Voluntourism: The Pitfalls of a Broken System

In our book, Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, we discuss the many pitfalls of volunteer travel that lead to tokenistic impact or downright harm. We are frequently asked how these pitfalls persist, being repeated by countless volunteers without the situation improving. Here we explore how the system is broken, and highlight the deep structural issues that need to be addressed.


Perverse Financial Incentives

“A lot of volunteer organizations make significant profit margins on their trips. It seems counterintuitive to claim to help communities around the world while keeping more than 50 percent of the money travelers pay in their home countries rather than sending it to the developing country. It’s important to realize that the trips that are easiest to sell (orphanage and kid projects) do the most damage long term despite their continuous portrayal by the media as being extremely beneficial. And because that is what people are buying, that is what many of these companies are selling.”

–    Alexia Nestora, former manager of a large volunteer travel company


Organizations overseas that host volunteers often do so for reasons other than the direct value of the service. Erin Barnhart’s research found that over half of the 248 hosting organizations surveyed worldwide identified revenue generation as a key potential benefit of hosting volunteers. This in itself is not a bad thing. After all, it costs money, staff time and energy to feed, house, and supervise volunteers, and if you want thoughtful educators and well-organized learning tools as part of your program, it all adds up.

But paying fees to “do good” can also foster serious problems. The act of paying significant sums of money can immediately shift the traveler’s perspective from being a volunteer offering time to a consumer paying money for an experience. We all have experience being consumers every day—if we pay for a product or service, we expect a certain level of quality in return, equivalent or greater in value to what we paid. Once something has a price tag, we start comparing based on price: Where can I get the best value for my money? Would I get a better deal somewhere else? Inherent in those questions is the belief that the value of the experience is wrapped up in the price tag. Imagine there was no price tag on any volunteer trip—comparing value would take on a whole new meaning. People might start comparing the value of the work the organization provides to local communities or the depth of the learning experience. Understanding the impact of a volunteer trip requires a lot more work than comparing price tags, so volunteer travel companies often compete solely on price.

Once volunteers pay fees and view themselves as consumers, they might also think they have the right to demand the experience they want. Many volunteers think they have a right to “have it their way”: they don’t want the work to be too hard, they want a feeling of satisfaction at the end, and they want to get to take flattering selfies to document their good deeds. This paradigm can be accentuated when the fee is not paid directly to the hosting organization, but to a middleman such as a sending organization or travel company. Travel companies treat volunteers as their clients, serving them what they are demanding and paying for. In a volunteer experience, who should the real “client” be? The travelers, or the communities, clinics, and schools featured in the advertising brochures?

When companies compete on price, they may not have the resources, ability, or willingness to measure impact, enhance volunteers’ learning, or improve their offerings. Instead, there is an incentive to cut corners and to invest money and staff time in marketing to increase the quantity of paying volunteers. And because volunteers are comparing based on price rather than impact, there is less incentive to invest in improving the quality and effectiveness of the programs being offered. None of this correlates well with volunteering that responds to an important community need.

In addition, some host organizations have more demand for their programs than they can easily deal with. But turning down paying customers in turn means less money in their pockets, so they may accept more applicants than they can handle, often without a meaningful screening or selection process.


Demand for Short-Term and “Fun” Volunteer Experiences


Demand for volunteer experiences disproportionately leans towards short-term, hands-on, “exciting” types of volunteer experiences (such as playing with children) that can be coupled with an adventure holiday. When there is high demand and people willing to pay high prices, there will always be enterprising and sometimes unscrupulous individuals who seek to make money by offering these kinds of experiences.

The increase in demand has led to an increase in supply of shorter, more tokenistic volunteer experiences without much quality control. With the rise of the internet and the ability to quickly scan through options, you can go online and within minutes, you can click on a volunteer trip, pay, and be signed up to “help”—no questions asked. This has fueled the increase in programs that are at best mismanaged, and at worst, exploitative. Short-term programs with an emphasis on fun often skip the important aspects of orienting and training volunteers, finding appropriate placements, or making sure volunteers have a meaningful learning experience.


Backwards Project Planning

During my time in Cambodia, a number of mainstream travel companies reached out to me, interested to learn about volunteer vacations. ‘We need to start offering these experiences,’ one travel company owner told me, ‘as our clients are demanding it and all of the other companies have already started offering half and full-day volunteer options at orphanages, schools, and building sites. Where can I find a school to send them to?’”

–    Daniela Papi-Thornton, quoted in the Learning Service book


Volunteer travelers usually make the assumption that the work they are going to do is needed and has been requested by the community or organization – a model that looks something like this:

In reality, for a great number of voluntourism projects, this process is completely reversed, with the demand for volunteer projects shaping the supply, even to the point of superfluous tasks being made up for volunteers.

An organization may give work to volunteers simply because it is appealing, easily accomplishable, or has a “feel-good factor.”  Increasing literacy rates, for example, is a goal that involves changes in human behavior and education systems, which usually requires long-term efforts and resources. An organization working on root causes of illiteracy through advocacy for free primary education might feel pressure to add a project that volunteers can easily work on, such as building a library. That “solution” may look impressive, but is not necessarily a contribution to the long-term goals.

A frequent observation of returning volunteers is that they feel their time abroad wasn’t as valuable to their hosts as it was to themselves. There is nothing wrong with this outcome: it is honest and healthy to acknowledge the limits to how much you have helped. However, many volunteers reported that the work they were asked to do seemed designed to fit the restrictions of a short-term visit rather than to provide lasting benefit. As well as wasting time, this can actually steer local organizations’ staff and other resources away from addressing root causes.


