This is a guest post from Rishi Bhandari, a Nepali who grew up surrounded by international volunteers.
I had a bit of an unconventional childhood. I was born in the western hills of Nepal to a wonderful family, but who were seriously lacking resources. They moved to the southern lowlands when I was a baby and started out with nothing there – we had no land and we stayed in a shared barn. So at the age of five I moved away from my family in order to grow up in an ashram community on the outskirts of Kathmandu. I ended up living in the ashram for 17 years. I was educated in the community school and studied up to bachelor’s level. As I got older I took on more responsibility in the day to day running of the community.
The ashram was both a farm and place of spiritual learning. In most ways it was self-sustainable – growing its own food and generating an income through selling products made there. But it was also a place where outside visitors would come to stay – to learn, to come on a personal retreat, to volunteer in the school, or to offer us some kind of service project. Hundreds of people passed through the community as I was growing up there, staying for anywhere between one day to several months. So in that way I was lucky that as a child I had exposure to people from all over the world.
I first encountered international volunteers when I was five, and I loved them! As a five-year-old kid, who doesn’t enjoy being tossed up into the air and given candies? But the irony was that they always only stayed for a short period of time, so the fun interactions were tainted by the knowledge that it was all going to be over soon. And when they would leave I would feel a keen sense of loss.
As I look back now, the behaviour of these foreign visitors was really bizarre. They would travel halfway around the world to basically spoil and coddle children, for a very short time, when the children clearly were not treated that way in their normal life. In Nepal people tend to show love in more subtle and less physical ways, so it was confusing to have that switched on and off as a kid.
When I reflect on it, I feel like the volunteers were treating us like we were from another planet. We were commodities to be used for a short period of time, not children with feelings and aspirations, or who are prone to attachment issues. There is a certain sense of exoticism associated with volunteering with kids overseas, that you can see on the posters that advertise these experiences. The images seem to say: “Look at these smiling brown children! They are poor but happy!” Volunteers internalise these messages and treat children like toys, who are there to be touched and be tossed around. They didn’t treat us as complex, rounded human beings.
“It all comes down to the subtle effects of colonialism.”
I started to notice all of this even as a kid. I was pretty mature from a young age. I was inquisitive, I read lots of books, and I was strongly affected by the interactions and dynamics around me. People coming into my life and then immediately going had a deep-rooted impact on me, that lasted a long time.
One of the things that felt most disempowering was when foreign visitors showed up in order to teach us. Most of these volunteers were just around 20-21 years old themselves. The hubris of showing up in a culture they knew nothing about and assuming that they had things to teach is mind-boggling. I used to think: “You people have no idea about this place, you don’t even know how to eat the food here, how on earth do you feel entitled to be our teacher?”
It makes me feel sad. I just think: “What the heck has happened to us, to allow this kind of thing?” It all comes down to the subtle effects of colonialism. The western kids grow up with the idea that they can do anything – that they can come to another place and teach anything, build anything, offer anything. And Nepali society is somehow brainwashed into believing that these teenagers really do know what they are doing. The cumulative impact of this can be really tiring.
I was a smart kid, but as everyone around me held those beliefs I too was influenced by them to some extent. Of course I always knew that the methods of these young volunteers were flawed and they wouldn’t be able to “save” anyone or anything. But the idea of western volunteers coming to help was glorified, we were taught to accept it and be grateful, so I wasn’t able to see them through a critical lens.
Growing up alongside international volunteers has impacted me hugely. When I look into the bigger picture of what is going on with them I can see how their actions have a lengthy history and are related to human psychology. That volunteers feel the need to give things to people they don’t know on the other side of the world must be a response to a kind of emptiness in their own life. They live a life with every material wish fulfilled, and yet no amount of cars, luxury resorts, or material possessions can satisfy them. Giving charity and doing voluntourism are self-gratifying ways of filling this void that they feel – and are a whole lot easier than doing the work to find the root cause of what is wrong in their own lives.
There is a saying in Hindi: “Who will make their hands dirty by doing the cleaning in their own house?” It basically means that the best way to avoid dealing with your own problems is to get yourself involved in someone else’s problems. I think it is the perfect metaphor for what is going on with those volunteers.
“Volunteers swagger about the place as if they were a living embodiment of Buddha, telling everyone they are here to help and expecting praise and gratitude. It’s so awkward.”
Some of the attitudes that volunteers come to my country with bother and frustrate me. To judge issues as diverse as physical wellbeing, mental satisfaction, cultural health and so on, by material indicators alone is deeply flawed. But most volunteers come with the single idea that society should be measured by these things, because their own cultural values teach them that. Western society pins everything – community, happiness, fulfilment – onto material items. That seems like a narrow and skewed lens to me. And because of that, volunteers come to a country like Nepal and assume that everyone must be miserable due to a lack of “stuff”.
