Updated: Mar 4, 2020
How the perfect balance of international volunteers, local workers and fair trade exports can create a self-sustained Nepal
Begnas Lake, Nepal /Núria Falcó
Nepal holds a special place in my heart. I have visited the country on two occasions and lived there for more than six months. I am captivated by its beautiful, natural sights, warm and welcoming people and interesting culture, with plenty of religious festivals and different ethnic groups. I have become obsessed with the delicious dal bhat, the national dish consisting of steamed rice, lentil soup and curry. I love the sincere smile of people you walk by, and the Namaste greeting that follows you wherever you go. However, Nepal is a country full of contrasts. There’s beauty and there’s ugliness, there’s poverty, inequality, education disparities, environmental pollution and children’s rights violations. That is something easily seen as you step out of the major touristic spots.
Villagers from a small village in Southern Nepal /Núria Falcó
Nepal is a country that has suffered a lot. From the 10-year long civil war that claimed more than 16.000 lives and ended with a peace agreement in 2006, to the devastating earthquake in 2015, to landslides and floods happening more recently. Nepal’s turbulent political and economical legacy plus its challenging topography, with mountainous regions hard to reach and poor infrastructures, have hampered economic growth. Nepal is ranked as the 30th poorest country in the world, and relies on international aid. Tourism is the largest contributor to Nepal’s GDP, but the economy is still highly dependent on agriculture.
Farmers in Southern Nepal /Núria Falcó
Nepal receives a large amount of volunteers that go to the country trying to help. But good intentions sometimes aren’t good enough. Voluntourism, as it is called, has caused a boom of orphanages in countries like Nepal, and there are several studies linking them to child trafficking and exploitation. There are some scams as well, with so-called orphanages becoming businesses instead of charities. These orphanages are not dispersed evenly across the country and are highly concentrated in tourist areas.
In recent years voluntourism has become a hot topic in the media, and there has been a lot of discussion regarding its pros and cons. Some complain that it’s an echo of the white saviour colonial attitude, referring to a white person who helps non-white people in a context that can be be perceived as self-serving. Deciding to travel and volunteer is a decision that cannot be taken lightly, and should involve a lot of research and critical thinking. Wanting to help and being actually helpful are not the same thing.
Critics of voluntourism say it can disrupt the local economy. If volunteers work for free, they might be stealing the job from locals, with more knowledge and relevant skills. Non-for-profits such as Building Budland, a British charity for the relief and assistance of people in Nepal by the building of schools and homes, are trying to encourage ethical volunteering. Its founder, David Wilson explains that they have been working on the construction of a school with a mixed team of local workers and volunteers. “We employ as many local civil engineers and builders as possible, to contribute to their village economy, plus a few volunteers to help us reduce costs. There’s no job loss to the community and it offers a unique cultural exchange experience to everyone involved”, Wilson said. Having the volunteers around has the added bonus of helping the locals learn English “and that might open them to have more job opportunities in the future”, he said.
Baluwapati, a small hilly village north of Kathmandu where Building Budland operates, was damaged by the earthquake in 2015, and Budland’s school was completely destroyed. Since then, students and teachers have been using a corrugated tin shelter that doesn’t protect from the cold, rain or dust, reducing the efficiency of the learning. But Building Budland’s commitment goes beyond building a school, it is a long-term investment run in partnership with the existing board of directors. They have signed a 35-year agreement for the protection of the building and its maintenance, a trust fund for emergencies or teacher training, and scholarships. For instance, David Wilson began his journey doing earthquake-relief work and started sponsoring a child who was not in school. “It was through this time I realised we should be looking to help more children directly with this school. Now we sponsor kids from families suffering socio-economic issues and pay for their education, regardless of their caste or creed”, explains Wilson. They are currently sponsoring three kids but the initiative will develop further once the building is complete.
In the village having volunteers stay has had a far-reaching effect on the community and it has increased the villagers income. A traditional small shop and tea house has now become a homestay for the foreigners that go there. They pay a small fee in exchange for a place to sleep and cooked food. When these volunteers spend cash in local businesses, it also helps the villagers out, from toiletries to snacks to transportation from the main town.