed literally slipped down a forested slope. It would need a complete rebuild for a third time. The true tragedy was revealed when we reached the children’s current accommodation. The home of the man running the orphanage.
It was a slick operation that Mark had planned well. The owner was sent on an errand. Meanwhile Mark obtained proof from a safe of the children’s parenthood. Of the 16 children only 3 were technically orphans. All the others were relatives of this man.
Whatever about disappearing funds from collapsing buildings there was now proof that all that fundraising was going straight into a family’s bank account rather than to an “Orphanage”.
The Francophile who taught English
Marie, a French girl just out of college after completing her business degree, spent USD$7,000 for 6 weeks in Nepal teaching English to Nepalese children via an NGO in France. Her accommodation was a monastery which included local meals.
In other words she was living in a single room with a shared cold water shower eating local Dal Bhat twice a day. Keep in mind a basic private room in Kathmandu can cost as little as USD $5 per night. And meals from $2+.
There was no curriculum for the classes. The previous volunteer had left some books but they had “disappeared”. The French girl managed to buy some school books from Pilgrims in Thamel. They weren’t very good but were better than nothing.
Marie spent 4 hours a day teaching the alphabet to eight-year old’s who had no interest. There was no other supervision.
After complaining to the NGO about the standards she was told that she could leave early is she wished. But, she’d have to get her own plane ticket back. Marie already had a return ticket but the NGO refused to change the date for her.
To add insult to injury the Monastery was also accepting free volunteers separate to the NGO pay volunteers.
Rather than dwell on leaving Marie joined up with another “teacher” who was also appalled at the money they’d paid and what they had to work with. They threatened to call the papers back home. This was met with a lot of hostility. Not just from the NGO manager but also an Italian volunteer who had taken it upon themselves to try and help the NGO better “manage” their organisation.
The Italian had no background in education. Heart in the right place but clueless on lesson management or childcare.
It all ended with a very loud verbal exchange in public during a meeting between all parties. The flight money was refunded to Marie and the other volunteer. The organisation has offices in several locations around the world and is still running.
A monk that was fathering an orphanage
Claudia was a volunteer at a small orphanage run by a monk and a housekeeper. Her job was to help teach the children at a nursery level. It worked well the first few weeks but Claudia soon found herself helping the housekeeper around the house more than actually teaching the children directly.
A few more weeks passed and Claudia’s complaints were met with great understanding. The “real” problem was that they didn’t have any funds to hire more staff or even feed the children properly. Claudia began to enlist her friends help back home in fundraising for the orphanage. Everyone chipped in and a few months later they held a small party to celebrate.
The party was meant to be for the children but it seemed mainly adults had shown up. Friends of the monk and the housekeeper who didn’t speak English. Claudia had been learning Nepalese and did her best to converse with the guests. Her main conversation was asking why no one had brought any children to the party?
By chance one of the people Claudia met was the housekeepers sister who spoke only a little English. Claudia was delighted to meet her at last after hearing that the housekeepers relatives lived far away. It turned out this would be the downfall of the party.
The housekeeper’s sister didn’t live all that far away. She actually confessed to not liking her sister’s husband that much. Claudia never knew the housekeeper was married. Thinking she was helping Claudia suggested that the two sisters could meet up at the orphanage as she’d never seen her husband there.
The housekeepers sister looked confused and explained that the man was nearly always there. It turned out the husband she was referring to was indeed the monk.
It gets a bit sketchy after that with the monk claiming he wasn’t a full monk and that not all the children were his. Some were from distant relatives. Either-way, Claudia fled the scene heartbroken to know she had been duped.
Placing blame on specific NGO’s in Nepal
While I could name the above NGO’s, agencies and companies, including a lot more, I don’t want this article to be about individuals. That’s easy to do. What I want is to give people thinking of volunteering in Nepal a clearer understanding of what’s gone wrong with what, in essence, is a great thing – simply wanting to help someone.
