It’s Time to Stop Treating Orphanages as Tourist Attractions

This is a guest post by human rights campaigner Meg Lewis.

Earlier this month an orphanage tourism taskforce was launched in the UK by ABTA and Hope and Homes for Children. The taskforce aims to halt the trend of well-meaning international tourists from visiting and volunteering in orphanages across the globe. This follows legislation passed in Australia last year which recognises orphanage tourism as a form of modern-day slavery. At first glance, it can be difficult to understand how volunteering in orphanages could be so harmful that it can be classed as modern-day slavery, which is why it is important to look at what drives the industry and how it impacts children.

Volunteering in orphanages has become a staple of the modern gap year experience, promising tourists an opportunity to ‘give back’, have a meaningful experience and build connections in local communities. Visitors or volunteers bring donations, watch children’s cultural performances, play with children, teach informal English lessons or visit as part of tours or independent travel. Orphanage visits make up travel itineraries alongside trips to the zoo and cooking courses – despite it being highly unlikely that they would be able to visit children’s homes in their home country in order to play with and take selfies with children.

Lumos, a non-profit organisation working to end the institutionalisation of children, estimate that 80% of the children living in orphanages worldwide have at least one living parent. So, what is driving the rapid increase in the institutionalisation of children? Evidence points firmly towards the increase in voluntourism. It is estimated that the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 76% in a five-year period, coinciding with a 76% increase in tourist numbers. Despite decreasing numbers of actual orphans in Cambodia, as orphanages emerge, so to do children to fill them.

The idea of volunteering in an orphanage in the Global South may seem like a worthy cause. However, altruistic intentions can obscure the much darker reality. The potential for orphanages to produce profit has been exploited by entrepreneurs, corrupt officials and organised criminal gangs. The demand for orphans to fill profit-making orphanages drives orphan trafficking, the process through which children are removed from their family and fabricated as ‘paper orphans’ through the production of fraudulent papers such as identity documents and death certificates of parents. ‘Paper orphans’ are produced through exploitation of desperate families and trafficking of children. Inequalities such as poverty and limited access to healthcare and education push families to make challenging decisions. Parents place children in orphanages in the belief that they will have improved access to healthcare, food and education, whilst reducing the financial burden of care within the household. Recruiters actively coerce families by tricking or luring them into signing over parental rights under false pretences.

Numerous international agencies broker volunteer experiences at orphanages with varying levels of fees and requirements. This means that many orphanages are run as businesses, prioritising profit over child welfare. Volunteers and visitors do not need specific skills or qualifications, nor are they required to have criminal record checks or references. The exposure of children to unscreened and unqualified international volunteers increases their risk of abuse and exploitation.

The links between modern-day slavery become much clearer when looking at the roles that children are expected to play in order to maintain the industry, such as performing and begging from tourists. Children in orphanages are often tasked with raising money for their own care or generating profit for orphanage directors. By turning orphanages into tourist attractions, children are expected to perform a role for tourists, sharing scripted narratives of their histories. Care leavers interviewed in the documentary The Love you Give said that staff told them that should volunteers learn that they have living families, money will be withdrawn, and with it the child’s care. Some orphanages send children into tourist areas to hand out flyers and tout for business. This role includes working on the streets late at night in outdoor bars and drinking areas, where children are vulnerable to multiple risks. In many orphanages, children are expected to put on nightly dance or cultural performances for visiting tourists, without pay or remuneration.

Rather than working to eliminate global inequalities, Western tourists volunteering in orphanages in the Global South actually reinforce unequal social relations between the global North and South. Voluntourism is a virtuous act, only available to the privileged, who can afford to travel internationally and work for free. Recipients of voluntourism do not have access to virtuous volunteering opportunities and must remain passive beneficiaries of charity. The voluntourism industry not only exploits racialised and class division between volunteers and recipients, it requires and reinforces it.

