Voluntourism: Help or Hindrance?

Ellie Church
Co-Authored by Ellie Church, GLOBUS Correspondent
and Sara Shiraaz, Guest Author

A Case Study from Nepal

Ghandi once said that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others;” and it is often suggested that, by helping others, we help ourselves. In the current capitalist, money driven and quasi-isolationist global environment, volunteering is often looked upon positively – however Western volunteering in developing countries gets overwhelmingly negative press. Voluntourism is most commonly defined simply as volunteering abroad, often as part of a wider overseas travel experience. The development of this emerging trend is often attributed to the inception of the US Peace Corps in the 1960’s with the aim of delivering help to those in need. Currently, there are a large variety of opportunities, programmes, locations and organisations to choose from in the voluntourism industry, while the idea of ‘doing good’ on your holiday is becoming increasingly popular. Despite the good intentions behind these experiences, voluntourism is often associated with negative ideas: Western privilege, CV building, child institutionalisation and misguided good intentions have all been cited, alongside the consensus that more consideration should be given to the long-term future of this industry. Drawing on our own experiences of volunteering at a Nepali eco-foundation over the summer, we will explore why voluntourism may not necessarily deserve the negativity it attracts, and how we can ensure the future of voluntourism is sustainable.

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The Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation (Image: Ellie Church)

With a population of just 29 million, Nepal is by no means a big country; yet, with 93 different ethnic groups and languages, famous mountains, temples, terraced land and trekking trails, it certainly fits a lot in to its small size. Ranking 149th in the Human Development Index, Nepal is considered a developing country with a high dependence on primary industries. With 86% of employment in agriculture, increasingly frequent weather events such as floods and the devastating 2015 earthquake these setbacks have been considered seriously detrimental to the country’s progress. Also considered a land of poverty, homelessness, illness, pollution, unstable governance, waste and low-rise cities, Nepal is clearly struggling under the pressure of the current global state of affairs.

Nestled in the south west of the Kathmandu valley is the Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation. Through education and environmentally friendly programmes, this eco-community aims to help impoverished Nepali communities develop and prosper. The KRMEF was founded in 2010 by Krishna Gurung in memory of his late son Kevin, based on the values of respect, integrity, dignity, productivity, trust, and inclusiveness. With the aim of ‘promoting health and the environment through a synergy of man and land’ the foundation provides a model of healthy, balanced and meaningful living.

The concept of self-sustainability is ingrained in all that they do, with knowledge providing money, money providing technology and technology providing knowledge to ensure they are connected to plants, people and the planet.

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Everyone’s favourite surprise travelling companion (Image: Clement Owusu)

The core value of this foundation is that they wish to help people to help themselves, and that in order to be understood, you first need to understand. Using community-based development and anthroposophical biodynamic agriculture and health, the founders – Krishna and his wife, Leela – take sustainable steps to ensure a healthy Earth while leading enriching lives. The programs have a large focus on education – whether it be educating the youth at the Ankuran Waldorf-inspired school, or by teaching villagers and workers about the best farming practices via anthroposophy – they implement life skills in everything they do.  The well-established Ankuran education centre offers transportation from a nearby leprosy colony and surroundings villages, and has frequent help from foreign volunteers and teachers. Unique to the foundation is a scheme that means if a parent cannot afford their child’s tuition, they can ‘pay’ by helping out on the farm at the foundation or help cook at the eco cafe, prescribing a value to education and one’s capabilities, no matter physical ability or monetary situation.

