The Murky Side of Volunteering Abroad

Jessie Lau/Staff

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Children clambered in all directions across the cobblestoned playground, tackling one another to the floor in scenes of chaos. A cacophony of shouts and giggles punctuated the summer air, which smelled faintly of spice and smoke. Corrugated iron roofs rested crookedly on small shacks that served as classrooms, with walls painted dull shades of red and yellow. This was three summers ago at Orchid Garden Nepal — my volunteer site in Kathmandu’s Kalopul district.

I had just finished my freshman year of college when I went to volunteer at Orchid Garden Nepal, a day care center for underprivileged families that provides free education, lunch and a safe place for at-risk children to stay while their families worked during the day. Without the center, many of these kids would have been out on the streets begging for food, unprotected and without adult supervision.

It was my first time volunteering in a developing country as poor as Nepal, so I didn’t know what to expect. Although I’d mentally prepared myself for the scenes of poverty I might encounter, it still struck me hard seeing the harshness of their lives. “Ke garne,” Nepali people say. “What to do?” Such is life.

Originally, my job was to supervise the kids and help them with their classwork, which was all taught in English. But when the staff found out that I could draw, I received dozens of commissions for class materials — posters, decorations, flashcards — and became the center’s temporary art teacher, crafting and supervising short drawing sessions. I went into the experience knowing that I would benefit more than those whom I was working for. I was fine with that, initially. I had no expectations of making any significant impact on the community. Rather, I hoped to be useful in any small way.

Yet when I began working at the center and I saw the amount of work and dedication the teachers put into teaching the kids, and helping them foster a sense of confidence and self-worth, I felt conflicted about my role as a volunteer. I started to question the value of my contributions and my intentions for volunteering. What did they gain from me being there? How could I justify spending so much money to travel to Nepal? (Would my money have been better spent if I had just donated it to the teachers at the center?) What is the value of accommodating volunteers from abroad?

There are few statistics available on the number of U.S. college students volunteering abroad, so it is hard to gauge the amount of people participating in these activities. According to a 2014 report from the Institute of International Education, 15,089 students at 309 institutions participated in “non-credit” work abroad between 2012 and 2013, including internships and volunteering programs.

The rise of volunteer programs abroad has sparked a dialogue about the ethics of volunteering. But many college students still seem to treat volunteering as a morally seductive form of tourism — a way to travel abroad and feel good about helping underprivileged communities without taking the necessary time and energy to understand the needs and aspirations of the people they are trying to help.

The more I thought about the role of a volunteer, the more conflicted I began to feel about the moral ambiguities of volunteering abroad. I began to question my own intentions for volunteering. Perhaps I was simply satisfying my own self-interest in learning about a new culture. Perhaps I was dressing it up in the guise of volunteering.

With this in mind, I spoke to Scott MacLennan, executive director of the Mountain Fund — a U.S. nonprofit that sponsors community-based initiatives in Nepal. With between 150 and 200 volunteers enrolled in its programs each year, the Mountain Fund oversees several work sites in Nepal, including Orchid Garden Nepal, Her Farm — a cooperative that shelters women running from domestic abuse — and Helping Hands Community Hospital, a private hospital that serves low-income citizens.

But MacLennan brought up a perspective that I found interesting: It didn’t really matter why people volunteered, as long as they did.

“I’ve surely had some volunteers where I was convinced that was the case,” MacLennan said, referring to college students who only volunteer as an excuse to travel. “But if you’re there and engaged in some project there and interacting with the Nepali people, making some small contribution to their lives, I mean, does it really matter if that was your intention?”

Plagued by political instability, underdeveloped infrastructure and civil unrest, Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries. About one-fourth of the country’s population currently lives below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. Despite this, MacLennan says there is a shortage of global media coverage in Nepal, and many in the Western world know fairly little about the country. As a result, foreign volunteers have the capacity to bring issues that are important to Nepali people out of isolation and to foster global awareness.

MacLennan also noted that many volunteers become regular donors to the organizations they worked for. By relying on paying volunteers and regular donors, rather than general donations, which can be unpredictable, the nonprofit can maintain a steady stream of revenue.

“Nepal is one of those countries that never show up on the radar screen,” MacLennan said. “One of our goals at the Mountain Fund is to encourage donors by raising awareness of issues in Nepal.”

In addition to building awareness, volunteers also give local Nepali people a chance to interact with people from different cultures and practice their English, MacLennan said. Many Nepali people — especially women and children — lack the opportunity to travel abroad because of visa issues and financial constraints. Volunteers and tourists from abroad often serve as the only exposure they get to other countries, he said. He added that because many academic courses in Nepal are only taught in English, locals treasure the opportunity to improve their English skills.

