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How The Umbrella Foundation is Helping End “Voluntourism” in Nepal

Brianne Miers - May 31, 2016
Miles McAlpin in Brooklyn
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Caroline Scheffer outside with kids

In summer 2003, I volunteered as an English teacher at an all-girls government school in Pokhara, Nepal. Even though my experience was mostly positive, I’ve since questioned whether my decision to volunteer with children was a responsible one, as I’ve learned more about the ugly side of the “voluntourism” industry. 

Caroline Scheffer is a former Country Director of the The Umbrella Foundation, which works to alleviate the impact of trafficking, poverty and war on children and their families in Nepal. I recently asked her to share her thoughts on volunteer and orphanage tourism, and her recommendations for helping ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable children in developing countries. 

This interview is part of the Stop Orphanage Volunteering campaign organized by Better Volunteering, Better Care to discourage orphanage volunteering and promote responsible alternatives

Caroline Scheffer with little girlHow did you first get involved with Umbrella and why?

In 2009 I worked at Umbrella as a volunteer. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree in child & youth psychology, and I wanted to get experience working as a volunteer. Plus it was kind of a hot-topic and a “must,” even; if you hadn’t “given back,” you didn’t really count.

So not knowing any better, I thought I was doing an incredible thing volunteering in one of Umbrella’s children’s homes  a home accommodating 54 boys aged 6 to 16. I organized activities for the children and supported them with their homework. I also taught basics of psychology in a local secondary school and helped set up the organization’s first mental health program. This program is still running and has been improved upon since.

Late 2013 I again joined Umbrella as the Country Director in Nepal.

What problems have you witnessed with the “voluntourism” industry, especially in Nepal?

Volunteers, and families, are too often being exploited. This is largely due to volunteers being unaware of the risks associated with what they think is merely “doing good.” The good intentions of volunteers, who often couldn’t possibly imagine bringing harm, have and are being exploited in Nepal on a daily basis.

Almost every day I would receive an email or a phone call of yet another volunteer who had been working in an “orphanage” telling me they had been taken advantage of. (There is no such thing as places housing only “pure” orphans  in fact reports suggest that 85% of the children in so-called orphanages have one or two living parents). They realized the “orphanage” wasn’t doing much, if any good for children, and in most cases, had taken children away from their families who were given false promises of a better education in the city.

Children would instead end up in a place packed with other “orphans” without nutritious food, proper education and, perhaps even worse, a loving and caring role model. Even if children did end up in a “better” orphanage (getting an education and two to three meals a day), they would never receive the same kind of love and attention as they would have growing up with their family.

Volunteers, not knowing any better, are easily tricked into paying “X” amount each month for being allowed to work with Nepali children. This easy money-making creates a demand for children, and like in many developing or least developed countries (Nepal belongs to the latter), children are easy to find. All that families, often uneducated and illiterate themselves, want is a better future for their children. Being offered free education, they don’t see an alternative to achieving this better future and send their children away  in some instances having to pay the trafficker never knowing where they end up and sometimes never seeing them again.

The “voluntourism” industry puts volunteers, families and children at risk by creating opportunities to meet the increasing demands for volunteer placements. Families and volunteers are tricked, and children have become victims of the voluntourism and orphanage industry.

volunteer with kids at Umbrella Foundation

How is Umbrella different? What about its model makes it unique & effective? 

One way we are different is that we work to reintegrate every child in our care we’ve reconnected almost 98% of the children we support with their families.

Even if a child is unable to be reintegrated, they almost all know their roots and their families. Umbrella has returned children to districts all over Nepal. This give us connections in local areas when needed and also builds trust with the local communities. Both things came in very handy during our post-earthquake emergency work. In some districts we are truly the most trusted organization. Part of this is the hard work we have put in locally, but part of it is also the model that we follow.

After having completely restructured the program since its establishment in 2005, Umbrella is also very unique in the volunteering model it follows. First of all, Umbrella is not a volunteer agency, and we are committed to ethical and responsible practices. Our priority will always be the employment of Nepali staffs, but we do welcome long-term skilled volunteers to support teachers in rural schools – think of conducting English training  or our staffs in the Kathmandu office. By doing so we aim to provide opportunities for local skill development, personal empowerment and sustainable job creation.

