Volunteering in Nepal: The where, the why and the how

THOSE that have travelled a lot will probably agree that the trips where they have given of their time, skills and efforts have been the most meaningful. Volunteer tourism has become a popular way to holiday and undertaking this in Nepal is a way to help and meet locals, while learning about one of Asia’s more fascinating countries.

Nepal is one of Asia’s poorer countries with 55 percent of the population living below the international poverty line, according to UNICEF. The needs and challenges here are obviously enormous, as is the array of opportunities to help. In fact put “volunteering in Nepal” into a search engine and a plethora of options come up. Some of these were listed in this previous post on Travel Wire Asia. Given the choice available, this post may help you sort out where to volunteer.

Why Nepal?

The rooftop of the world contains eight of the world’s tallest peaks, an array of UNESCO world heritage sites and incredible and varied culture and ethnic groups. That means you will be able to engage in other activities while you are volunteering to help you get to know the country, its people and geography. Volunteer trips aren’t all about work, so you should make the most of time off to explore and find out more about Nepal.

The Annapurna mountain range from Ghandruk. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

What kind of program/opportunity to seek?

Health and education are often the primary focus of many volunteer programs, and most involve children in a setting such as an orphanage, school or monastery. Other experiences might be in health centres or medical clinics. They key to volunteering is to utilise your own skills and interests. Look for opportunities where you can put your talents to good use and you’ll most likely enjoy them even more.

Be positive and proactive

The quantity, quality and progress of any work in Nepal will differ to what you are used to. Volunteers shouldn’t come thinking they are there to improve systems with superior knowledge. Systems might work very well for the communities involved so try to work with them, remain optimistic about setbacks and encourage people where possible. If you do see something you think could be improved suggest an option for doing so diplomatically, and how you would like to help.

Avoiding the scams

Much has been written about illegitimate orphanages, NGOs and volunteer programs in Nepal that have happily taken well intentioned donor/volunteer money and used it for other purposes, or given very little orientation or support to volunteers. See Hole in the Donut for some details about some of these and make up your own mind. Word of mouth, a recommendation or someone else’s experience may help guide you on your final choice.

The author, Barbara Weibel, advises:

The Internet is rife with companies offering volunteering and voluntouring packages, priced from hundreds to thousands of dollars per week. While it is difficult to know which firms are trustworthy, those that disclose specifics about the funds they donate and provide contact information to confirm their charitable works are more likely to be legitimate. Additionally, Kirsty Henderson, who writes the travel blog Nerdy Nomad, another travel blogger who has been volunteering for many years, recently published an eBook, The Underground Guide to International Volunteering that includes lists and rankings for various firms, as well as links to websites devoted to oversight of the industry. It is well worth the purchase price of $ 14; I have read and highly recommend it to anyone considering booking a paid volunteering or voluntouring holiday (I receive no compensation for this recommendation).

Weibel also details in another post how one traveller created his own volunteer opportunities in Nepal without paying a penny.

Where to volunteer?

I recently worked in with a few organisations in Nepal (in the interests of full disclosure these are the first two in the list below and are legitimate volunteer opportunities). Other opportunities are listed on Free Volunteering which covers free, low cost and paid opportunities. The other listed volunteer organisations I have had no personal contact with but seem to have a rigorous procedure for choosing volunteers and orientating them with relatively low costs.

Muscular Dystrophy Foundation Nepal
This non-profit organisation assisting clients and families with muscular dystrophy seeks physiotherapists, occupational therapists, councellors, medical professionals, artists, fund raisers, carers and event managers to join their team both in the Kathmandu valley and other places in the country. These people would assist in client/family services, perhaps the annual health camp and other associated activities. The fun loving staff of MDF Nepal and a supportive and welcoming environment is perfect for those seeking this kind of outlet in Nepal and a chance to put their skills to good use. Contact details are listed online, including a contact in Australia.

The author with some of the muscular dystrophy patients and their families last month.

Children’s Welfare Centre, Lalitpur, Kathmandu Valley
This amazing place on the outskirts of Kathmandu is for children that have been orphaned, socially oppressed, helpless, or even abandoned by their parents and society. Many come from remote areas or were even found on the streets. Giving them a leg up into the world is the aim of founder Rupa Sunar and her daughter Rina Karkhi. CWC regularly takes in volunteers who help the children with their homework, English language, vocational skills, games and other activities. Volunteers stay at the centre for a small fee and receive food and lodging. This is an excellent opportunity for those that love children.

Teenage kids from CWC in Godwari, on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

World Expeditions
World Expeditions is listed based on a recommendation by Getaway, a reputable Australian travel program, in 2010. Read the Getaway experiences here including this excerpt:

There’s a medical centre in Junbesi and quarters were desperately needed for doctors and nurses. Facilities are basic and only just serve the needs of the community. For some needing assistance, it means a two- or three-day walk. Donations from abroad and help from volunteers are welcomed with great humility.

Before getting into the hard work, volunteers were greeted in a traditional way by a Sherpa. With assistance from locals, the group set about putting together accommodation for four doctors and nurses with kitchen, dining room and shower.

World Expeditions is itself a reputable travel company and has community projects all around the world from Australia to Tanzania and Vietnam. These change from year to year but the idea is to do work that creates immediate and longer term benefits. It works by combining a holiday with three to six days of volunteer work. Click here for more details.

Art Refuge
Listed as a “free volunteering” opportunity on Free Volunteering, this arts centre in Kathmandu is where Tibetans come to receive assistance before heading to India. They can visit the Art Refuge classroom where they can utilise art supplies, toys, musical instruments and take part in activities.

ROKPA International
Also listed as a “free volunteering” opportunity, ROKPA aims to support poor people in the remote regions of the world and has two openings for work in Nepal. One is in a soup kitchen that operates each winter (December – March) and distributes meals, cltohes and medical care in Boudha, Kathmandu. The other is in the Women’s Workshop team and specifically for designers to help women turn products into saleable items for local and international markets. The workshop trains single mothers to be seamstresses.

Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

With volunteering costs from as little as $6 per day, and volunteers required all the time, the Nepal opportunities through the Omprakash network also enable you to connect with a recent volunteer. Volunteer opportunities include the Pa Nepal home for children who would otherwise be in jail with a convicted parent (two months minimum, training provided), teaching and medical clinics in the mountain villages of Helambu (1-2 months minimum) and assisting in the Ama Ghar orphanage in Kathmandu (reviewed here).

Raksha Nepal
This NGO’s vision is to help young women escape sexual exploitation. It both rehabilitates women of the sex trade, provides education, therapy and skills training. Given the nature of their work female volunteers are preferred and ones that can volunteer for about six months and are sensitive to the women’s needs. See the site for details and a volunteer form.

If you have had any experience volunteering in Nepal, please share your experiences here.