Broken Feedback Loops Reduce Accountability

“I watched groups of well-intentioned but bumbling volunteers pass through and work on programs that ranged from poorly planned and executed to unnecessary to foolish to (occasionally) somewhat engaging and helpful. As the one volunteer who was there throughout this whole process, I had the privilege of seeing all of these people make the same mistakes and express the same paternal attitudes, with no way to pass on the lessons learned or share feedback with the next group.”

–     David McMichael, volunteered for one year in Ghana


When you buy a smartphone, if it is clunky to use, has poor sound quality, or doesn’t come with the advertised features, you can return it. Furthermore, you might post your critique on social media, to help others avoid the product. Your feedback may even prompt the manufacturer to make improvements to the next model. In essence, you vote with your money—this feedback loop is how you make responsible choices. In volunteer travel, that feedback loop is broken.

You might expect that once a handful of volunteers have negative experiences in a placement, suspect corruption, or realize that their work is ineffective, other potential volunteers would catch on and offer their time, money, and energy elsewhere. Unfortunately, the volunteer travel field suffers from a lack of transparency. When choosing a placement, volunteers usually have little information to go on except for an organization’s own marketing materials, and as we explore in the Learning Service book, the quality of marketing materials does not always correlate positively with the quality of the impact. (In fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite.)

One cause of this broken feedback loop is the difficulty volunteers have in seeing the long-term impact of their work on a project or community. The projects they participate in are far from their home and in an unfamiliar culture, and volunteers usually don’t stay long enough to be able to see or understand the deep-rooted goals of the community. In addition, individual volunteers are just a tiny part of a much larger ecosystem of aid, the globalized economy, development, and community self-help. In the majority of cases we have encountered, volunteers were not aware of the full impact of their volunteer work, positive or negative.

Compounding this issue is the lack of organized structure for the collection and use of relevant feedback. Typically, sending organizations collect feedback on logistics, such as food and accommodation, and on volunteer satisfaction levels, but the volunteers themselves aren’t usually in a position to give feedback on long-term impact, given their short-term stay. Simply asking volunteers their opinions about whether they helped the community is not a realistic way to assess the value of what they did. The hosting organizations might be asked to evaluate a project’s impact, but it is often hard to understand how or whether the volunteers contributed to that impact. Moreover, there may be reason to overstate the impact of volunteers in order to ensure more funding in the future. Very rarely do volunteers receive honest feedback directly from the local community about whether their work is needed or sustainable.


Fortunately, these problems do not apply to all forms of volunteer travel, with a good number of responsible volunteer providers now responding to these issues. As more light is shed on bad practice, increasing numbers of travelers are demanding transparent and ethical providers, and so the landscape is slowly changing.

If you are interested in volunteering, but want to be sure to make responsible decisions, please check out the Learning Service book!

5 Tips for Communication Across Culture and Difference

This post is written by our good friend and intercultural competency expert, Emily Braucher of Refresh Communication, with some ideas on how travelers and volunteers can ensure they engage in mindful communication across cultures and settings.


1. Don’t trust your gut. Use your judgments as information, not facts.

Trust your instinct when it comes to safety, but not when it comes to communicating across culture. Our instincts are derived from our experiences. The experience of growing up in France is extremely different from growing up in South Africa. When the context is either obviously or subtly different, the instinct will mislead you and your reading of someone’s intention or message could be quite off. Instead of thinking about your judgments as facts, think of them as information or clues. For example, I may find myself thinking, “This person is talking loudly, waving their arms and getting close to me. Man, they are totally out of control. I can’t trust them.” Instead of believing the assessment that you cannot trust them, appreciate the information that thought is giving you. “This person is talking loudly, waving their arms and getting close to me. Man, they are totally out of control. I can’t trust them. What does that tell me about how I have learned to trust people? Maybe their nonverbals mean something else, like they really care what we are talking about right now.”


2. We communicate the way we have been taught, not because it is inherently right.

Anything that feels “normal” to us has been taught to us at some point. Probably when we were really young. Our baseline sense of normalcy is the basis for our “shoulds.” For example, as someone from the United States, it feels normal to me to look to the left first when crossing the road. I would tell most people they “should” always look to the left first. To a person from Japan, it feel normal to look to the right first. The creation of normal is a simple process of conditioning in response to our environment that produces a compelling, embodied sense of normalcy. This holds true in communication. We find ourselves thinking, “This person should be more forthcoming, this person should be more sensitive, this person…” you get the idea. Whenever you hear yourself wanting someone to communicate in a different way that would feel more comfortable and normal for you, take that simply as information on your culture and upbringing. Then remember your goal or intention of talking with them. Instead of focusing on trying to make someone else communicate in a way that feels “right” to you, refocus on your goals and get creative.


3. Laugh with the misunderstandings

News flash: we are not supposed to understand how to function in another culture. The system is set up for us to be experts in our own national culture, but once we go abroad, we are like children learning a new skill. Since you are not suppose to be good at it, give yourself a break and laugh when you make a mistake! It helps ease the pressure and brings back the playful aspect of learning something new. You will be surprised how forgiving people are of you as well.