“I learn from the Hong Kong culture and the American culture (from volunteers). All over Europe, people come over. I like meeting the people. We make money from there,” said Sunita Subedi Sharma (MacLennan), who is from Nepal and is the director of volunteer programs at the Mountain Fund. “We don’t like asking for donations.”

Instead, she said, they prefer to raise money through providing a service.

Christian Clark, deputy director for the United States at Projects Abroad, echoed this sentiment. He said it is common for people from developing countries, not just Nepal, to face barriers when attempting to travel abroad. Because English has become a valuable professional asset in many countries and local teachers may not be fluent in English, native English speakers from abroad are an important resource for locals who want to learn the language.

The majority of volunteers participating in Projects Abroad programs are college students, Clark said. His organization offers hundreds of volunteer programs in 27 different countries, and most participants volunteer for four to 12 weeks.

At UC Berkeley, the global poverty and practice minor requires students to work locally or abroad and make a meaningful contribution to a community or an organization for a minimum of six weeks. Since the minor was established in 2007, students have worked in more than 50 countries, according to a 2013 report from the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Yet according to Chetan Chowdhry, adviser for the global poverty and practices minor, teaching English abroad as a form of volunteerism is highly controversial because it has the potential to be a form of cultural imperialism or unintentionally impose foreign viewpoints. Because culture is heavily embedded within language, the act of teaching English can impose certain cultural values, he said. As such, the department does not allow participants in the minor to fulfill their practice requirements by teaching English or through religious instruction or carrying out medical work without official training.

Chowdhry said that the issue of English becoming a global language is problematic and that teaching English abroad feeds into this notion instead of challenging it. The opportunity to learn English should exist, he said, but it shouldn’t be a language that people must learn.

“So often, English is equated with intelligence. If you know English you’re smart. Even if you have the same understanding or analytical capabilities, if you can’t convey it in English, it’s not valued enough,” Chowdhry said. “We want students to think about why English has become that language.”

In terms of whether a volunteer’s intentions matter, Chowdhry said that they very much do. Participants should be very clear about their motivations prior to volunteering and think critically about what they feel they can reasonably contribute. They should be knowledgeable about the type of work they are signing up for, he said.

It’s also important for volunteers to understand their own privilege and how fortunate they are to be able to travel abroad and have that experience, Chowdhry said. Volunteers need to have an infrastructure that allows them to reflect on their experiences and have some ideas about how they are going to take these issues forward when they finish volunteering.

“I think it’s really important what one’s motivations are. One’s motivations will inevitably impact how they engage in that setting,” Chowdhry said. “It’s important to have intentionality around what your role is within a particular situation. To think about who they are in relation to these people, it raises a lot of issues around power dynamics that we encourage students to think about.”

Young Min Kim, a UC Berkeley sophomore who taught English at a school for adults in Cusco, Peru, for three weeks last summer, said he does not feel conflicted about his experience teaching English.

“I think that’s a very negative way of viewing the topic,” Kim said. “Learning a language can be a tool and a weapon to fight poverty for these people. I wouldn’t say that I’m promoting anything negative by teaching English.”

Kim said his experience volunteering was meaningful because it gave him an opportunity to make a tangible difference in the lives of the people he was helping as well as gain exposure to another culture. Two of his students passed an English language exam for a tour guide license and were able to transition into more profitable professions, he said.

“I found I could make a difference,” Kim said, adding that he would recommend people who want to volunteer to take on jobs that no one can fulfill locally. “Intention does really matter. It’s hard to make those connections (with locals) if you don’t have those intentions.”

Last winter break, I returned to Orchid Garden Nepal. I’m a senior now, so it had been three years since I last visited Nepal. The playground and classrooms were still sites of organized chaos, but there were little changes. The uneven rooftops made from corrugated iron had been replaced with brick tiles, and the playground now included a small wooden stage and a basketball hoop. The red walls, previously bare, were decorated with bright paintings. Although the kids I ran into didn’t recognize me, the drawings I made three years ago still hang on the walls of several classrooms.

I may not have  made a significant impact on the lives of the people at the center, but I made friends there — friends who welcomed me back, cooked meals for me, shared their concerns with me and offered me a place to stay for free, three years after we had first met. They have challenged me to evaluate my role in their community; they pushed me to think of ways I could continue to be a meaningful aspect of their lives. And I think that’s enough. For now.


Jessie Lau is a contributor to The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]