27 June - 3 July 2014 #713

Volunteering to be a tourist

Basil Edward Teo

Trusting foreigners are scammed by Nepali companies offering volunteer work for a fee

Basil Edward Teo

PICS: BASIL EDWARD TEO
Village Chief of Damdame, Dar Kumari Gurung, with Singaporean school teacher Eugenia Ong, who returned to the village to volunteer with education and income generation loans.
When a Singaporean school teacher first stepped into the office of an organisation offering international volunteers an opportunity to work in Nepal two years ago, it wasn’t what she was expecting.

Eugenia Ong had come to Nepal full of idealism to help the needy, and on the recommendation of a friend picked Volunteering Redefined. But when she got to its office in Thamel, it was small and cluttered. She had to pay a $480 fee just to volunteer in the village of Damdame in Pokhara.

“I was suspicious,” recalls the 29-year-old, “there was no breakdown of costs. After handing them the money I realised I was so naïve.” To salvage her trip, she went to Damdame anyway and worked in a library and with children at a secondary school.

Ong is among hundreds of altruistic foreigners who are drawn to Nepal to volunteer in schools, health posts and farms only to discover when they get here that the programs they applied for are thinly disguised scams.

Volunteer travel, or ‘voluntourism’, combines tourism with helping for a charitable cause. In Nepal it has become an important component of the tourism industry, and although some organisations work genuinely to empower the needy, many are fronts to fleece trusting foreigners.

On her second trip to Nepal in June last year, Ong avoided Volunteering Redefined and went directly to Damdame to find that other volunteers had trouble paying for their homestay through the organisation.

TOURIST DESTINATION: Damdame villagers gather for a meeting on a recent morning.

Brian DeChant, a 26-year-old logistics specialist from Portland in the US, who volunteered at the same time as Ong told Nepali Times: “The beginning was great, but it quickly turned negative. My host family did not receive the money they were promised for my accommodation, and it soon became unpleasant.”

Volunteering Redefined owed the village $450 including accommodation costs for him and another Irish volunteer, and when confronted said they would pay the family “next week”. It took three more months after DeChant turned up unannounced at the office for the payment to be made.

In a phone interview, Kshitiz Panday of Volunteering Redefined denied DeChant’s allegations, and revealed that he had closed down the organisation. “I plan to go to Germany soon for my studies so there is no one to look after the organisation,” he told us.

The Social Welfare Council (SWC) in Kathmandu which regulates NGO activities says 60,000 foreigners come to Nepal each year, more than half come for volunteer work but only 400 are registered with the SWC.

“A lot of volunteers come in on tourist visas and it is not allowed to work or volunteer; they are all illegal. But in reality, they still do it,” SWC director Madan Prasad Rimal said. Many organisations that work with foreign volunteers are registered under the Company Act, so SWC cannot monitor their activities, he added.

Critics say voluntourism merely meets the desire for spiritual wellbeing of volunteers from developed countries, rather than helping local communities in Nepal to help themselves.

Caroline Scheffer, country director of The Umbrella Foundation which works with trafficked children, says organisations and volunteer agencies, in collaboration with the government, need to regulate voluntourism more carefully.

“There are so many organisations that can be found online. I doubt all of them work with the best interests in mind for the Nepali people,” she says. “I am against the fabrication of volunteering opportunities to meet the demand of foreign volunteers.”

Ong’s initial motivation for volunteering still leaves her with a tinge of embarrassment today. “When I first came to Nepal, I had no knowledge of the culture,” she admits, “I was going through some personal troubles back home and wanted to feel better about myself. I wanted my friends back home to say that….wow… I have a big heart for volunteering in a developing country.”

After her initial encounter with voluntourism, Ong has found volunteering in her own terms fulfilling. She sponsors three children from Damdame for their education, and she has loaned money to farmers for a bee-keeping venture.

“If volunteers want to make a difference, they need to commit months or even a year, you can’t accomplish much in one or two weeks,” Ong says, “and it has to be self-sustaining.”

Caroline Scheffer agrees: “Volunteers with teaching skills can train local teachers, and social workers can train new social workers. Even physiotherapists can train local physiotherapists. The important thing is to transfer skills to someone local who can continue doing it for the community.”


CHECKLIST FOR VOLUNTEERS:

** You shouldn’t have to pay to volunteer, an unannounced “fee” on arrival is an immediate red flag

** Do they put their financial reports online?

** Is it charity or empowerment?

** Is it sustainable?

** Are there undeclared “fees”?

** Google the NGO you have chosen and check the results carefully.

** Read feedback from previous volunteers (google is full of it, search for volunteer+scams+Nepal).

** If you can, come to Nepal first and “shop around” to see what is available.

** Post some feedback on the Internet: it will be useful to future volunteers.

Read also:

Gap year ripoffs, Irene Peroni

Volunteering growth, Ashutosh Tiwari


Staying home

Tucked away beyond low-hanging monsoon clouds, beyond the lake and ensconced in green hills of Panchase is the village of Damdame, a lurching one-and-half hour bus ride and a steep two hour trek west of Pokhara.  

The sun rises over Damdame at 5.30am.
Basil Edward Teo

This is the Pokhara most tourists don’t see: verdant, unspoilt, and happily isolated. But maybe not for long. This year, Damdame was registered as a village homestay on Airbnb, a website for people seeking to rent out lodgings with over 500,000 listings in 192 countries.

Damdame villagers live in Mud huts atop a hill in the Panchase Mountains.
Basil Edward Teo

The home to stay is in the village chief Dar Kumari Gurung’s house (pictured below): a two-storey traditional mud house for $15 a night, food and warm-hearted company included. There are no restaurants, no shops, no wifi and mobile reception is iffy.

Home made: Damdame village chief Darkumari Gurung in her kitchen.
Basil Edward Teo

On the second storey of the village chief's home is the guesthouse where tourists can stay.
Basil Edward Teo

Everyone calls Gurung “Ama” and she embraces guests with open arms, offers some honey roti, and masala tea.

Time passes slowly in Damdame, and what goes on is exactly what you would expect of the countryside. At dawn, farmers are already in their terrace fields preparing it for paddy planting and they toil till dusk. Others descend to the nearby Tunikhola to fish.

Damdame villagers playing a game of volleyball after a hard day's work in the field.
Basil Edward Teo

Like other towns in the Himalaya, the young are leaving Damdame. Four families have already left in the past year alone.

Says Ama: “Education is poor, not proper healthcare, so whole families move to Pokhara for their children’s future. Only older people like me are left.”

Read also:

A whiff of Old Nepal, Sunir Pandey

Vacuum in the villages, Kunda Dixit

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