Additionally, eco architecture has led to the first recycled bottle house built in Nepal, inspiring locals to use the waste found so readily near the local lake to lay the foundations of their biggest asset. After the devastating 2015 earthquake the foundation built 63 shelters, distributed materials to families, and continues to help build living facilities in the locality. The foundation commits itself to many projects and is open to venturing in any direction if it helps to develop opportunities, to build productivity, cooperation and wellness for local people and spread KRMEF’s values to other communities. A key example of this are the ‘Mahila Shakti’ workshops, which translates from Nepali as ‘women’s power’. Here, local impoverished women are taught how to make handicrafts and jewellery using local and natural resources such as the soapnut, which have been grown and harvested sustainably for many a century in Nepal. Alongside this, the foundation offers training and education for the disabled, elderly, and villagers with leprosy, attempting to break down social stigmas and foster trust in the in the environment, promoting local community integration. The below video provides an overview of the foundation and the initiatives undertaken.

 Volunteers form a vital part of the ground force behind the foundation’s projects, so we spoke to a few key members to get their perspective on how volunteers may be of help. Santosh Chhetri, an integral part of the foundation’s running, emphasises how 1500 volunteers from 48 countries have helped KRMEF grow in the last 8 years. This mass exchange of culture and skills is invaluable and the individuality each volunteer brings exhibits a mutual learning experience for the staff at the foundation and the other volunteers present. The founder of KRMEF, Krishna Gurung, says that in order to get the most out of volunteers, hosts should create guidelines appropriate to the situation and context of their cause, making sure the values and aims of the cause are instilled into the process of volunteering there. A participant on the foundations internship programme, Peter Swiatek, explains how the voluntourist may quantitatively find the experience more beneficial as it may look good on one’s CV etc. However, dependent on the effort and intention of the voluntourist, the relationships formed whilst volunteering are enriching in many aspects ranging from cultural awareness to increased creativity.

Volunteers share expertise and this blend of different cultures and thinking leads the way to unique, educational experiences for everyone. Leela Gurung explains how the individualism of foreigners contrasts with the togetherness of the Nepali community, where it is not seen as a weakness to rely on each other for help: “The more together, the more people who can help each other out, otherwise you end up lonely, sad and in a panic”. Voluntourism offers hosts and native communities a sense of hope and happiness as value is prescribed to the commitment and time volunteers give. In some cases, the people helped can be neglected for some reason or another by the society they live in, so a cultural exchange between volunteers and hosts can impart new teachings and raise confidence which will have a long lasting impact. In addition to this, communities can be connected or re-connected to the wider world as technology and skills are shared; many people in developing countries are limited to the places they live and may have never experienced the world around them: voluntourism breaks down those boundaries.

The impacts on host communities are often central to any discussion of voluntourism, with the benefits for the volunteer being critically underestimated. The generation we are part of has grown up in an increasingly globalised world and is consequently hugely aware of the disparities between developed and developing. Exposed to climate change, starvation, poverty, natural disasters, conflict, unstable governance and security issues, one could argue we are the most globally aware and critical generation yet. Voluntourism trips are an experience in which you can experience a multitude of different cultures at once, immersed in a specific community but surrounded by volunteers from all over the world: a place where ideas and perspectives meet, volunteers leave with a more practical awareness of the world and those in it. Beyond cultural exchange, volunteers develop skills to help them grow as a person: leadership, communication, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, adaptability, problem-solving skills, and above all a sense of empowerment. Volunteering abroad is often satirically associated with “finding yourself”, and whilst this may be an exaggeration, there is definitely a sense of truth in it, as volunteers can finish their placement with a clearer purpose and a sense of accomplishment.

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Ellie and Sara, on location, with a sense of accomplishment (Image: Ellie Church)

As with anything, there are two sides to this story: voluntourism has been suggested to consist of inexperienced volunteers who use their Western privilege to go abroad and build their CV with misguided intentions, creating more harm than thought. The arguments circulating this field of talk may act as a deterrent to those with genuine intentions to volunteer; as a result, we need to look beyond the individual and note the system as a whole.