Volunteering with a good heart is not the answer
I’ve never paid money to volunteer and never will. I’ve worked as both a paid volunteer and as paid member of staff for an international development organisation. Throughout the world I’ve seen volunteers, NGO’s and development agencies work to help people in need.
Unfortunately the majority of what I’ve seen in Nepal has been seriously lacking in standards.
Even in the most deprived of situations I’ve met volunteers who’ve paid to volunteer and think “they’ve done their bit” and it’s helped.
Sadly the reality is they’ve done their bit for themselves, got a feel good factor, a story and gone home not realizing anything else.
It’s very hard to get someone to understand that simply packing up clothes into a suitcase and flying to a needy community in a foreign country to hand them out can do more harm than good. It’s simply encouraging a community to always look for handouts rather than developing into something self-sufficient.
But try explaining that to a mother who fly’s halfway across the world to help “the poor Nepalese orphans”. Let alone try explaining that to someone who’s also spent time and money fundraising for the trip and indeed the orphanage. Let alone explaining that to someone who’s seen and spoken with the wonderful people running the organisation that’s helping the orphanage.
It’s a minefield of human emotion and human need.
Sadly in Nepal many good-hearted people are being taken in by random NGO’s with not so transparent accounting practices or morals.
In 2011 the then Nepalese government, under international pressure, stopped the adoption of children in Nepal to foreign couples due to corruption (BBC: source).
Yet while the adoption of children to overseas homes may have stopped orphanages in Nepal continue to be having a “boom” in terms of growth and pay to volunteer practices.
Volunteer in Nepal and come away feeling you’ve done a great thing
How do you explain to people who’ve not only gone to all the trouble fund-raising, flying out to a country and then staying several months helping out that they’ve been taken in?
Volunteers are often shocked at what they see on the ground in Nepal. Children in rags eating plain rice from metal bowls once a day. They hand out new clothes, help bathe the children and teach the local helpers about proper nutrition.
The volunteers can’t help but get a feel good factor from all this – who can blame them?
This is before we even get to the college students looking for international experience for the betterment of their career outlooks by volunteering for “worthy” causes.
Believe me when I write that there are organisations here that are well skilled in tugging all the right emotional / guilt strings to get what they want from people – money. And then make you feel like you’ve done a great deed.
Things to keep in mind before volunteering in Nepal
If you are thinking about volunteering in Nepal what should you do to prevent doing more harm than good?
Firstly be honest with yourself: are you qualified to volunteer? Why are you flying around the world to teach English when you don’t have a qualification to do so? And why are you paying for this privilege?
You’ve no qualifications so you are going to Nepal to help build houses or shovel mud after a landslide? Did it occur to you that there’s no shortage of unqualified local cheap labor in Nepal who can do this too?
Want to help clothe kids at an orphanage? Bringing over crates of clothes from home seems a little excessive considering the vast number of local tailors and factories making clothes in Nepal.
Paying to volunteer? Why? Where is your money going? Are you sure it’s for housing and feeding you? A private room in a basic guesthouse is USD$5. What percentage is for the children? Do the math before going.
Where does all this pay to volunteer in Nepal money go?
It astounds me to read many brochures and websites offering pay to volunteer positions in Nepal. Many will advertise that “your money” will stay in Nepal and not a foreign country! Sounds good. Until you break down their own dodgy publicity.
Let’s breakdown a 4 week volunteer placement teaching English in Nepal that charges USD$500.
- 25% of your money will go to your accommodation and food in a home-stay.
- 25% goes to community development.
- 50% goes to your airport pickup, a tour around Kathmandu and a lift to your placement.
At the outset the money is not much. But look at where it’s going. Is there any going to the school? No.
Who owns the homestay? What are the “community developments”? Why are you paying them for a one day tour of Kathmandu?
100% of this $500 can easily be siphoned off into someones business profits rather than for the “school”.