4. Be curious

All humans have a drive to know what is happening: how does the movie end? What comes next? How do I fit in? Yet the moments of not knowing what is happening are also the moments where we are the most open to the unexpected, the edge of our understanding, where we stand at the brink of a radically new way of seeing the world. When you find yourself not understanding someone’s way of being, be curious. What more do you not know? Instead of rushing to make sense of the situation in your current lens, become curious and see how your world expands.


5. Assume positive intent

It happens to the best of us: we start to think people want to take advantage of the foreigner. We become jaded and skeptical. It is not uncommon to be taken advantage of at times: people might ask you to pay a bit more or hold you to a different standard as a foreigner. Here is the challenge though: can you take each new interaction with a new person by starting with a blank slate? When you begin by assuming their intent is positive (maybe they do just want to invite you to dinner and do not want anything in return) you may find that the ground for cross-cultural connection grows around you. If you become jaded from a few negative experiences which hinder your willingness to engage with others, you will be hard pressed to find the type of inspiring connections that will warm your heart and fill your stories for years to come.


Emily Braucher is the founder of Refresh Communication, an intercultural competency and communication training company. Emily provides keynote talks and workshops guide participants to a deeper awareness of self and equip them with tools to navigate challenging intercultural interactions and relationships. She is endlessly passionate about helping people connect across differences in communication styles, cultural values and power statuses. Her work draws upon cutting edge brain research to provide evidence-based tools that help people function at their best.


“I Was the Child You Played With”: A Life on the Streets and in an Orphanage [Part Three]

Our last two blog posts have been the inspirational life story of Sushil Babu Chhetri (here and here). In this post we asked Sushil to give us his candid thoughts on some of the issues he touches upon in his story.


Much of your childhood was spent in orphanages. Do you think this is a good way to care for children? Why? What impact did it have on your life?

I grew up in two very different orphanages – one was corrupt and exploitative, the other was trying its best to care for the children. But in the context of Nepal, even the concept of an orphanage makes no sense – they shouldn’t have to exist at all. Families here are big and live close together. We also live in mutually-supportive communities, where neighbours help out neighbours. Why, then, can’t we support a kid in need? Why should it be some white person’s responsibility to take care of them?

The child trafficking that is currently happening in Nepal is extremely damaging. It looks good in some ways – children that lack opportunity in remote areas get given food, clothes and education – but in the long term, children are being mentally, emotionally and physically harmed. I know it myself. After being raised like that it is hard for me to build relationships, it is hard for me to integrate back into my family, hard for me to understand my own culture.

It is also irresponsible for people to start an orphanage as a private enterprise when they don’t have the money to keep it going. We know what a difficult task it is for a family to raise two children well, so how do they expect to care for 50 of them, of all different backgrounds, cultures, personalities and all with different needs and problems? They just start it and are completely dependent on finding donors. The orphanages are all started in the tourist areas hoping that tourists will want to support it and volunteer there. But they are literally risking the lives of children doing that – hundreds of children from remote areas are taken away from their families on the chance that they will be able to make enough money from passing travellers to support them. It is simple – if you don’t have enough money to run an organisation for the long term, don’t do it.

In the event of there being a child who really has no-one, who can’t be supported by their family or community for whatever reason – well, the government already has institutions set up for those cases. We need institutions that follow the proper guidelines, with trained staff who understand child psychology, where children get proper care and access to psychological support. Children in orphanages are already messed up and vulnerable, you can’t just treat them like normal kids. People who start orphanages as private businesses don’t understand this, they play with children’s emotions and futures just to get support. Honestly, if you want to be a real charity worker and do something good for society why don’t you clean the plastic up from the streets? That would have a real impact.


You left home of your own free will at a very young age, but this is quite an unusual situation. Can you tell us about the situation of orphanage trafficking in Nepal?

There were orphanages in Nepal in the past, but they were generally run by the government and were mainly for real orphans or kids that needed special care. The civil war that started in the late 90s messed this up. Parents were scared of keeping their kids in the villages so looked for ways to keep them safe by sending them to cities. They were easy prey for traffickers who said they could offer their children a better life. Many of the kids that I grew up with had fake death certificates for their parents. It was a time of war and the government in remote areas was barely functioning, so fake papers were easy to come by. It was too dangerous for the local authority workers to stay in the provinces so they lived in the city, and had no idea who had actually died and who hadn’t. Some of the parents knew about the fake papers, seeing it as necessary to get their kids to safety, many others had no clue. But the kids knew that they had parents and were threatened into staying quiet about it.

At that time the big incentive for traffickers to get hold of children was international adoption. It was big business – children were literally sold to foreigners for $40-50,000. The traffickers knew what they were doing – they would claim a kid to be orphaned or abandoned, put a blurry photograph in a newspaper to check that no-one would claim the child, then send them abroad with new parents. But in these remote villages, in war time, when the parents were illiterate – who was even going to get hold of that newspaper, let alone recognise their child? Fortunately after a few high profile cases in the media the trafficking rings were discovered and international adoption was banned.

This wasn’t the end of the problem though, the traffickers just got cleverer. They worked out a new business model. These days the traffickers take money from the parents, claiming it to be school fees. They convince parents that their kids will have a better life in the city. Then there is the religious model – Christians taking children to be converted in churches, Buddhists taking them to monasteries, Hindus, Muslims – all taking kids, all collecting money from volunteers and tourists. In my home area of Surkhet there are hardly any children left in poor families, they have all been taken by one institution or another. No matter the business model, the victim is always the kids.