It’s a pretty patronising attitude. I’ve met foreigners that come to Nepal and start to feel guilty for the amount that they own back home. How does that help anyone? It’s an attitude that says “I am better than you and that’s why I feel guilty.” Volunteers swagger about the place as if they were a living embodiment of Buddha, telling everyone they are here to help and expecting praise and gratitude. It’s so awkward. Nepal has such a beautiful culture, the fabric of society is so strong. Don’t forget that the country only opened for tourism in the 1950s. When it was closed to foreigners before that people were not starving. Community structures were in place, social networks were strong, cultural heritage was intact. Now everyone that enters Nepal thinks that the people have to be uplifted, and that somehow they are well-placed to do it.
I was speaking to a woman just the other day who had been to rural Nepal. She said: “To see the poverty of these people opened my heart.” It surprises me that people can feel such a deep sense of satisfaction from seeing poverty. It is poverty porn, basically, and it is really disturbing. It is like white people see the poverty of brown people as their spiritual path – they come here just to have their hearts opened by poverty. Almost as if they are saying: “Thank you for being poor, now I have seen you I can consider myself an enlightened person.” And then after a couple of weeks they can head back home to their air-conditioned houses and their SUVs and branded clothing made by child slaves, and basically continue causing all the problems that are keeping the people here poor in the first place.
There are so many enthusiastic young people that have set their heart on coming to “help Nepal.” What I would like to say to them is that your intentions are great, that it’s really nice of you to want to want to make a difference, but it’s not sufficient. I would say please analyse your motivations, think deeply and critically about why you chose to come to Nepal, why you have this incessant craving to help. Did you see media stories of orphanages, with children wearing dirty rags standing in the doorway? What happens when you see those images – is it a strong sense of grief or deeply rooted compassion that you feel, or something more akin to a fleeting sense of pity? It’s easy to feel pity. It’s a natural human response to certain stimulus. But pity alone doesn’t help anyone. Are you willing to cultivate compassion, to question your intentions, to interrogate your skill set? Why do you think you are the right person to turn up in a country and build a school, when you have never laid a single brick or fixed a window or door in your life? Do you know how people in this culture, from when they are very young, learn to build with earth and cow dung and straw? If you are serious about helping then you might need to build up an entirely different set of skills, and humbly learn it from the people here, not walk in with the idea that you have so much to teach.
I have seen countless examples of volunteering causing more harm than good. As I was growing up there was a surge of orphanages that just came out of nowhere. Suddenly dozens of kids appeared in these places more or less overnight. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the kids were in need and had nowhere else to go. But just two years later, in those same organisations, the kids were gone. What was the story there? Well it turns out that the institutions were solely reliant on foreign donations. At some point it had obviously become a trend to donate to orphanages, and so setting one up became a business opportunity. I am talking about several orphanages, just in the vicinity where I grew up, each with dozens of kids. All of them both emerged and dissolved within the space of two years. So many questions arise from that. Where did those children come from? What happened to them when the organisations shut their doors? Why did the institutions have to close so suddenly? What happened to the funds they raised? To an extent this whole story is one of using human lives, children at that, as bait for money-making. That has to be one of the most unethical things that one could do. It is a classic example of good intentions, money, and privilege doing extreme harm in a recipient country, which doesn’t get the chance to choose whether these visitors come or not, or what mess they bring with them.
“After a couple of weeks they can head back home to their air-conditioned houses and their SUVs and branded clothing made by child slaves, and basically continue causing all the problems that are keeping the people here poor in the first place.”
Growing up in a culture that is so famed for resilience it is sad to see outside influences damaging that. I went to a remote area one year after the earthquake had hit and found that the fields were barren. I couldn’t get my head around it – why would people who grow things for their livelihood decide not to at such a time of crisis? Well the answer was that there was so much aid pouring in that they said they didn’t need to. Who wants to grow food when there is enough rice being flown in and handed out? I am not invalidating the struggle that these people faced, but ultimately their resilience was undermined. Aid has the potential to overpower and devastate. It can create an imbalance and weaken spirits. If you constantly make people believe that they need help they will make it their ethos in life. In the quest to empower people you disempower them. I actually dislike the term “empowerment” – it is based on the assumption that you are more powerful and the people you are helping are powerless.
I am not trying to say that all aid work or all NGOs are bad. But the bottom line with NGO work is that it is an industry that needs to feed itself – in Nepal we say that it is growing like a mushroom farm. NGOs are some of the most well off institutions, some of the most prestigious places to work for, they are the owners of the most expensive cars, they are the most foreign driven institutions. Why on earth would a woman from rural Nepal need a pasty white woman from the suburbs of New York to teach her about empowerment? It’s like force-feeding a child powdered milk made from fancy formulas when he was doing just fine with breast milk. Rural women in Nepal need to learn from women in their own context about what empowerment means here. I hope that all these initiatives from overseas coming to empower us start to realise this soon.
[Part Two of this article will be published on this blog next week!]
Rishi Bhandari is a lover of the mountains, adventures, and wilderness. He teaches international students on experiential education trips, mainly in his home country of Nepal, and has strong views on how education should be more student-led. He is a philosopher by nature and loves delving into the moral truths of people’s actions, which he often does through his spoken word poetry. The main photo shows Rishi in his happy place in the mountains (Gosaikunda, Nepal.)