Most of us from the West have grown up volunteering in some way. Before you say, “no, I have never done that” think back. Did you sell raffle tickets for your school fair or village fete? Did you every help cut the grass of an elderly neighbour? Did you serve drinks at your office Christmas party? Did you ever man the phones for the Samaritans or another organisation? I’m quite sure you have ‘volunteered’ at some point in your life.
But what is the difference between these types of volunteering and volunteering in countries like Nepal?
What is Volunteering?
Volunteering can take many shapes, as I have indicated above. Some are formal and structured – such as helping out on a regular and timetabled basis with an organisation, while some are unstructured like walking your neighbour’s dog.
Some are stepping stones on to a paid career. Examples of these are Peace Corp and UN Volunteers.
Almost all will make you feel good about your contribution to society. So why is there a lot of negativity around volunteering in developing countries? Partly because of the previous sentence. Is the role of volunteering simply to make you feel good? Can you be sure you are really making a difference to the society you are volunteering in?
What is Voluntourism?
Voluntourism is a buzz word that has been around for some time. Basically, it is volunteering taken overseas, in the majority of cases. Profit-making entrepreneurs have woken up to the fact there are plenty of people who love to travel and wish to ‘do-good’ while travelling. Whether their aim is to take some responsibility in a world which seems to be going out of control, or whether the aim is to boost their social media profile or CV, people’s desire to help others has now been turned into a business.
Why a business? Because the person volunteering their time is usually asked to pay for the pleasure of working with animals, or children, or in a community. Their very desire to help has turned something that should be a charitable giving into a profit-making business.
We can ask is voluntourism the same as volunteering? We see in many blogs, papers, conversations, these words are used interchangeably. But if we realise volunteering is something we organise ourselves and offer freely whereas voluntourism is something that is organised by an agency or second person and something we have to pay for, then we begin to see the difference.
Volunteering and Voluntourism in Nepal
If you Google volunteering in Nepal you will come across dozens of websites advertising volunteering positions. The majority of these are fake. Fake in that volunteering on a tourist visa in Nepal is illegal. Offering tourists positions as volunteers are illegal in Nepal. For years the Government of Nepal has tried to clamp down on those organisations who are taking monetary and psychological advantage of tourists and on tourists coming in without skills and perhaps doing damage to those they are ‘helping’. Please be aware of even volunteering for free (without paying anyone or being paid for your time) is illegal.
There are some genuine opportunities to volunteer (as opposed to becoming involved in voluntourism) in Nepal as I will explain.
Think about it this way… what would you do if someone who didn’t speak your language or understand your culture came to teach for a month at your child’s school? Or if that same person came to your place of work, again with no language or culture knowledge and with little or no skills in your profession. Would you feel comfortable? Particularly where your child is concerned.
While it is safe to travel in Nepal, are you ensuring a safe environment for the locals?
Real Opportunities to Help
Real opportunities to help do exist. Many of these do not involve volunteering. I will talk about these later in the blog.
But let’s start by looking at some volunteering opportunities that may exist.
As I said, there are dozens of credible-looking websites which offer placements into schools or orphanages where your ‘help’ is sought. Most of these will ask you to pay something towards the organisation – usually for your food and accommodation but perhaps towards the running of the place also. This is what we call voluntourism. Or, getting tourists involved in volunteering.
Ignore these websites. I will tell you why later.
If you really want to do something while in Nepal you can:
- Contact a non-governmental organisation:
If you have skills in say English language teaching, you can perhaps help their staff improve their language skills.
If you have skills in plumbing or building, you can perhaps help with construction work at the community level. Bearing in mind the community has the last word, not you.
You can help out in their office with administration if they require it.
- Contact an international non-governmental organisation:
There maybe be occasions when international NGOs require help. When there is a disaster or when there is a shortage of local help.
If you are medically qualified or have a particular skill (for example a young woman I met during the earthquake in 2015 was a qualified carpenter and stayed on to help reconstruct homes), you are more likely to be thought of usefulness.
- Contact a community organisation:
Groups who are helping stray dogs and other animals are always looking for caring workers to help them. If you are a trained vet, so much the better.
People working for the environment often need help. For river clean ups etc.
- Other opportunities:
If you are a yoga teacher in your home country, why not help out with yoga camps or at a yoga studio?
Are you an artist who can share their skills with others?
Can you fund a workshop or educational trip for children? Funded by you, run by locals who understand the kids' needs.
If you are very serious about long term volunteer work, BEFORE you arrive in Nepal you can contact organisations such as VSO, UN Volunteers, Peace Corps etc. You will be recruited from your home country. You will be paid or received a stipend from these organisations.
What Not to Do
NEVER work with children!
Here is why.
Note: you will also find similar advice on many embassy and UN websites under Nepal travel advise and safety.
Volunteering in even the most genuine school/children’s home will result in stress among the children and could perhaps be taking a job from a local. Why stress among children when they seem to enjoy playing with international volunteers? At a young age, children are still developing mentally. Someone fun and interesting come in for a few weeks and then they leave. A couple of months later another fun and an interesting person comes in and then leaves. And so on. There is a real possibility than that the child will have a hard time forming long term relationships in the future.