There is an inherent tension between economic gain and child-centred policies. Profit making orphanages obstruct the development of child-centred solutions such as community-based and foster care models. Child welfare should be considered separately from tourism and capitalist motives and situated within cultural contexts. Many different organisations and individuals are complicit in the exploitation of children through orphanage tourism, including entrepreneurs who set up for-profit orphanages and criminal gangs trafficking vulnerable children. But it is demand from tourists which fuels the industry and it would be negligent to downplay the complicity of tourists supporting the industry, regardless of their intentions.

Heeding advice from activists and NGOs, governments are beginning to clamp down on orphanage tourism. In 2009, the UN General Assembly endorsed guidelines which state that residential care should only be considered as a last resort and committed to the elimination of large institutions, indicating a new global direction. In 2018, Australia became the first country to recognise orphanage trafficking as a specific form of modern-day slavery. Following in Australia’s footsteps, the UK Department for International Development explicitly stated that it would not fund orphanages or institutions earlier this year. Along with many NGOs and charities, I welcome DFID’s commitment not to fund orphanages or institutions, but this is the beginning of complex conversations around ethical volunteer tourism which concerns children. Marketing short-term opportunities to volunteer directly with children, treats them as commodities and markets them as tourist attractions. Unqualified and unscreened volunteers are not able to pay to volunteer with children in the UK, why then should it be acceptable for them to volunteer with children in other countries?


Meg is a human rights advocate, focussing on workers’ rights, children rights and LGBTQ rights. Her background includes working to end sexual exploitation of children and young people in the UK and working with marginalised groups in Cambodia. She is particularly interested in the intersection between development, tourism and human rights. The featured image shows Meg doing research in rural Cambodia.

Am I Entitled to be a Tourist?

I sat near the window, sipping coffee and observing the workers outside as they loaded all of the luggage onto the plane. I watched intently as a young man in an orange vest heaved my two overweight suitcases onto the conveyor belt. My eyes followed those big, blue suitcases all the way up the belt, until they finally settled into the belly of the plane. Then I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and rested my forehead on the dirty glass window. All I could do now was wait for my boarding group to be called.

At just 23 years old, I’d already done my fair share of being a tourist. Although we rarely went on far-off, exotic trips while growing up, my parents always took us on one or two beach vacations in the summer, and occasionally on a family ski retreat in the wintertime. But it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally left North America; and, once I got my “adventuring” feet wet, I never looked back.

Over the course of four or five years, I hopped on flights to London, Italy, Ecuador, Mexico, and a few places in between. I had fallen in love with travel—it was so beautiful to immerse myself in another culture, to get out of my little, white, Georgia bubble and to see the world from a new perspective. Travel truly changed me: it widened my worldview, exposed me to new cultures, and increased my compassion. I even had the chance to live for extended periods in a couple of different Latin American countries, and it was those experiences that led me to this moment, where I sat alone in an airport, about to move to San José, Costa Rica for the next three years.

Sitting at the airport that day, watching my whole life being loaded onto the plane, I felt absolutely terrified. Yet, at the same time, I felt ready. I felt as if I knew what I was stepping into. I thought I knew exactly what to expect. Living in a place was just the same as traveling to a place, right?

Oh, if only I knew.

The moment I landed in San José, I went straight to the home of an incredibly wonderful host family, with whom I lived for the first six months of my journey. Predictably, the first few weeks felt like an exotic vacation. Everything was “new,” exciting,” and “adventurous.” But once the initial honeymoon was over, culture shock kicked into high gear pretty quickly. After the first few weeks, the frustration of not being able to communicate or get around freely was no longer “cute” or “exciting”; it was just exhausting. From the food to the routine to the accommodations of my new home, it all felt foreign.

When I tell people that I lived in Costa Rica, most of them respond with, Oh, that must have been incredible! It’s beautiful there! Well, yes, it is beautiful, but I wasn’t spending my days lounging on the beach or hiking through the mountains like a tourist. Instead, I was spending hours sitting at a bus stop in the middle of the city waiting for the crowded city bus to arrive. I was fumbling through conversations in Spanish with my host family, dealing with frequent blackouts and internet outages, trying to adjust to the new foods, and attempting to find my way to the grocery store without getting lost.

