Travel is a combination of luck, hard work and desire to be free. In Nepal I learned that this equation does not always come to a positive result. One of the nights in the hostel I met Nepali guy who worked at the reception. He was extremely passionate about his job and slept 3 hours a day in order to to cater to his guests. He considered himself a lucky man in the country where the majority of population have to endure exhausting farm field work for ridiculously low pay. But despite all that, he confessed how envious he was of all the international travellers passing by. “I am making good money, but it is only enough to cover basic living expenses so I can’t save for travels.” – he said. Additionally, he revealed that foreign countries impose far stricter rules on Nepalese passport holders with regards to visa regulations, plus the rupees/dollar exchange rate is brutal. Day after day he would see people come and go, they would bring stories of exciting adventures they went through and set off onto the next ones. His job was a blessing and a torture. He caught a “travel bug”, but was unable to quench his wanderlust thirst.
His story is one of the many of Nepalese men and women who can only dream about going to far off destinations. The realization that no matter what they do and no matter how much luck they have, they still won’t be able to travel due to those insuperable obstacles made me appreciate things, that we usually take for granted, like having been born in my own country and holding its passport. We can not change some fundamental things, but I think it is important to acknowledge that travel is a gift and we need to give back.
I volunteered with one of the non profit organisations based in Kathmandu. It is hard to give clear evaluation of the organization: there was not enough time, enough information, enough transparency, enough access to financial documents to assess how the company was doing in terms of its projects and funds allocation. I’ve noticed some alarming discrepancies in the lifestyles of ordinary Nepalese people and those who ran NGO so I decided to explore the topic further.
There are three major issues with NGOs in developing countries. First one refers to genuineness of their goals. In Nepal I ascertained that NGOs are real businesses: they make profit, they pay rent, they pay salaries to employees and management. At the same time they claim that their business’s goal is to help the community. Helping people is a respectable goal, but there are a lot of hidden traps that can hinder the progress towards that goal. Having management appropriating profit in the name of their salaries is one of them. Ultimately, NGO allocates funds to those in need, so having NGOs in the country is better than not having any. The conundrum gets more complicated when you start questioning if they use their resources at their best, whether they give 80% or 10%, whether all the money goes to marginalized communities or part of it goes to employees’ relatives, whether during an exceptionally successful year they buy property abroad or build houses for the poor.
Now, let’s face it – we will never know! At the NGO’s offices I was working at I witnessed the abundance of leather chairs and chandeliers, expensive cars and motorcycles, while the head of the company kept flying from one country to another in search for networking opportunities. Does it point out at the blatant misuse of funds? Probably. In all fairness, I did meet couple of Nepalese women who received help from that NGO and were able to send their kids to school, I saw toilets built with the company supplied materials and I visited schools that were painted by the organization, so they seemed to be doing something. However, the amount of money that went into those projects was miniscule (for example, you need $6 to send a child to school, and the NGO was only supporting 100 children) and incomparable to the amounts spent onto satisfying management lavish lifestyle.
Which brings me to my second point – NGOs in Nepal have huge transparency issues.
All NGOs can be categorized into three following types by the amount of money they spend on community projects and number of volunteers involved :
NGOs that accept donations but only hire highly skilled workers. These companies are usually genuinely concerned about making the world a better place and have an effective strategy in place. They set up realistic attainable goals and employ the right people to achieve those goals. Rarely, they would hire international volunteers, but the application process is arduous and competitive.
NGOs that are trying to juggle community projects and volunteering projects at the same time. They usually accept donations, that partly go to company’s projects and partly to administrative costs associated with providing positive volunteering experience. Ideally, they would have two separate departments for projects execution and volunteers coordination work.
NGOs that see engaging international volunteers as their sole purpose of existence and that’s how they view themselves helping the society – by placing international volunteers in one of their programs. They concentrate all their efforts on engaging as many volunteers as possible, and the fees that volunteers pay are regarded as “administrative” expenses. These companies are purely travel agencies with an “eco” prefix.
Excluding well known international charities like Red Cross or Salvation Army, transparency issue is what makes it harder for us, volunteers, to identify which type of NGO we are dealing with. My NGO was in between second and third type but closer to the third. And a lot of NGOs in Nepal are like that. If the company publicly accepted the fact that they were eco tourism business, I would have nothing against it – they identified market demand and created a business model to supply for it. The problem is how they position themselves, sometimes claiming things they do not do (like putting volunteer fees into community projects whereas in reality the money goes to the management). Since volunteer fees constitute 3rd type NGO’s sole profit it is crucial for them to make application process super easy and in order to attract more people they would advertise that the fee is going to company’s community projects. As a result, Nepalese NGOs are filled with thousands volunteers, who do not have the skills, do not speak the language and do not have the resources. They don’t understand the roots of the problem they are trying to solve, they rely heavily on organization to brief them in and they are not capable of making bigger impact than a local person, but they are deeply convinced that at least the money they paid will make a difference.
Lastly, volunteering is highly encouraged by European universities as a way to get professional experience. But here is the catch: developing countries can’t offer same level of expertise and knowledge as mature markets. You are far better off getting an internship in the US or UK or even your native country, than volunteering in Nepal. It means more effort and more money from your side, but it also means personal development boost (check out my article on “Five things you learn when you move to another country”) and best in class guidance from established professionals.
Volunteering and voluntoursim are hot topics, that rise fierceful discussions and controversy. My solution would be to identify your motives and needs before you go. If you don’t have any skills but want to explore foreign culture, then go ahead and book that placement at the 3rd type NGO. If you genuinely want to help but do not have the skills, you have two options: you can either donate money to international organization and be sure that your money goes to the right cause, or you are welcome to book that 3rd type NGO placement as well, but choose the project wisely (with manual construction or agrofarm projects you can actually see the impact you are making, unlike orphanage work), be prepared to take initiative along the way and accept the fact that your fee stays with the company. Don’t however come to Nepal looking for experience and guidance – this country itself needs guidance.