Wanting To Give Back But At What Cost?
The horrific earthquakes in April 2015 in Nepal resulted in an outpouring of much needed global support, including thousands of volunteers. As the tourists fled in the wake of the devastation, many volunteers arrived wanting to help. Nepal desperately needed their tourist dollars so that definitely did help. And their compassion and willingness to help did help heal the many broken hearts. But many came with no clear plan, just to help, to want to do something. And so they headed into the devastated villages and cleared rubble, built shelters, donated clothes and food. But there were consequences of these generous actions.
Locals are often paid to clear rubble away. After the quakes, this was much needed income for them. But when volunteers come in and offer to clear it, these jobs are lost. Why would the business people pay locals when foreigners were offering to do it for free?
I met a volunteer who had just arrived back in Kathmandu after working clearing rubble in Gorkha, the epicentre of the quake; and she was feeling frustrated. “We spent the day clearing rubble, piling it up neatly in an unused area of the village,” she told me. “The next morning, the locals had moved it. That day we again cleared rubble and again the locals moved it the next morning. So we gave up and came back to Kathmandu.”
“Did you ask them why they moved it or where they moved it to?” I asked her. She looked at me as though the thought had never occurred to her. “Well they didn’t speak English so we couldn’t”. They had just trekked up, found a village and started clearing rubble without being able to communicate with the villages, without asking them if that’s what they wanted, if it was ok to touch their remains of their homes. This was not uncommon after the quakes. This assumption that we know what is needed and that we are the best people to provide it is common across not only voluntourism but endemic in the aid industry generally. Volunteers go with the perspective that “Nepal is a poor country which needs lots of help.” The Nepalis have heard this over and over, they are taught it in their school text books. This breed helplessness and dependency. They start to believe that foreigners must know more than we do and they accept whatever is being offered, regardless if it is what they need or want.
It’s about listening. Asking. My grandfather always taught me that every single person knows something we don’t know, can teach us something. This is my life philosophy. When I go into the villages, what can they teach me? I have learned so much since the quakes with this approach. The villagers love to teach – farming, land use, weather patterns, building with local materials.
This dependency is another consequence of volunteering. The recipients of the volunteers’ services feel that they cannot do anything for themselves. Volunteers must know best. So they sit and wait. Wait for someone to build them a shelter, to give them food.
Another very unfortunate side effect of voluntourism is laziness. In Nuwakot after the quakes, we were working in a village which had asked us to help them build a temporary school building so the kids could get back to their classes. School is one of the most powerful healers after a natural disaster. It gets the kids back into a routine, it gives them hope again. We had brought some Sherpas from the Solukhumbu region to help teach the locals how to build with bamboo. Bamboo is a fantastic resource – readily available, environmentally friendly and very fast growing, strong and flexible to deal with earthquakes. The Sherpas use it a lot in their region and many of them were out of work as the trekking tourists had fled. So we gave them some work, teaching the locals in the quake affected areas. We had agreed to support the locals to build 8 classrooms with bamboo. But we always expect the local communities to contribute so they take responsibility for the project moving forward. We had discussed with them that this would be a long term partnership in which we would also support development of their school in future to ensure their children get a quality, practical education. In return, they would provide the tin for the roof of the new school since it could be taken from the rubble of the destroyed school. And they would provide the labour.
So we started, the whole community working together. Two classrooms were complete and an energy was coming back to the village. Classes had restarted and the kids were all excited to be returning to school. Then another organisation came along, told them that they would build a school for them – no strings attached, telling them they shouldn’t have to work after everything they had been through. The volunteers would provide all materials for the building, would build it and would then move along. The villagers decided that not having to do it themselves and not having to provide anything was a better option and told us we were no longer required to build the remaining 6 classrooms. The village sat and watched the volunteers building the school. Classes stopped. The energy and community spirit gone.
There are no easy answers to this. I don’t want to discourage volunteers. They generously give of their time and money and energy to try to help. For that, I am very grateful. But we need to raise awareness of the consequences and to be realistic about what volunteers can achieve.
Unfortunately, over the last 5-6 years we have seen the industry become increasingly commercialised and trendy. In fact volunteering in a foreign country was recently listed in International Traveller magazine’s “100 Ultimate Travel Experiences of a Lifetime”. But let’s call it how it is – in the majority of cases, it is really poverty tourism, a way for people from more “developed” countries to feel better about their lives by volunteering in less developed countries. I believe there are a lot of benefits of travelling in less developed countries, but voluntourism generally puts the local people in the position of always on the receiving end – as though their skills are somehow less valuable. Suggesting, as the International Traveller article did, that volunteering offers the opportunity to “make a real difference, whether restoring historic houses, working on infrastructure projects, helping out in animal sanctuaries or working for children’s charities” is untrue in many cases. The difference made is often not real – it exploits the local people and often takes jobs from them while reinforcing their feelings of insignificance and being in need of help rather than empowering them. Their reason “Because it’s the ultimate travel souvenir: it feels good and it makes a difference” highlights the way the industry has promoted itself.
I really do believe that voluntourism has the potential to change the world. It can create wonderful conversations across cultures and opportunities to learn from each other, to experience the similarities between us as well as to celebrate the differences. It can inspire global citizens and empathy. Unfortunately, it also has the power to do a lot of harm, to reinforce differences and superiority complexes, to impose values, to foster feelings of insignificance and dependency and in the worst cases to support exploitation and child trafficking.
So whether you’re a CV padder, “a picture seeker”, whether you want to be a world changer, or if you simply want to feel better about your life, voluntourism CAN change the world. But let’s change our lens to one of mutual tourism – of working with rather than for the local communities, of learning and teaching - based on sharing of talents, strengths and passions from both sides rather than assuming we always have to give and the poor have to receive.