That’s the difference between life and travel: when you travel to a place, you get a glimpse of it. You maybe even get an authentic glimpse of it; but, then, after a week or two or three, you leave, and you don’t have to live in that reality anymore. When you live in a place, though, you can’t just leave when things get hard.

But the true beauty of living in a foreign culture is that you get the chance to know the place and the people for exactly who and what they are: real. You get to experience the good, the bad, and everything in between. You get to know the heart of a place and the culture within it. It’s not a holiday; it’s not something to consume and spit out after a week; it’s real life.

When I traveled during my college years, I had observed people. I watched their interactions, ate their food, faltered through conversations, and tried to engage with them. I even watched their habits and movements, often trying to copy them so as to avoid standing out as a tourist. But, no matter my good intentions, I never knew them, not intimately. I never experienced the daily routine of their lives. I never felt their hardships or shared in their joys. I never felt connected to the country or the people I was visiting. I was a tourist, an outsider, a temporary visitor, who was there to consume the experience for myself, and only for myself. And I certainly never knew, or even thought about, how my travel (whether service-oriented or simply for pleasure), actually affected the people around me.

But now here I was, living through the ups and downs of life with real people who had real struggles. I got to live in the reality that the majority of the world lives in: the reality that travel is a privilege and a luxury that most of the world does not get to enjoy, and that our privilege affects real people.

I had always felt that travel was something I was entitled to. Of course I should be able to travel and see the world, I thought. Of course I should get to go on exotic vacations and experience far-off destinations. It’s my right. Isn’t it?


Yet, while I sat upstairs in my room in my host family’s home, scrolling through Instagram or planning my next vacation or trip back to the U.S., my Costa Rican family was downstairs trying to figure out where their next paycheck was going to come from. By living in their daily reality, I was able to look my entitlement straight in the eyes, and to get to know the faces of the people that that entitlement affected. I’ll always remember the excitement on my host mom’s face when I casually asked her if she wanted to go to the beach with me one day over a weekend. Her look of surprise and sheer joy is one I will not soon forget. Driving to the beach was a regular occurrence for me, but, for her, it meant money and planning and transportation, all of which did not come easily.

Slowly, I started to see tourism through the eyes of a Costa Rican. Sometimes the interaction with tourists was extremely positive: after all, tourism brought much-needed business, jobs, and dollars to local communities. And, in many cases, it fostered positive interaction between locals and foreigners, who were eager to learn about Costa Rican culture, cuisine, and daily life. Yet, many times the interactions were overwhelmingly negative, most notably in places where tourists overcrowded and overburdened natural areas, littered beautiful beaches, furthered the demand for illegal activity, like drugs and prostitution. In some places tourists overran local towns and turned them predominantly into “expat communities.”

I even found myself beginning to take this behavior personally. I remember driving to the beach for the day and seeing a big group of tourists on spring break, behaving obnoxiously and walking around like they owned the place, and I thought to myself, Ugh. Gringos. It was rather hypocritical, I know, but I felt as though I had adopted Costa Rica as mine, and I cared for the people deeply. It hurt me to see their home disrespected.

Over the three years, I saw the power that travel possesses. Tourism has a huge effect on the people and places that we visit, and that effect has the power to be negative and harmful, or it has the power to foster positive, impactful cultural exchanges and to spur healthy development of local communities. It all depends on how and why we are traveling, and how much we are willing to walk into an experience humbly, with an eagerness to learn, not to teach.

*          *          *

So, three years after that initial plane ride, I sat near the window of a different airport, watching the airplanes land amidst the backdrop of lush, green mountains. I sipped my [much stronger] coffee, and I watched the excited faces of the people disembarking from the airplane. I thought of the young girl who had moved to this place so long ago with good intentions and little clue. And I thought about the various ways that my three years in Costa Rica had opened my eyes to some difficult realities. Those three years transformed me, and forever changed the way that I live, love, and travel. I learned the hard way that the responsibility to travel respectfully and mindfully is both powerful and heavy. And, ultimately, the responsibility lies in our hands.