Volunteers undergo a strict selection process. Upon acceptance into the program, volunteers are vetted and asked to organize a fundraising event prior to arrival so that they become familiar with our work, can show that they are serious about the volunteering and raise awareness for Umbrella. Upon arrival in Nepal volunteers first receive a very comprehensive induction, including Nepali lessons. Based on their qualifications, they are assigned a specific role from First Steps assistant to social media coordinator. When equipped with the right set of skills, volunteers are often asked to organize workshops and trainings for our staffs so that skills and knowledge is shared. They also support local staffs in carrying out activities.Caroline Scheffer with staff

Volunteers have, for example, assisted in job interview role plays and English communication skills training for youths. In this way the staffs, youths and children in our care are exposed to safe and well-trained volunteers, and all are able to benefit from this exchange of cultures.

You can information about Umbrella’s reintegration program here, and its volunteer program here.

Is there such a thing as an “responsible” way to volunteer with children in developing countries? If so, how?

Personally I think that is only possible in very exceptional circumstances. I often ask people, “Would you be allowed to work with vulnerable children in your own country?” In the majority of the cases the answer is, “No.” This is because most people lack the right qualifications to work with children, let alone vulnerable children. And even so, why not actually volunteer in your own country where you are familiar with the cultures and practices, where you speak the same language and you are better able to understand what the children have gone through?

Even if there are very qualified volunteers, it is difficult to regulate the program ethically. How do you ensure that those qualified volunteers stay within the culturally accepted boundaries? As I said, only in exceptional circumstances do I believe that a volunteer can contribute to the well-being of a vulnerable child in a country and culture other than his/her own. This could be the case for a psychologist specialized in trauma care, for example. But even so, it is the job of the local people to help those children deal with trauma. A foreign volunteer could perhaps support a local psychologist, and for that sometimes s/he may need to work with the children directly. A volunteer always needs to stay focused on sharing skills and knowledge, and keep in mind that s/he will leave again and the work should be continued by the local staffs.

In general, I would always advise against volunteering with vulnerable children in developing countries; it’s easier to do more harm than good  especially in regard to vulnerable children. Working with teachers in schools is a different story, but still, as an agency and as a volunteer, you should always ensure that no harm is being done to the children by, for example, ensuring all children live with their families (or if they live in boarding school, families having consciously decided to do so), not letting volunteers alone with (a) child(ren), and ensuring that the volunteer supports local staffs and doesn’t take over the work (which could cause discontinuity for the education of the children, again affecting children).

In order to be ethical, a volunteer should always:

  1. Check the organization. Are they registered, and are their finances transparent? And, in the case of an “orphanage,” always ensure that the organization does everything in its power to reunite children with their families although in general I would always advise to NOT volunteer in an orphanage!
  2. Adopt a learning mindset.
  3. Consider the suitability of your skills. Do you have the right qualifications, and can you actually contribute? Ask yourself whether your work can and will be continued, ensuring sustainability.
  4. Use your common sense. Again ask yourself, “Why would I not do this work in my own country?” In the case of working with vulnerable children, most often the reason would be because it’s not allowed – for very good reasons!

Caroline Scheffer meeting with Umbrella Foundation staff

What recommendations do you have for Westerners who would like to volunteer in developing countries? 

As I mentioned above, first of all use your common sense and ask yourself these critical questions:

  • Why do you want to volunteer with children? Would you be allowed to do this work in your own country? If you are, why not work there? If you are not, why would that be? And why would it be allowed in a developing country instead?
  • Check the organization. Are they transparent about their finances, do they do everything they can to keep children with their families? Ask them why those children are there. Remember, it is very unlikely the children are not pure orphans, so an organization telling you so could be a red flag! If the organization cannot answer questions about the safety of the children and does not work towards family preservation and local empowerment, then they may be oriented towards profit rather than social impact.
  • If you are volunteering in a developing country, find projects that do not involve children, as the risk that you are fueling the trafficking of children is too high. Work with locals, in a community, but still always ensure that you respect their culture, their practices and traditions. This can be done by adopting a learning mindset. Learn about the country, it’s people and the culture before volunteering, and attain this mindset throughout your volunteering experience  keeping in mind that you will probably learn more from the local people than they will learn from you!
  • Consider the suitability of your skills and the sustainability of your work. Do you have the right qualifications for this particular work? Will you be able to actually share knowledge and experience that will help the country in the long run? This could be the case if you are a teacher back home and you volunteer your time to train local teachers. If you do not have skills (yet) that can really benefit the communities, be an ethical tourist instead!
  • At last, always research the legal status of volunteering in the country you would like to work in. In most countries it is in fact illegal to volunteer, or conduct unpaid work, on a tourist visa.

What are other ways to help vulnerable children in Nepal and in other developing countries? 

You can support vulnerable children by being an ethical tourist instead! Go on a trek, meet the communities, emerge yourself in the culture, stay in local guesthouses, buy local food and souvenirs. This way you support families, who in turn can support their children to go to school. Engage with the local people and share skills and knowledge if appropriate. While staying in a guesthouse, you could, for example, help the family with their English language skills, promote their local business by word of mouth or develop promotional materials, depending on what they request.

As an ethical tourist, you not only respect the environment, but most importantly, you respect that you and the local person you are engaging with both have skills and knowledge to share and contribute to each other. Empowering local communities empowers and protects vulnerable children.

Can you recommend specific resources?

There are local authorities and NGOs working to support vulnerable children. They have built up years of experience in Nepal and have developed programs that work. Some of these organizations include: Next Generation Nepal, Child Protection Center & Services, Just-One, Nagarhope, Aama Foundation, Shangrila Home, and Sunrise Children’s Home, among many others. Most reputable INGOs in Nepal are a member of the Association of NGOs, where they have to undergo a strong check, and they work in close cooperation with local NGOs. A list of organizations can be found here.

volunteer at Umbrella Foundation

How has the April 2015 earthquake affected Umbrella’s work in the past year? What’s next for the organization?

Umbrella was already moving into growing the rural work that is done in the districts, and the earthquake just accelerated that. As we move away from taking care of specific kids in Kathmandu, we will extend our advocacy and root cause work in the villages. Umbrella believes that education is the key to overcoming the causes of trafficking. This can be seen in two ways:

  1. First of all, we educate communities through our advocacy work. Having formal and informal meetings with an increasing number of village communities on the dangers and what to look for when avoiding traffickers. We also have recently done street dramas and have ads running on community radio to pass on these messages.
  2. We also support rural schools with physical infrastructure and with volunteers who support overworked rural teachers. If a community in Nepal believes that their local school is reasonably capable of educating their kids, they are much less likely to traffic them to Kathmandu for an education.

Umbrella also just signed on for our second phase partnership with UNICEF, which gives us even more resources to deal with these issues. This is where much of our growth in the next couple of years will be – along with the overall goal of keeping vulnerable children with their families.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

If you cannot find a volunteering opportunity that matches your qualifications and skills, ensures sustainability of your work, and cannot 100% guarantee the safety of the children, just be an ethical tourist instead. You could actually be doing more good than by volunteering, as you are helping communities, families AND children!

Additional Resources

For more information on how to volunteer ethically, Caroline recommends the following websites:

What can you do?

You can learn more about the campaign and read the other posts from the month-long “blogging blitz” hereAlso, you can sign the petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day, which will be held at the World Travel Market in London in November 2016. Please share this content with your networks using the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips.

More about Caroline

Caroline Scheffer served as a Country Director of The Umbrella Foundation from November 2013 until February 2016. At that time, she and her Nepali partner moved back to her home country, the Netherlands, where they became the proud parents of a beautiful daughter, Melina. She is still advocating against volunteering in orphanages by being involved in the quality working group of Better Care Network Netherlands.