This is still a huge problem to this day. Despite all the awareness-raising that has been done, all the articles and documentaries, the problem is growing. People have been talking about the problem of street children for about 30 years now, but the issue remains unsolved. Same thing with orphanages. If we really want to stop kids from being trafficked there are two things that we need to do – the first one is to make the parents aware of the situation, so they can make an informed choice. The second one is to raise awareness amongst the volunteers and donors. Basically it is the volunteers who are creating the demand. The volunteers want to play with kids so the traffickers will bring kids to them. If there were no volunteers, no money coming in, no donations, there would be no demand and the traffickers would not go to all that effort to collect children.

I feel like it is the job of big NGOs to bring real awareness about this. The time has passed for just donating stuff as a solution. The NGOs need to coordinate a real campaign for the people, maybe using celebrities and TV, and they need to go to the local authorities in villages to prevent this from happening. We can’t just have NGOs talking to other NGOs about it.


You talk about interactions with volunteers while you were in the orphanage. What are your feelings towards people who decide to volunteer in orphanages?

Well here’s an example. I was living in an orphanage when I was around 14 or 15, and a 17-year old girl came to the orphanage. She had no orientation to the culture here and was wearing completely inappropriate clothes, and we couldn’t do or say anything to her. She stayed just a few days. How could we respect her as our teacher? The volunteers would bring us stuff, but it was the stuff they wanted to give us rather than the stuff that we wanted or needed. We were always in clothes that didn’t fit, that didn’t match our own identity, and that were from a culture totally alien to ours. We were also never able to question this, we just had to follow. I felt that the volunteers were either coming without their brain or without any respect for us, I’m not sure which.

The thing is, any white person can get into an orphanage. All they need is their skin colour as a free pass and they will be welcomed with open arms. Junkies, drug addicts, paedophiles, hippies without anything better to do. I meet so many tourists in Thamel these days, high on LSD or other drugs, and I ask them what they are doing here, and they all say “Oh I volunteer in an orphanage, I am here to play with kids.” Is this really what they think vulnerable children need? They think that we are unable to just play on our own with our friends? I doubt they are thinking about what we need, they just want to satisfy their own needs.

And then there is the issue of attachment disorders. Speaking to you honestly, most of the boys I grew up with don’t know how to interact with women. It’s because they missed their mother’s love, they didn’t learn how to give and receive love from their mum. Now when I am trying to build a relationship with a girl, I don’t even know how to feel and express my emotions. I’m not trying to be bad or mess people around, I just can’t connect to those emotions so I end up wearing a mask. I think what happened is that when I was younger I felt real love for the volunteers that would come, but after a while of them coming and going and never coming back, I stopped being able to feel emotions for them anymore. I learned to not feel things deeply, to never give 100%. I would just smile with a fake smile and not expect anything from them, to protect myself from being hurt. Can you imagine what it feels like to email a volunteer who said they love you and not receive any reply? I lost respect for the volunteers, and in the process I lost respect for people in general. Now when people say they love me I feel suspicious, I wonder “is this love or just sympathy?”


You have said that you think orphanage care negatively impacts on children. How have you seen this manifest in the lives of people you grew up with?

One boy who was with me in the orphanage growing up resented his parents so strongly for what they did to him. He felt like they didn’t love him, that they sold him. He was reunified with them but he couldn’t feel any connection to them. He felt that they just wanted stuff from him. His parents wanted him to get a job and earn money for them – they would say “You studied for all these years in Kathmandu and now you don’t have a job?” So this guy fell in with a bad crowd and ended up stealing a lot of money. He was arrested and was sent to jail. His parents came to visit him at the jail to see if they could support him or bail him out. But he just told them to go and to leave him there. He said “Half of my life was spent eating rice from white people, I can spend the other half of my life eating rice from the government.” Partly that could have been true, but partly it could have been him trying to be a responsible kid for his parents – kind of letting them off the hook, telling them not to waste their money on him. He just feels his life is totally worthless.

There are also lots of street kids and orphanage kids suffering with mental health issues. One 13-year old girl committed suicide. Imagine what trauma she must have gone through to reach that conclusion at the age of 13. I am still in touch with her sister, she writes to me from time to time. I think the main side effects of our childhood are still to come – we are all still young. There are not many like me, who have been able to throw it off and get free of it. Even I have a lot of psychological effects. I feel unable to love, I have some unrealistic expectations, I dream about an angel coming to rescue me. It’s because we grew up being so dependent on outside support, eating other people’s rice and not even thinking for ourselves.


What advice do you have for people wanting to come to Nepal to volunteer in an orphanage?

My advice would be to really think about what you want to achieve through volunteering. Do your research first, and come up with a project plan that will actually make some difference rather than just what makes you feel good. In other words, don’t just come to play with kids, think of the long term impact. Consider this – would you allow any random stranger to come and play with your kids? Of course you wouldn’t.

If you want to volunteer, there are many other issues that Nepal faces that you can have a bigger impact on. For example, rebuilding after the earthquake, cleaning trash off the streets, or teaching in a school and staying for a long enough time to make a difference. Playing with kids is never going to change anything,

Sushil Babu Chhetri  is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His films include Flowers in the Dust and Letter to God. He is also an activist campaigning on behalf of children living on the street and in orphanages. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram.

“I Was the Child You Played With”: A Life on the Streets and in an Orphanage [Part Two]

In Part Two of his emotional recounting of his life story, Sushil Babu Chhetri talks about how he escaped an abusive orphanage and found his way into the work he does today. (Find Part One here!)



