Volunteering in a developing country such as Nepal can be an exciting and rewarding experience, and can be a powerful tool for helping bring about positive change. However, if not undertaken in an ethical and responsible manner and with careful research, you may end up doing those you volunteer with more harm than good.
Volunteer tourism, or Voluntourism, is a growing form of tourism in developing countries such as Nepal, where people use their time and energy to help others while exploring the country and culture. The most popular places to volunteer these days are in orphanages or other similar institutions, schools and building homes or classrooms for local villagers. Orphanages have become particularly popular amongst school and university graduates during holidays or gap years.

Volunteering in Orphanages

Imagine spending the day with a bunch of children, who seem to have it tough, with ragged clothes and few toys, yet seem so bright, happy, and full of love and affection in your presence. It is natural to feel like you are doing them some good by being there, by introducing new games, stories, maybe buying some new toys and clothes and giving them that affection they seem to crave. Even better, imagine being able to stay overnight so you can help put them to bed, happily sending them off into la la land.

However, after being on such a high, feeling someone really cares about them and is meeting some of their physical and emotional needs, have you ever thought about how they may feel after you leave? Or why they are so affectionate to a total stranger within hours or sometimes minutes of meeting them?

Don’t think just because children look happy when people visit, or even say they are happy there, that they necessarily are. I am not saying they are not genuinely happy to see visitors, many are, but it is temporary happiness for many, and not a healthy form of attachment are displaying. Children are often threatened and told to put on a happy face, to perform a song or dance or two, display a good relationship with the orphanage owners and to lie and say they have no parents.

I have even seen a group of children who planned an escape from an orphanage, were brave enough to go through with it (most were caught and taken back), then protest against being rescued, saying they wanted to stay. The rescue crew even included people the children knew and trusted, including some of those to whom they were trying to run.

Not all children are bounding with enthusiasm to see foreign visitors or volunteers. Some may be wary of strangers, and some may have seen many pass through and want to avoid becoming attached, as they know they will soon leave again and their old life will continue as it was. Some have had their hearts broken by false promises from volunteers that if they study hard they will sponsor them to go to university, or even one day they will take the child to their country to live with them. Some children just want to do their own thing, but are forced by orphanage owners or staff to participate in activities organised by volunteers, for fear of offending them, and losing potential donations. It is a complex situation, packed with complex emotions, and it is difficult to know what is really going on behind the scenes and in the children’s hearts and minds.

To find out the real situation of the children, one must ask why the children are there, how they came to be there, about their family’s economic condition and home community and what their daily life is like there in the orphanage. However, these are questions to be asked by local counsellors and other child protection experts who can follow through with appropriate support and action if needed, not short-term visitors and volunteers with kind hearts and a compassionate listening ear. Recalling the day they were separated from their families and communities and reminding them of their home, yet not being able to contact their families or return to them, may just open painful wounds for the children and cause them more grief.

Orphanages don’t exist in Australia anymore, so why do they exist in Nepal?

In many cases, orphanages exist because there is demand for them, not only from local traffickers and desperate families, but from people wanting to visit, volunteer and donate to them. They have become a good way to make money for some local people, a phenomenon called the ‘orphanage industry’. It is no coincidence that around 90% of orphanages in Nepal are located in the key tourist hubs. Impoverished families have been known to sell property to pay traffickers to take their child to an orphanage where they believe their child will be provided everything they can’t provide them; good food, nice clothes and a good education. Children are often deliberately kept in poor conditions in order to elicit sympathy from well-meaning visitors and volunteers who are then moved to donate. Sadly, the support often doesn’t reach the children as intended, and the children do not end up living the life their families had hoped for them. Both the orphanage owners and traffickers make money from the vulnerable families as well as from donors, and many children lose contact with their families and communities for several years, and in some cases permanently.

I have seen equipment bought for a disabled child, only to find it locked in a cupboard on a subsequent visit, with the child back to dragging themselves around on the rough ground again. I have seen new clothes worn by the children, only to have them taken away after the volunteer has left and distributed to orphanage owner and staff’s children. I have seen children living in the same condition year after year, despite the influx of donations, while orphanage owners coincidentally purchase new property and other personal belongings.