16 comments

  1. An excellent post.

    As someone who works in Child Protection (UK) I wholeheartedly agree with Caroline. We emphasise that the best place for a child is with its parent(s) yet our presence in other countries is working against this principle.
    Would you be able to do this work in your own country is a great starting point? I think this also applies to other types of work including house building. I understand that most volunteers realising that they are helping but just a little bit of research could quickly halt this problem.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree that the question, “Would you be qualified to do this work at home?,” should be the starting point for anyone looking to volunteer overseas, and that volunteers must do their due diligence to prevent doing more harm than good.

  2. My school sends a group of students every year to work on a school in Nepal and then to go trekking for a week. I am beginning to question what we are doing having read your article. Could I have some feedback from you on this.

    1. Thanks, Susan, for your comment. I think there are a lot of questions you should ask before continuing. Even if you’re not working directly with children, it’s worth finding out whether your group is preventing locals from being hired to do this work, and what your volunteer fees are being used to support (I have heard stories of schools being built and then torn down repeatedly, just so well-meaning volunteers keep coming.) I’ll reach out via email to continue the conversation.

  3. I’ve always wanted to volunteer in developing countries by providing health care services in Radiology. This post was very informative and just opened my eyes to issues that plague these programs. I wasn’t even aware of this. The masses need to be educated and know exactly what is going on. Educating others is definitely what you’re doing right now and I’m glad that you shared this interview with all this info! Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks a lot Brianne and Caroline for sharing this information. It’s really shocking to hear about children traffic to create orphanages to receive volunteers. Families think the kids will get a better education and volunteers think they’re helping… it’s so sad. Awareness is needed.

  5. Thanks for writing this informative article. I had not thought much about the victimization of these vulnerable children. I also like the concept of being an ethical tourist.

  6. This is such an important topic! I’m so glad you look the time to discuss it here. I’ve volunteered during my travels but I’ve always made the conscious decision to volunteer on farms and/or with adults as opposed to with children. The point about “would you be qualified & allowed to volunteer in this capacity at home?” really explains it so well. If you aren’t bringing value & a skill set, you can do more harm than good. I hope more people read, share and act on your article.

  7. I’ve been learning more about voluntourism lately and how detrimental it can actually be, so it was great to read this post and add to my knowledge. I know a lot of relatively unskilled people who have gone abroad to volunteer, and I always wonder, “What could they possibly be contributing to XYZ effort?” Good intentions are wonderful…but sometimes, as you’ve shown, it’s very important to scratch beneath the surface.

  8. Thanks for sharing this important information. As a mother I know in my heart the right place for any child is with his/her family if it is at all possible. My brother and sister in law both work for not for profits in countries like Nepal and have spent countless hours and dollars fixing issues caused by ‘well meaning’ volunteers. They are highly skilled and the selection process for their jobs is as intense, if not more, as any corporate environment I have encountered. As you say, if you don’t have the skills visit responsibly, support organisations with the infrastructure in place to implement real change and raise awareness

  9. I believe in the same things. I wanted to volunteer but the high amounts of money asked by some organizations put me off. And I don’t believe that their practices are transparent either. I remember when I was in Peru, someone asked our guide in Paracas if they could volunteer with the birds. They said that they would be very happy to receive her as nobody would come to them as it’s a dirty job. They would not charge a penny, they would just be happy for someone to help them protecting the birds (and occasionally get covered in bird poop)

  10. This is really interesting for me as I went to Kenya to volunteer at an orphanage for a month a few years ago… At the time I thought I was doing something amazing, but now that I actually do work with children (as an ESL teacher) I realise that I definitely did more harm than good. Firstly, the orphanage I was sent to work at was really corrupt and my friend and I had to report them to the charity leaders and get placed at a different orphanage- they had been trying to force us to buy art work they said the children had created (we had saw the same art work for sale at the market the weekened before) and were constantly begging us for money (and making the students beg us for money) and we sadly saw them beating the kids. Also, children that have just lost their parents, or are in a corrupt orphanage need some stability and we couldn’t provide them with that in such a short time. Definitely a problem that needs to be tackled!

  11. Great to hear about organisations like yours who are redefining volunteering and making this safer and more meaningful both for volunteers and the communities they support.

Please share your thoughts!