Our chance to escape the orphanage involved an American family who lived nearby. One day the lady of the house was out on her morning walk and I decided to be bold and ask if we could play in her grounds – they had a huge compound with a pool and everything. She said yes and we started going every day. Their two security guards were very friendly to us and even started teaching us basic stuff like the alphabet.

The lady told us that she wanted to improve the conditions of the orphanage, so I saw my chance. I decided to trust her and tell her the real story of what was going on there, which I did through a translator. She then helped me go to the authorities and make a formal statement to the government child welfare board about the abuse we had suffered too. I wanted the place to be shut down.

I knew the owner would find out soon and I wanted to run away, but I felt that I couldn’t do that without bringing the other kids with me. One day at night, around 1am, the orphanage owner dragged me from bed saying that he knew about the reports I had made. He beat me up, then kicked me out of the orphanage onto the street. I was alone and crying, and as it was winter it was freezing cold. The only place I could think of to go was the house of that American family. The security guard took me in and let me keep warm with him until the morning when we could approach the American lady. I told her “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK, I’ll just go back to the street where I was before. But please do something for those other kids. They wouldn’t survive on the street.”

That lady was so kind to me. She begged me not to go back to the street but to come with her to an organisation called The Umbrella Foundation. I found out that because of my complaints, the wheels had been set in motion for the kids to be rescued from that bad orphanage. Umbrella was working with the government to close my old orphanage down and take the children in. I went to Umbrella and they had heard about me, and immediately offered me a home and even the chance to go to school if I wanted. At the age of twelve I felt too big to start in Class One, so I said I could teach myself – like improve my English by talking to the donors and staff, or learn computer by hanging out in the office. I was given loads of opportunities, and I became close to the staff working there pretty quickly.


My main priority was ensuring the children from my old corrupt orphanage got out of there. By the time the legal permission had been granted for Umbrella to rescue the children, the owner had moved the orphanage several times to avoid being caught. I led the effort to trace them, and it took me six months. We found them in a tiny, filthy place in the tourist area of Freak Street. Eighteen kids were living in one room; it had a naked woman painted on the wall, the drinking water was dirty and all the children were suffering from diseases such as typhoid.

The orphanage owner was sent to jail, but he came out immediately due to his connections. As soon as he was out he started a new orphanage – it is like his trade, and he can make good money from it. He still has an orphanage to this day. In fact, all the same faces are still in the business. Orphanage owners that have their places closed down just start new ones, they are never really punished.



Umbrella found sponsors for me and the other 18 children. I still believe that they did the best they could for the kids – they gave us the best food, the best clothes, the best sports programmes, the best chance for education. The main thing that Umbrella got right is that they listened to the kids. Of course there were sometimes problems – but when there were, the children got to have a say.

It was my choice to not go to school – in fact I asked Umbrella if I could have a job there, even though I was a kid myself. They agreed as they needed someone to help out with the new children they had just rescued – as I said, the kids were all sick and needed long term medical treatment. They were also very scared and finding it difficult to trust someone new, so they were delighted to see a familiar face. So I was given the job to accompany the new children to all their hospital appointments, and it worked because Umbrella trusted me and so did the kids. My role continued after our children were better as Umbrella rescued children from other bad orphanages so there was always someone needing to go to the hospital. It is how I developed close bonds with all the children there, because I was the one to accompany them when they were very sick. Still to this day the kids from Umbrella see me as a helper for them, they still call me up for support and advice.

Umbrella was like a big open school for me. My job was to do introductions for new volunteers and give them a tour, which I liked as I got to learn all about different cultures. I was also able to develop my interest in film by playing around with cameras, and in 2007 I made my first movie, which was a short documentary film about Umbrella. I also got a great insight into what was happening in Nepal at that time and where the kids were coming from. It slowly came out that from all the children looked after by Umbrella – over 300 of them – hardly any of them were true orphans. It started to become clear that the children were victims of a well-organised trafficking ring that separated children from their families to make them seem destitute.

Umbrella connected with another organisation called Next Generation Nepal and decided that the best option for the children was to reintegrate them back into their families. So this became another part of my job – trying to trace relatives and map out where the children were from. It was a long process of interviewing families and looking for leads.

It was clear to me that there were disadvantages to bringing up children in an institution instead of allowing them to be with their families. A lot of the kids were quite messed up. Some of them started to be very demanding and a little negative – Umbrella had given them a lot but they still wanted more and more. I heard some of them say things like “we used to think that the only reason we get money is because of the organisation, but now we realise that the only reason the organisation gets money is because of us.” I really didn’t like this entitled attitude – Umbrella was not the same as most of these other corrupt places – but I could see it from both sides and was often the mediator between the staff and a disgruntled child. One thing that became clear to me is that keeping children in institutions isn’t good for their mental health, and that sending them back to their families was the best option.

At this time I started to realise how different my situation was. I had not been trafficked, I had come to the city on my own and had grown up on the street. Somehow in my quest to see how big the world was I had made my world so small. I grew tired of having to repeat the same story to all the donors that came through the organisation. I decided that this was not my world and I headed back to the streets of Thamel. I was seventeen.