Probing into this a little further: Start to ask questions about what the community development money is being used for and you’ll probably get a spiel about “a community well” or “a health centre”. Those are also the pretty standard replies that will have been said to many others for the past few years.
On the other hand ask for a notarized copy of the organisations accounts for the past year and you’ll probably never hear back from them again.
Supporters will claim how can a small NGO afford and accountant? I reply by saying not to pay for a “board of directors” expenses would be a good start.
Lastly is this a registered school? Or is it simply such a “private” school that it’s not registered on the national curriculum or examinations board?
What’s gone wrong with volunteering in Nepal
Nepal is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The national Government still can’t form a constitution and local authorities are running riot on plundering anything profitable. NGO’s applying for grants can offer up to 50% commissions on many projects.
All of the above nearly leads me to apologize for bursting peoples bubble on the feel good factor of volunteering in Nepal.
But I won’t. I’ve experienced enough to realize that bursting bubbles is sometimes the kick people need to instill a better longer lasting ideal.
Moreover it means that the people in need will be more likely to get the sustainable help they actually need rather than “feel good” help.
Are all voluntary organisations bad in Nepal?
No. But the vast majority are hideously unqualified to run as NGO’s. Both from a financial standpoint and from an educational/experience stand point. From for profit organisations, tax exempt companies to well-meaning but clueless people to outright fraudsters.
Volunteering in Nepal is a very profitable and money draining industry.
There are however a few internationally recognized organisations with strong reputations working in development throughout Nepal.
There are also some people trying to create some form of transparency within Aid organisations in Nepal.
Longstanding reputable organisations include:
Heritage based volunteer based organizations in Nepal:
While not perfect by any means the above organisations are held accountable in many regards. They are also committed to something I believe in when it comes to volunteering and aid in developing nations – Sustainable Development.
Don’t just go to a country to do a job. Go to a country and teach someone how to do it themselves.
NGO’s in Nepal need to be internationally regulated
There is no accountability mechanism for NGOs operating in Nepal. This is a serious international problem that is highlighted by U4’s reports on corruption within NGO’s.
- The creation of fictitious NGO’s
- Double-dipping, or seeking or accepting funds from more than one donor
- Financial irregularities
- Ghost employees, participants
NGO’s need to be regulated. As much as I hate the idea of an international licensing system the situation in places like Nepal would surely benefit from it.
Accountability, transparent finances, qualified staffing, set goals and sustainability must all be adhered to at a set standard. That doesn’t mean forcing all NGO’s to live up to international doctrines. Every country is different. Even the regions with in it. But at the end of the day transparency can attest to many things.
Forget licensing fees. Just a simple set of transparent regulations that are not charged nor funded by the NGO’s but through an international grant from a body like the UNHCR would surely do.
One year after the earthquake in Nepal and volunteering without such regulation has led to some long-lasting negative results that no one was expecting. And still all essential regulations are not in place.
Should you volunteer in Nepal?
Yes by all means. However my advice is to think carefully first. Reread everything above. Ask yourself about what can you offer and what are you qualified in that can help?
Maybe you will find you can help a lot more at home than out in the field? Lobbying the UN or a government ministry for NGO regulation for example.
Contact the big organisations I listed above and ask them about what they are doing and what they are looking for? You’ll find that they are generally looking for people with specific skills and qualifications for long-term placements.
Lastly for those that are still not convinced. Or heard it through the grapevine that a “certain” organisation is doing a great job and is looking for help. Ask for accounts. Ask for documentation that shows curriculum’s, sustainability and completed projects.
And, perhaps most importantly. Ask yourself this question very honestly: Are you volunteering to help someone or to help yourself?
The answer doesn’t have to be the former but being honest about it will be the first best step in helping someone else you’ll ever take.
This is an additional feature article about volunteering in Nepal
(Due to a high amount of “promotional” comments all links to “volunteer” org’s will be moderated with links removed)
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