Over 16,000 children reside in orphanages or similar institutions in Nepal, of which around 80% are reportedly not orphans. Many have been enticed away or willingly sent from their homes in the hope of a better life and education in an orphanage in the city. Knowing a child is a genuine orphans tugs more strongly at the heartstrings of visitors, volunteers and donors, which is part of the reason there are so many ‘paper orphans’; children with documents falsified to say they are orphans.

Many orphanages rely on visitors and volunteers for funding, which is not only not sustainable; it fuels the orphanage crisis and perpetuates the unnecessary separation of children from their families and communities. In south-east Asia, Australia is one of the biggest contributors to the continued existence of orphanages, according to Unicef.

Some orphanages and similar institutions are run well and the children are well cared for, and the owners and staff genuinely try to do what they think is in the best interest of the children. However, research shows that growing up in any type of long- term residential care institution, even the ‘good’ ones, restricts a child’s development and well-being, and can cause psychosocial issues in the future. In Nepal it is not uncommon for children from any economic background to take on roles of responsibility towards younger siblings, helping with family chores, shopping and helping run the families small business. A lack of exposure to regular daily life, development of life skills and links to family and their home community, which are vital support networks throughout life, make a young adult much more vulnerable, and more likely to suffer low self-esteem, depression, lack of trust and ability to form close relationships, apathy and unemployment. Nothing can replace a nurturing family environment for a child’s physical, mental and emotional well-being and healthy development.

SCAI’s advice

Children, including orphans are not tourist attractions. We encourage people to reconsider visiting, volunteering and supporting orphanages and to put time, energy and funds into projects that empower children and their families and help keep them together. Every child has the right to grow up in a family environment, including genuine orphans. There are often siblings or extended family that with the right counselling and support, are willing to provide a home for children with no living parents. It is cheaper to fund children in their families than in orphanages. For the same amount of money, you can not only provide an education for a child in their local community, but also help with other basic needs and help families develop more sustainable livelihoods so they can care for their child themselves long term. Now that is rewarding!

Volunteering in Schools

Teaching in schools, particularly teaching English is also popular amongst volunteers. This can be a great way to help improve the quality of education in community schools in rural areas in particular, where they tend to lack resources compared to private and city based schools. To help open windows of opportunity for employment, international business and the development of the country, most private schools in Nepal teach in English medium nowadays and many government and community schools are moving towards it. Most village-based schools however are lucky to have more than a couple of teachers who can teach in English. More and more schools are also running computer lessons but are often still largely theory based.

Not all teachers are qualified or trained how to teach effectively to students of different abilities, with special needs, in large class sizes or simply to how to keep students engaged and enthusiastic to learn. Whilst Nepal is making good progress in the education sector, particularly in the development of early learning centres, teaching methods in rural areas still tend to be quite old fashioned, with a lot of rote learning from old text books. So there is great opportunity to make a difference in schools when undertaken with the right approach.

SCAI’s advice

All volunteering efforts should aim to empower the local people and bring about sustainable change, that is, the local communities you work with continue to benefit from your work after you have gone. As it will be the teachers who will continue to teach the children after you leave, we suggest providing support to the teachers rather than directly to the children in most cases, for example;

  • Helping teachers improve their English language skills and confidence in speaking English
  •  Helping them structure their lessons to build stronger engagement
  • Share some new teaching techniques that help the children learn more effectively
  • Helping teachers learn how to use computers more efficiently

In all cases, the needs of the school should be the starting point, and volunteers should help fulfil a need identified by the school themselves. Activities such as these will help strengthen the teacher-student relationship, and will help empower the teacher rather than disempower them. By simply doing something that they can or should do may make them lose confidence in their own abilities, may take employment away from them, and may make them apathetic. In some cases, where part of the training is to demonstrate how to teach and interact with the children, then it is of course fine to work directly with the children also. Knowing your input will be useful long after you have gone is much more rewarding than simply teaching children English for a week, and hoping that will change their lives!