I came back to the streets with nothing. Initially I was confused – I had come out of a place that was strictly regulated to a place that had no rules. But I was happy for the freedom. I had almost forgotten my family, though in the back of my mind was always this idea that I had to make something of myself before I could go back to them. I decided to rent a camera with the little money that I had and make a movie about my friends I had left on the street. I went down to the slum area of Kalimati where the families sent their children out on the streets to collect plastic and beg. Actually as there are new tourists every day the kids make good business begging. I made a film with the footage that I called “Flowers in the Dust”.


I never wanted to be an NGO worker. I knew I belonged to the street and always had a strong urge to help and give something back, but after experiencing the orphanage industry and the way fundraising works I refuse to get too involved in any particular NGO. Most of the people working in NGOs have never been desperate and have never lived on the streets, so they have no ability to empathise with the people they are helping. I know what it feels like and so never judge.

After making the film about the Kalimati slum I joined up with some other friends to sponsor some kids to attend school. It wasn’t that their parents couldn’t afford it, just that they made more money begging. But with a very modest amount of money, we got 50 kids off the street and into school. There was even an article written about our work, “Miracle in Kalimati.” Even though I said I didn’t want it, I had become a social worker. It was pretty challenging for me as I didn’t have a fixed address at that time, I was still partially on the street, partially crashing at friends’ houses. So after six months I transitioned the programme to a registered NGO that could give the children ongoing support.

One thing that used to play on my mind was that half the kids at Umbrella were from the same part of the country that I was from – the Karnali region. It’s an extremely remote and poor area. I was shocked to find that out – it makes sense for kids from closer poor areas to end up in Kathmandu but Karnali is weeks of travel away. I realised that doing things to help children on the street was not really tackling the root cause, we needed to be supporting children to have opportunities in their home regions.

I reconnected with my family eventually when I was 18. I maintain that I have a great family – I have no bad feelings towards them at all. I always say that the problem was with me and not them. When I went back I found out that I have a brother – neither of us knew that the other existed when I first went back. He is now living with me and I try to guide him as a big brother should.

My main passion these days is raising awareness about these social issues in my country. I use my videos and I have been running educational workshops. It can sometimes get tiring to tell my story over and over, but if it can stop child exploitation then I am ready to repeat it a million times.


If you have enjoyed reading Sushil’s story, next week on the blog we will be publishing a question and answer session with him. Please send any questions for Sushil to the Learning Service contact address or post them in the comments.

Sushil Babu Chhetri  is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His films include Flowers in the Dust and Letter to God. He is also an activist campaigning on behalf of children living on the street and in orphanages. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram.

“I Was the Child You Played With”: A Life on the Streets and in an Orphanage [Part One]

In this moving guest post, Sushil Babu Chhetri shares his life story of growing up on the streets and then in an orphanage in Kathmandu, and how volunteers often unwittingly played a role in his life.



I was born in a village in far west Nepal – a remote area near a jungle. There was just my mum, my dad and me when I was born, I had had two siblings but they had died in infancy. My family wasn’t bad to me – although of course we had some problems. My father was alcoholic, and behaved irresponsibly towards the family. He never harmed me or my mum, but he was harming himself. I ended up spending most of my early childhood with my mum.

I was only young but I had a deep feeling that I didn’t belong there. My parents tried to make me go to school but I didn’t want to go, I didn’t feel like I could learn anything there. Instead I would do more creative things. There was a time when I tore up a book to make a TV screen so I could pretend I was in a movie. I made a frame from pipes and used the book pages as rolling images and put a radio behind the screen – I even started charging the other village kids to come and watch the show, as there wasn’t a real TV in the village. My dad punished me for that. It wasn’t until much later when I understood the importance of that book – he had been trying to make good and had got his first ever job. The book was for his work.

One day I asked my mum: “What is beyond that hill?” The hill was at the edge of the village. My mum just shrugged and said she didn’t know. Mum had never been to the market, which was two hours walking from our house. In fact, she had never even left the village. I was just seven or eight years old, and I wanted to see what was there.

I left with the intention of coming back. I had no money when I left. I walked over the hill that I was curious about and I just kept on walking. I somehow made it to the provincial city which I now know to be 86 kilometres away. I saw the lights and big buildings and I felt excited, I felt that should be there. So I found a job working in a hotel and spent about a month there.

I heard there was a bigger town that was called Kathmandu, and that that is where the celebrities from the TV were. I was a little bit obsessed with TV at this time, so when I heard about it I thought that might be my place. So I managed to get a ride in a bus going there, as I was friends with the people who worked on the buses. I arrived on the day the king was killed, when there was trauma and chaos on the streets. But to me Kathmandu looked like a dream place – with all its lights and tall buildings. I thought I had found my place in the world.



The spell soon wore off when I realised that I had nowhere to go. I ended up on the street in the tourist area of Thamel. The first month was particularly hard – I had no English language, I had no skills to sell or ways to find work. I was also initially scared to see all the white people wandering around, I had never seen a white person before. I remembered that my mum had told me to be careful around white people as they will kill you, put you into a machine and turn you into oil. But after a short time of avoiding them I realised that most of them were nice. They sometimes gave me money when I asked, and when they did they would give me dollars, which I realised were worth a lot.

Life on the streets was really hard, especially for a small kid like I was. You had to be in a gang just to survive, but the gangs were extremely violent. I have scars all over my head from when I have been beaten or cut. I am not an aggressive person, so I never hit anyone, not even in retaliation. I decided not to join a gang but it left me extremely vulnerable. I had to find somewhere to sleep and that was tricky as the gangs protected each other at night. I found a spot and a way to stay warm by wrapping myself inside my clothes, but every night the kids in the gangs would steal my money, even from inside my jacket. So my next idea was that I wouldn’t sleep at night. I would beg all night and then go to a park in the daytime to sleep, returning to Thamel only at night.