Some view the venture as a hunt for money: organisations need to be funded and go about acquiring funds through marketed fundraising appeals that give the impression to audiences that monetary support provides a ‘quick fix’ needed to solve problems… this, however, is not the reality. When an individual wants to volunteer abroad they may turn to the large companies, NGOs and charities that incentivises these opportunities with good intentions. Neoliberalism has become the dominant logic underpinning current development practice emerging from a Pro-Poor Tourism agenda which intended to bring together the poor with a range of stakeholders to develop tourism that would benefit the poor through their systemic integration in economic growth.

On one side of the coin, community based initiatives brings voluntourists to their communities to spend money, economically benefiting the locals through the sales of goods, cultural amenities and handicrafts. However, flip the coin and the idea of ‘helping the poor’ has itself become a commodity to consume in the Global North to appeal to the individual’s desire to “do good’’. Within individualistic neoliberal society the way seemingly altruistic efforts are sold to the voluntourist to fit their concern of personal development and sense of ‘goodness’ reduces the chance for thought on the effects on ‘helping’ those whose poverty is the value-added attraction.

Voluntourism has a lot of potential as a growing industry, as long as certain guidelines are in place, ensuring maximum benefit for both host and volunteer. The KRMEF has a few guidelines it expects volunteers to follow to ensure commitment and productivity in a positive supporting, working environment and we have adapted these to a general set of guidelines. We are completely aware that this is no ‘one size fits all’ scenario, but these give a good basis to be developed further:

  1. Research the context – know where you are going, on a country and a community level.
  2. Correct mindset – you may not change the world, but the help you can provide is invaluable.
  3. Be proactive – stay safe once there, the environment will be different to what you are used to.
  4. Be mindful and respectful – there will be cultural difference, understand and engage and you will have a very positive experience!
  5. Be inquisitive – learning from each other and experiences is important and can lead to development of yourself and the community you are in.
  6. Never stop talking – promote the location as much as you can!
  7. Appreciate – reflect on your experiences and take all the skills with you into the future.

Thanks to KRMEF for hosting us and allowing us to have such an invaluable experience; we will be struggling to fully encapsulate all it has done for us for many years to come.

“To find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” To save the world, we first must save ourselves. By undertaking voluntourism trips we believe both hosts and volunteers can begin to understand the world better, and ultimately we can all start to be properly understood, finding solutions together for the sustainable future of the world.

We asked Professor Cathia Jenainati, Head of the School for Cross-Faculty Studies at the University of Warwick, for her own perspective on volunteering:

“Sustainable Development is a global issue which can only be understood following deep immersion in different cultures, and the acquisition of a higher level of understanding of what motivates people in various parts of the world. Volunteering in countries other than one’s home offers unparalleled access to the nuances of behaviour and the intricacies of traditional practices, which enable students to be more perceptive, appreciative and positively critical. There are so many concepts that cannot be translated linguistically but can easily be understood contextually – so many traditional beliefs that only make sense when we experience them physically and in their own setting. Volunteering allows us to engage with “foreignness” from an altruistic and appreciative stand point. For me, this is one of the most human – and the most constructive – positive forms of learning.”

Header Image: Volunteers on-site in Nepal (Ellie Church)


One thought on “Voluntourism: Help or Hindrance?

Add yours

  1. Is voluntourism ever appropriate when it’s offered as a prize?

    For those who haven’t heard of it before, Prizeo is a crowdfunding platform in which donations are converted into competition entries. I ended up on their mailing list after I clicked on some link in My Green Pod. Soon afterwards I was invited to donate to some sustainability-related charity and be in line to win a trip to the Svalbard seed bank including all flights via Oslo. That’s two flights each way in the name of sustainability. Hm…

    But this later offer was even dodgier, IMVHO. When I first saw it in my inbox I winced at the lack of geographical precision – couldn’t they at least have specified which country in Africa? And then I read on: someone whose sole claim to fame is as some YouTuby blogger type thing was offering to fly one prize winner and a friend with him over to build wells. That’s it – a totally random selection. No pre-screening, no experience required. Surely Africans deserve better than this?



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