How will you carry that responsibility?


Grace Klopp is a writer, adventurer, former expat, and graduate student, currently pursuing her Master’s degree in International Community Development. She also serves as the Communications Intern for the Center for Responsible Travel, a policy-oriented research organization dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of responsible tourism. She is passionate about the power of responsible travel to develop local communities sustainably around the globe. When she’s not working or studying, you can find her at the beach with her family and a novel in hand! Follow along with her on her blog, or on Instagram @geographyofgrace.The main photo shows a view from the window of Grace’s bedroom in Costa Rica.

You can meet both Grace and Learning Service author Claire at the CREST World Tourism Forum in DC on 27th September.

Why Communities of Color Don’t Need Saving

I walked into my first class and saw a room full of girls whose appearances closely resembled mine; dark hair, brown skin, and deep, energetic eyes.

I sat down at a table with some of them and didn’t say a word.

I noticed their eyes wandering around the room, anxiously waiting to meet their new American teacher.

I stood up, walked to the front of the class, and introduced myself. A wave of chattering that I couldn’t understand rushed throughout the room.

I went over to my coworker, and she told me the girls were expecting a blonde haired, green eyed woman. They were confused as to how I could be their teacher because I didn’t look “American”. This was in Morocco, but repeat this same scenario with details only slightly differing in both Nepal and Vietnam and this was the framework for my first days of class across countries during my post-high school gap year.

I had read about the concepts of “voluntourism” and the “white savior complex” in depth before I began traveling. However, this was the moment when I fully grasped their impact in local communities. I recognize that my experience as a brown Muslim woman who has done volunteer work in different countries provides a different perspective than what I had been used to hearing. I would often listen to inexperienced white Americans who had gone on mission trips or volunteered abroad reflecting upon their harmful experiences in countries portrayed as “exotic”, “impoverished”, and “in need of help”. However, this is not what occurred for me since our differences in identity created two very different realities for us.

When I was young, I thought light skin and straight hair was beautiful. Before the concept of “white savior” was even part of my vocabulary, I would read history books portraying the United States and other European powers as the ones who brought technology, education, and religion to other parts of the world. Teachers acknowledged slavery and war of course, but it wasn’t until I became older that they dissected and identified their lasting impacts on communities of color. My ancestor’s stories have been the ones buried and replaced with those of white intervention and the benefits of colonialism, causing me to have an empty connection with history unless I did my own research.

I remember going to the countries I was volunteering in, with the recognition that I was brown and many of my students were also brown. I wanted to show that success for them isn’t unattainable because they weren’t white and they didn’t come from a country of immense power, since my family didn’t either. I wanted to use my appearance as a method of empowerment, and my first interactions with all of my students showed how necessary this was. Yes, I am an American, but I am not the American that any of my students were expecting, and I am an American that none of them knew even existed.


So much of my work was listening, asking, and answering questions about myself and the communities I was in. As volunteers, we need to understand how crucial this is to build relationships in the communities we serve in. We cannot give them what they don’t ask for, we cannot provide off of empty promises, and we cannot expect to be of help just because of how we are perceived by the world. I recognize that we cannot be blind to taking advantage of our privileges of power and race when we travel to help.

Each person in the world has a unique set of skills and knowledge, and volunteers are special because they are the ones who are willing to offer what they have in the service of humanity. I have seen volunteers of every race, gender, and social status leave a sustainable and positive impact on the communities they served in. Imagine a diverse group of volunteers and the various skills and knowledge they each bring to the table if no two have the same experiences. There are many different ways to look at a problem, but also many different ways to solve it. This is how we should be shaping the way we look at ethical service.