I used to collect half finished cigarettes from the ground and smoke them just to stay warm. Most of the other kids were always high on glue – I tried it but I realised quickly that it wasn’t for me. Many of those kids that were on the streets with me at that time are already dead, some of them from overdose. Others are now living with HIV, and one of the gang leaders, whom I still talk to from time to time, is schizophrenic.

I had very close encounters with paedophilia, although luckily I never had anything happen to me. Friends of mine talked about it as an easy way of getting money. I met a British guy who would bring me to his house, but there was something in the way he would touch me that I didn’t like. He told me that he wanted to adopt me so I would live with him, but my intuition told me something was wrong so I didn’t take him up on it.

I tried to keep myself clean and tidy as much as possible. I would find a way to shower and wash my face even when I was sleeping rough. I had come to the city so that I could return to my mum as a big guy with money, and say: “Hey, look what I have become!” – I didn’t want to show up empty handed. So it was clear in my mind not to get involved in gangs, sex or drugs. Instead I learned other skills from the street, like a few words of English to talk to the tourists. I looked so clean and presentable that I would tout myself as a tour guide. I could only say a few words, basically “Hello sir, do you need a guide?”, but I was still tiny and cute, so I would lead the tourists to the sites silently and at the end they would buy me something like shoes or a jacket.

I was a kid, and I had a kid’s mentality. I didn’t know any better. When I look back on these times sometimes I hate myself now.

After some time I felt completely broken by the streets, and like I didn’t want to be there anymore. I met a Canadian woman who used to hang out with some of the bad boys on the street, and I approached her asking if she would adopt me. I told her a bit of my story and showed her the wounds on my head. She asked me if I would like to go to a safe place to be with other children, and I said yes, so she took me to the orphanage.



When I first went to the orphanage I thought all my dreams had come true. The dorm rooms had simple bunk beds in them, but I was just excited to have a bed to sleep in at all, and some food to eat. But after I settled in for some time I started to see through it and realise what was happening. The other kids in the place were younger than me, and they had also been conditioned to it. But I had grown up on the streets and was sharper and more independent.

The children in the orphanage were treated really poorly. One kid of about seven years old used to pee in the bed at night, and I can’t even begin to explain the extreme levels of punishment he used to receive for it. The health conditions of the place were appalling – some of the girls had Hepatitis B and were not treated for it. On top of that, there was not enough food, so we were sent out to beg at the market where we would get given old and rotting vegetables.

We were forced to attend churches and temples of different religions as they were giving us money or rice. I remember we went to church on Sunday and a Hindu organisation on a Thursday and that the mosque was also donating to us. We had to pretend to believe in what they told us in each place.

No-one was there to take care of us in the orphanage, we had to do everything for ourselves. Other than the owner and his relatives, who didn’t do anything, there was one hired member of staff. But he was from a labourer background and he had no idea of how to look after children. So it was us who had to cook for ourselves, wash the dishes ourselves, wash our clothes ourselves. Even some of the parents of the kids would come to the door of the orphanage crying, begging to see their kids or take them home, but the owner would send them away. He would also move the orphanage around between rented places so the parents didn’t know where to come.

The orphanage owner had a trekking business so he had easy access to tourists, and he recruited trekkers to volunteer at the orphanage. To be honest, we loved having the volunteers come. While they were there we got proper food, and we were not beaten. The main thing that we were instructed to do was to smile, look happy and tell them that our life was good. We all had our lines to say – I would say “Hello my name is Sushil I study in Class Three and I want to be a pilot.” And all the volunteers would exclaim how cute it was that I was living in an orphanage but I had such high ambitions. It was all a farce though – the orphanage didn’t even send us to school.

At first I loved the volunteers as the conditions were always better when they were around, and I thought they really cared for me. They would listen to me and play with me. But they would be gone within a few days or weeks and then the hardship would resume. They all promised to come back but of course they never did.

I realised that the orphanage had started to get donations from the foreigners and religious groups, but that the money wasn’t reaching us. Any material donations we received were sold off by the owner. We still had no care, no education, no medicine and poor food. I had some awareness that the owner had to keep us in need to keep the donations flowing.

I started to feel like life was better on the streets. At least on the streets I could do what I wanted and was free to make my own choices. In the orphanage others were making decisions for me. I knew that I could have just left, in fact I used to lie in bed plotting to do that, but when I woke up I realised how attached I felt to the other kids. At the age of about twelve I was the oldest child in the orphanage, and I felt some responsibility towards the younger ones, so I started thinking about how I could get us all out of there.

It wasn’t long after this when our chance came.


Part Two of this story will be published on this blog next week.

Sushil Babu Chhetri  is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His films include Flowers in the Dust and Letter to God. He is also an activist campaigning on behalf of children living on the street and in orphanages. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram.

Voluntourism: Intention Does Not Determine Impact

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Swank, who recalls her first experience of voluntourism and why she now advocates for a very different style of travel.

Volunteering has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. For about 10 years, I served as an acolyte, (kind of like a religious assistant to the pastor,) during Sunday church services once or twice a month. I think this either instilled or reinforced a practice of volunteering and service to others that has become important to me throughout my life.

