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Neesha Bremner: The harm in trying to help

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Good intentions are being abused in voluntourism, says Neesha Bremner.
Village kids in Nepal. Photo / Thinkstock
Village kids in Nepal. Photo / Thinkstock

Arriving in Nepal one can be overcome by the heady mix of poverty, friendly generous people and the sheer damn overwhelming beauty of the place. There is a frenetic and contradictory calm energy in the Himalayas that can capture your heart.

In 2009, I was asked by an NGO to look into how its money donated to a Kathmandu orphanage was being spent, as it had some concerns.

On my arrival at the orphanage, the reasons for its concern became self-evident. It was a new three-storeyed house in a good area; the owners of the home sent their kids to a high-level private school, while the "orphans" went to a lower-end school and lived in two rooms at the bottom of the house.

To the non-casual observer, some stories didn't quite make sense, including "we had to buy the child to rescue them".

It was obvious that the donated money wasn't necessarily going where it should, despite the good intentions of the donors. This experience made me wonder about the reality of volunteering, money and caring for children in this part of the world.

So, in 2012, I moved to Nepal for a year to research the links between paid volunteering at children's homes and trafficking - what I discovered and continue to learn is sobering.

Figures from a 2008 study from Unicef and Terres Des Hommes suggest up to 85 per cent of children in Nepal's orphanages have a living parent. Research still under way suggests this has not changed and indicates there are now children being specifically trafficked to meet the demands of the voluntourism market.

Many of these children have been trafficked, with their parents paying an "education agent" a large sum of money, thinking the child is being given an education opportunity conveniently located in a tourist hub.

These children are then placed in an orphanage where its owners gain by charging well-intentioned travellers to "help" and with the parents sometimes never seeing their children again.

The urge among travellers from privileged countries to help "cute" children in the developing world is understandable. You want to give back, you want to feel good and feel like you have made a difference. But in reality there is a very real chance that Kiwis wanting to help in Nepal may be doing the opposite.

To volunteer on your OE without forethought and research is dangerous and has far-reaching consequences.

In Nepal, a huge market has grown around the good intentions of Kiwis and others willing to pay to help the developing country's children living in orphanages - to the point that the Monsoon season is now commonly referred to as "volunteer season" by those in the tourism industry.

Stories abound of donated goods being sold once the volunteer has left, of children being given stories to tell, of children being underfed and poorly clothed to look the part of the poor orphan and of volunteers being courted to set up NGOs to access foreign funds with a coinciding credibility factor.

There is even evidence of children's homes being specifically built in tourism hubs to take advantage of the money to be made from naive travellers.

Money, volunteering and children are an opportunistic mix and, ideally, Kiwis travelling to Nepal should not participate unless they are damn sure they are really helping.

Tips for volunteers

Searching for a good organisation to volunteer with takes research and care. Here are a few tips to help find a clean organisation:

Be wary of orphanages with flashy websites. This can be an indicator that funds are being spent on appearances rather than children.

If possible, contact people who have volunteered with the orphanage you are interested in.

Ask the orphanage to show you exactly where your volunteering money goes. If it is not transparent about financial matters like this - do not volunteer.

Wait until you arrive in the country before selecting an organisation.

Talk to ex-pats or other travellers in the country that you want to volunteer in to get the best advice on the good "orphanages" to volunteer with.

Do not hand over your money up front.

Find out which government agencies you can report to if you experience something that makes you concerned.

Be aware that large voluntourism travel programmes may not have good oversight the further away you are from their direct care.

Carefully consider whether you really do have the skills or knowledge essential for working with children. These kids can be suffering from trauma and abandonment issues and having strangers entering their lives for only a short period of time can be damaging.

If in doubt - don't.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily between Auckland and Hong Kong. Its partner airline, DragonAir, connects to Kathmandu.

Further information: See voluntourism.org and freedommatters.org.uk.

- NZ Herald

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