I cannot say that I did everything perfectly as a volunteer. I had a lack of proper training, both culturally relevant and skill focused. I found myself in communities sometimes teaching what has already been taught, and I thought “If I wasn’t here, then someone else would be doing this worse than me, so they are lucky it’s me”, but this isn’t an excuse. It does, however, shed light on how volunteers find ourselves in places without the skills to effectively provide what is truly needed in communities. In situations like this, we can provide only what we know, which is often very limited, unsustainable, and can even be detrimental to the communities’ development.

I can simply state one difference between the mindset of a voluntourist and an ethical volunteer that I learned throughout traveling: I loved my students because I saw myself in them, not because I saw their lack of futures if it wasn’t for me.


Ambar Khawaja is a recipient of the 2018 Global Gap Year Fellowship through The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently finished her post-high school gap year, where she volunteered in three countries and traveled to eight others. Currently, she is a freshman at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and plans on studying international business with the hopes of opening an NGO.

“We Aren’t Just Vehicles for your Guilt and Privilege”: A View From Nepal (Part Two)

This is a guest post from Rishi Bhandari, a Nepali who grew up surrounded by international volunteers. For Part One of this post, see here.


Most of my work is with international students who come to Nepal, and the first thing I say to them is: “Please do not make any sweeping statements about this country or culture, either positive or negative, before you have learned anything about it.” Generalisations can be harmful – especially for a country as diverse as Nepal. We have extreme geographic diversity, enormous cultural diversity, religious diversity and so on. Oversimplifying is not very helpful.

Students tend to fall back on problematic platitudes such as “they are poor but happy.” I tell my students not to exoticise or stereotype the people here. It’s difficult because Nepal is always portrayed over-romantically in the media, as “a poor country nestled between the peaks of the high Himalayas,” some kind of Shrangri-La where you can achieve enlightenment.

I let students know that depending on what attitudes they foster, they have the potential to do more harm than good. Enabling students to understand their limitations is very important. Just because you have the privilege to come here doesn’t mean you have the tools to help. If everyone who wished to was able to make an impact, then the world would be a very different place. Making an impact requires more than just some good intentions and some money. Money itself does not have the power to solve problems.

Students who come to Nepal are confronted by their own privilege. That realisation is great and all, but it is only part of the picture. You might have material privilege but what about cultural privilege? To come with the attitude that “we are so privileged and you are so underprivileged” is already problematic. You come to a country where the cultural heritage can be traced back for millennia, where the community ties are powerful and strong, where spiritual values are deeply engrained – and you are the one who is privileged? Nepal has the privilege of an unbroken connection between people and land, that has not been scarred by genocide like in North America and Australia. So to enter a place with the notion that you are the privileged one and all these poor people don’t have access to the privilege that you do seems a little ignorant to me. Privilege has many dimensions to it. Instead we need to be asking “What kind of privilege do I have and what do I not, and what can be done about it?”

“To come with the attitude that “we are so privileged and you are so underprivileged” is already problematic.”

Let me tell you a story about how privilege can manifest itself in these situations. I was in a rural village in Nepal, leading a group of international students, and I was in the middle of teaching a lesson. A middle-aged white woman from the US shows up and just barges in, interrupting the lesson, and says: “We heard that your group had come here, and had to come so we could see some white faces.” Well, my face wasn’t white and she clearly hadn’t come to see me or the lesson I was teaching. I can assure you that no Nepali would have had so much disregard for the situation as to interrupt and forcefully introduce themselves, just for the sake of seeing white faces. To me it shows how invasive and damaging this mentality of entitlement can be.

The lady was in the village running a school. She told us the story of how she got there, starting with the words: “The first time I came to Nepal the poverty of the people crushed me, and I was deeply saddened by how poor the people were.” She then went on to talk about how she came back to the community several times and then decided to open a school. I don’t know anything about that school, maybe it is great and helping the community a lot. But here’s the thing – the whole time that that woman was talking, she did not mention a single word about how the community had had an impact on her. The fact that she could come to rural Nepal and be made to feel at home says a lot about the community who hosted her. This is a big missing piece in the idea of voluntourism – everyone feels like they have to talk about the impact that they make on the community, instead of talking about how the community has impacted them or enriched their lives.