The church I attended for most of my early years was a small church with a congregation whose members were mostly elderly adults. I grew up watching them all serve and volunteer countless hours in that church. They prepared meals and snacks for each service, cleaned the church, decorated for holidays, coordinated events and fundraising efforts, and visited members who were ill or lonely; though the budget was small, everyone pulled their weight to make sure that each task was attended to with great detail. I watched them and wanted to emulate their selflessness, eager to find more opportunities to help others in need.

Years later, I was attending a different church and found out about an opportunity to go on a mission trip to Jamaica with a group of students from our youth group. I was thrilled at the chance and eager both to travel to a new country and to finally have a chance to volunteer in a new setting. On the itinerary for the week: helping a church congregation build another room, visiting an orphanage and girls’ home to meet the children and students, and traveling to some of the parish members who were ill to pray over them. Of course, there would be plenty of time for fun too! A trip to a crafts market also made the itinerary, along with a fancy beach-side dinner on one special evening and nightly dips in the hotel pool.

I didn’t consider whether I was qualified for the task, whether our team could provide locals any real support, or what the point of visiting the orphanages and girls’ home was.


At this point in my life, I’d never heard of voluntourism and knew very little about the ethical concerns of volunteering. All I knew was that I had to come up with enough money to cover my expenses and I would find myself in sunny Jamaica. I didn’t consider whether I was qualified for the task, whether our team could provide locals any real support, or what the point of visiting the orphanages and girls’ home was from the missionary perspective. It never struck me as odd that most of our planning sessions were focused on readying ourselves for the emotional and religious challenges we’d face rather than learning about the needs of the community we would be visiting. When my mother asked why us teenagers needed to go to Jamaica instead of sending the money we’d raised for someone local to handle church construction and caregiving, I became defensive rather than introspective.

Looking back, I now know that my trip bore the marks of many classic volunteer traps:

  • Visiting an orphanage (exploitative and harmful, causing more damage to the children who develop attachment issues than aid from any companionship or comfort we could provide for a few hours)
  • Performing unskilled labor (I had never done any sort of construction work, nor had most of the people on my trip – we were the least qualified bunch to try and assist with building a new room for a church)
  • Spending more money to arrive at the volunteer opportunity than on the volunteering itself (the money we spent on flights, hotels, and food was far more than we donated toward the construction costs, orphanage/school operational costs, or supplies for the ill parishioners)
  • We learned virtually nothing about the population we were traveling to serve, coming only with our own experiences and expectations of sharing our culture (specifically our religion) with any Jamaicans who did not share our faith
  • Despite my promises and intentions of return visits and fundraising efforts extending beyond our week in Jamaica, I have never spoken to any of the people I met there since returning home nor raised funds like I’d intended

As I look back on my time in Jamaica I understand why my mom was asking a lot of questions. I never felt compelled to go on another trip like this one and now I see that even in high school I realized the impact we made was not the one I’d hoped. I spent a while staying in denial about the whole experience, and one I accepted the reality of the situation, feeling guilty about my participation. Eventually, I realized that denial and guilt can’t erase my trip or prepare me to do better in the future. I realized needed to be proactive in my learning.

Though my experience has provided me with many lessons, I’ll share two things I’ve learned: one lesson is that our intention does not determine our impact. Just because we come with a goal of helping others doesn’t guarantee we will succeed. Just because we are uncomfortable doesn’t mean we are being helpful. I think sometimes we get this idea that because we didn’t have air conditioning or hot showers and we gave up our comforts of home, somehow our trips to an orphanage or our untrained construction work was more impactful than it really was. After all, we wanted to help and we gave up our time and money to be somewhere – how could that be wrong? But again, our intention does not determine our impact. As foreigners, we are not the ones who get to determine our impact.

It’s important that we don’t confuse real and impactful volunteering with experiences designed more for the “volunteers.”


The second lesson is that travel is a skill that can always be refined, which is to say that we should never stop learning about sustainable and ethical travel and trying to improve in those areas. I think some people (myself included) avoid researching a tour or trip because we know it feels off and we don’t want to acknowledge that the experience is self-serving. To be clear, it’s fine to travel self-servingly! If you want to take a vacation, take a vacation. But it’s important that we don’t confuse real and impactful volunteering with experiences designed more for the “volunteers” than the recipients of the volunteer efforts.

This basically means we need to be honest with ourselves about how and why we’re volunteering. We need to be asking ourselves the questions of whether we’re really qualified for the work we’re signing up to do. We need to be taking the time to learn the background information about the people or organization we’re working with. We need to ensure that the people we’re helping have actually asked for our help. We need to be certain that our short-term volunteering isn’t harmful to those we’re helping or to an organization or community’s long-term vitality.

Thankfully, the resources are out there for us travelers to do so much better. While we can’t beat ourselves up over mistakes in the past, we can task ourselves with utilizing resources like Learning Service, local volunteers, and experts in the field to guide our travels when we travel to serve. I’m excited to take advantage of these important resources and I’m eager to connect with others around the world who are passionate about volunteering – the helpful way.


Sarah Swank is a 25-year-old working in juvenile justice who dreams about traveling around the world. Cat mom, coffee-addict, and lover of mother nature’s beautiful scenes, she blogs about sustainable travel for working women in her spare time and wants to work on minimizing her impact on the planet even more in 2019. Follow her blog Suitcase Six or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.The main picture is the view of the hotel and pool where her mission group stayed in Jamaica.