Building homes or schools

We understand that building a new brick home for someone who lives in a bamboo or tin shelter, or rebuilding a family’s home after losing it through a natural disaster and seeing their appreciation can be a wonderful experience. We have heard some funny stories where foreigners who barely know how to use a hammer and nail attempt to rebuild a poor villagers home for them, only to have the villagers pull it apart and redo it after the volunteers have left, so as not to offend them!

Not long after the earthquake in May 2015 that destroyed around 500,000 homes we were walking through a village a few hours our of Kathmandu and saw groups of healthy looking people sitting around while others were busy trying to reconstruct their homes. We asked them if they too had started rebuilding their homes and they said they were expecting a group of foreigners to arrive in a day or so to do it for them.

SCAI’s advice

We are not suggesting to not help people build or rebuild homes, but one should know their limitations about how much they are genuinely helping. Skills in earthquake resistant design and construction, carpentry and other useful skills may be genuinely beneficial, but in many cases, the local people probably have a far better idea how to utilise their local resources to build their homes. For people with no building experience, it may be better just to admit you are going to learn how to build a house!

In my 15 years of working in Nepal I have been extremely impressed by the resilience of the Nepalese people, and their remarkable ingenuity at many things. Not only are they humble, polite and respectful, I have found many to be highly intelligent. I do not believe for a minute Nepalese people are not capable of everything westerners are. Many haven’t been given the same access to quality education, training and opportunities to develop their skills as people have in developed countries like Australia. I have seen some amazing people do some amazing things. I have learnt a tremendous amount from Nepalese people over the years, and I am sure you can to!

What to consider when planning a volunteering experience

Whether you choose to volunteer in a school, in construction, in conservation work or in the medical field, to make it a meaningful experience for both parties, we suggest in addition to the above that you consider:

  • Volunteering in any environment should be treated as an exchange of ideas and skills
  • It should never cause harm and should ideally be a mutually beneficial experience
  •  It should always be undertaken with the utmost level of respect
  • It should be at the request of the people you volunteer with so you are fulfilling a genuine need
  • It should empower people, so there is ongoing benefit after you leave
  • It shouldn’t take away employment opportunities from locals
  • Try and work ‘with’ the local people, rather than doing things for them, so they don’t become apathetic
  • Be realistic about your own skills and experience, and what you can offer. If you are not appropriately qualified or have the relevant experience, then you should consider it a cultural exchange and learning rather than teaching experience!
  • Conduct thoroughly research into the organisation or people you will be volunteering with to ensure their motivation is ethical
  • Be wary of anyone that charges you hefty fees – you should always try and ensure your expenses are covered so no locals are out of pocket, but be clear about where the rest of the money is going. If you go through a volunteer organisation and they say after covering their overheads the rest goes to the family or village you are volunteering in, find out how they select the families and villages, and how many times have they already supported the same people!
  • Be wary of volunteer organisations that use words like long term, sustainable solutions and bringing long-term impact to local communities yet allow you to volunteer for 1 week without skills in the field you are looking to volunteering in!
  • Research the local culture and customs and adhere to them, whether it be dressing appropriately or minimising showing affection in public, so you don’t offend the people you are there to help
  • If you are adamant about volunteering in an orphanage or similar despite being aware of the damage you may do, be wary of any orphanage allows you to stay overnight, be alone with the children or take them out without adequate supervision from the caregivers. They are breaking the law, and you can be liable too.
  • Be careful about working in a field for which specialised local accreditation may be required such as the medical field.

SCAI was founded by volunteers, and several years ago we too accepted volunteers into our children’s home. But we have learnt a lot, seen a lot and gained valuable experience over the past 15 years working on the ground in Nepal which has shaped the way we have developed our programs. It is with insight rather than professing to know all the answers that we share this information, so anyone wishing to volunteer in Nepal can fulfil their genuine desire to help in a meaningful way.

Contact emma@scai.org.au if you are interested in learning more or in volunteering in Nepal