I go back to the idea that there seems to be a spiritual and cultural void in the west that people are trying to fill through travelling to places like Nepal, and doing activities that make them feel good about themselves like volunteering. If they really analyse where this desire to help is coming from and what can be done to address it, they might realise that they have a lot to learn from Nepali people. That maybe when they come to do their service projects in Nepal that Nepal is actually serving them

Finally I did get some kind of acknowledgement from that lady, despite my lack of white face. She said to me: “Oh, you speak such good English! You must be very educated.” I said: “Well if teaching poetry to native English speakers means I have good English then I guess I do.” She didn’t know how to respond to that, I think because she couldn’t fit me into the narrative she had constructed. When white skin means “helpers” and brown skin means “to be helped”, a brown-skinned poetry teacher with white students just didn’t seem to compute.

“To do karma yoga you need to have the humility to do what is needed and not what you need.”

I don’t mean to deride or undermine the idea of doing service for others. In fact, Nepal has a strong cultural tradition of service, through concepts such as karma yoga, which is one of my favourite ways of understanding spirituality. Karma yoga can be understood as a selfless act dedicated towards the good of the world, not driven by self-interest or what you receive in return. It can be practiced through the most menial and despised tasks like dealing with trash or sewage, and therefore can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. It is said to be the most effective way of attaining liberation or enlightenment.

So in this way karma yoga is not like the kind of “service” projects done by people from the west, where you are on a pedestal, teaching or offering stuff to grateful recipients. Service is not done “to” someone else, it doesn’t disempower or create unequal power structures in the way that voluntourism does. We are talking about the kind of humble actions that gets dishes washed, that ploughs fields, that builds the fabric of society. Service is not one-off or one-way, done by givers to receivers, but is continually being done by everyone reciprocally.

To do karma yoga, humility is key. Are you willing to come to a place accepting that you might not have anything to offer and have everything to learn? In the long term you might be able to contribute something – but to do karma yoga you need to have the humility to do what is needed and not what you need. You might also find out that you are not needed. Are you willing to accept that? Just as much as your presence is valuable your absence can also be valuable. Karma yoga could also mean having the awareness to leave at the right time and not do things that only serve to feed your ego.

Ultimately, karma yoga is a means of personal self-discovery. The change created by your service may not be in the outer world, but may be deep within yourself.


This is ultimately why I admire and connect with the ideas in Learning Service – because humility is one of the central ideas. Learning service constantly reminds you that there is so much to learn, so you need to approach travel and service with a learning mindset. I see it as a process of decolonisation – both the colonisers and the colonised need to get away from the harmful attitude of the white man always coming to help.

I would have disagreed with Learning Service if it had critiqued these practices in the way that it does and then concluded that all volunteerism is useless. In fact I believe that volunteering can be incredibly powerful when done well. So what I like is that instead of writing off the noble intentions that often lie behind the urge to help, it asks you to take a deeper look at the complexities of why you want to do so, so that your decisions are better informed. And I like also that it calls you to action. Most of the literature in this space either villainises or glorifies overseas volunteering; Learning Service is just interested in improving the impact. It introduces that classic cycle of: Think-Learn-Analyse-Plan – then proceed with the final step of “Act” very carefully, before repeating. I’m glad that I have been introduced to this philosophy, as it captures my own thoughts very well, and now I have a resource that I can direct people to.

Ultimately, I know that the vast majority of volunteers who come to Nepal would be horrified at the thought of causing harm. But unfortunately the problems are so oversimplified and the idea of “saving” is so culturally engrained in those driven to volunteer that damage ends up being done. Learning Service challenges people to think differently and keeps them from falling into the same patterns, so they don’t propagate the same problems. I wish every volunteer had to read it before getting on a plane, the world would look like a very different place.


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 teaching a poetry class in his happy place, on a mountainside in Nepal.

“We Aren’t Just Vehicles for your Guilt and Privilege”: A View from Nepal (Part One)

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 has now been published and is here!]

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.)