Then there are those children’s homes/orphanages which are not genuine. Oh, they look great on paper, even when you visit everything looks fine. You will be told the children are orphans and need to be in this home, which is usually located in Kathmandu or Pokhara, and days from their home village. It’s easier to take tourists to orphanages in tourist destinations, right? In 2019 an organisation called Next Generation Nepal found that 80% of the children living in abusive orphanages (to quote their words) are not orphans. They have families. Horrifyingly there is a whole business in trafficking children, both across borders (into India) and within Nepal.
UNICEF’s definition of child trafficking is: “A 'child victim of trafficking' is any person under 18 who is recruited, transported, transferred, harboured or received for the purpose of exploitation, either within or outside a country. The use of illicit means, including violence or fraud, is irrelevant.”
In other words, even if the parents are told (and they usually are) that their child will receive a better education and life and they let their child go willingly to an ‘orphanage’, but the real purpose is to exploit the child for money, this is child trafficking.
Do not be a part of this ongoing and growing horrific business!
And of course, any situation where people are allowed to work with children, the children are open to abuse. There are NO checks on who has come to volunteer with children in Nepal. As long as you pay your money, you’re in!
International paedophiles have been found in Nepal.
So now you get the picture. At best you may be taking a much-needed job from a local and causing children to cry when you leave because they have come to love you. At worst you will be aiding in this circle of abuse.
So What Can You Do?
Aside from contacting the organisations mentioned above you can give back/help Nepali communities in other ways.
- Learn from the locals:
Things are done differently here. You could learn a thing or two from the locals. Small businesses will benefit from sharing their skills. Whether its thanka painting, basket weaving, handicraft making, pottery, cooking etc you could learn something. More importantly, you will be learning something about the culture. And the money you pay to learn a skill or to buy a product will go directly to the family or community. One of the best ways to do this is by going on a homestay trek in Nepal.
- Use your funds wisely:
Instead of bringing your clothes from home buy them here! Of course, you will have to bring some of your clothes, and pay attention to what you buy locally – was it made in Nepal or China?
Same with your souvenirs. Where they made locally, particularly by women or underprivileged groups via a not-for-profit organisation?
If you are thinking to bring supplies in after a disaster (flood, landslides, earthquake etc) buy the food here. Your money will stretch further too! During the 2015 earthquake, a beautiful colouring book for children was given by a woman in the Philippines in soft copy and printed here for distribution to children. Think smart!
Even your accommodation. Is it locally owned? Or is it a Chinese or Indian property? Go local!
- Local trekking/tour agencies:
Many people buy their treks through large international companies, often coming in large groups rather than small group tours. While it's often reassuring that your agency is well established globally, it often doesn’t give back to the local communities you will be trekking through. A quick check on their website or a chat with them will confirm if they are using locally produced food, local porters etc. Also, those large trekking groups are less likely to interconnect and mingle with the locals than small groups or those who come on family tours to Nepal.
The best idea is to book your trek through a local, Nepali agency.
- Homestays vs normal treks:
There are some remarkable homestay treks such as the Millennium Homestay Trek which brings you directly into people’s homes. An opportunity for both trekker and host to learn something about each other. And you can be assured the money you paid is going directly to your host family. Swotah Travel’s Millennium Homestay Trek not only provides income for the host families and communities but it also supports a local school through scholarships for underprivileged children and provides lunches for children and teachers!
- Choose the treks which give back the most:
The very popular treks such as the Everest Base Camp Trek and the Annapurna Circuit have been well established for years. The lodge owners in this area see thousands of tourists coming through each year. Yet there are many beautiful off the beaten track treks in Nepal to remote areas which hardly see any tourists. People in these areas are more in need of incomes. Please check before booking.
But not just trekking. If you go on rafting, camping, safari, pilgrimage tour, adventure tour etc, please look first if these tours directly, or indirectly help the communities you will be travelling through and staying in. Even your luxury tour in Nepal can help to give back if you choose one of the best travel companies in Nepal.
- Donate with dignity:
Many trekkers over the years have handed out sweets and money to kids on the trails. Now the children are used to this and will come up to ask. Let’s break this habit.
Why not donate to local schools or ask your trekking company to suggest where your funds or goods (books, toys, crayons etc) will be of most use.
To Sum Up
Whether to volunteer or not is a tricky choice. You want to help. You want to feel good about yourself and want others to feel good too.
The first rule to remember: it’s not about you. Your Instagram really doesn’t need pictures of you handing out stuff to street kids etc.
If you have a very useful skill, such as being a vet, doctor, builder, agriculture expert, etc you will be very welcome to help out where the need arises. Remember you should not be asked to pay to volunteer.
If you are more enthusiastic than skilled then think hard about what you are doing. Are you indirectly perpetuating the abuse of children or communities? Are you taking away their dignity and chance of employment?
If you want to donate goods or money – seek advice on what is really needed. Ask locally.
Finally, Nepal is a safe travel destination in Asia. Please help us keep it safe for the women and children who live here.
Say no to the abusive kinds of voluntourism. Say no to child trafficking.
BTW: the above information not only applies to Nepal but to every developing country or where there are under-privileged groups.