It takes a rare kind of honesty to admit even to one’s closest friends that you did not enjoy a trip intended to change your life. Rachel has had the guts to say it and to write about it on her blog. I admire her for it. Few are able to write with such honesty. I am full of admiration.
I don’t know Rachelrtw. She describes herself in the third person “Rachel is a twenty-something travel blogger in waiting, reminiscing about old adventures while saving up for new ones. She is also faintly uncomfortable with writing about herself in the third person.”
Rachel’s volunteering experience in Nepal was bad, very bad. She writes of “three weeks of training that had told us absolutely nothing at all.” Rachel was told that there are no spiders in Nepal by one of the charity’s staff, clearly very knowledgeable. Denial.
Rachel’s experience is not uncommon: “That sort of denial on the part of the charity became almost emblematic of the entire trip.” It is uncommon for a returned volunteer to write so honestly about their experience.
It is common for volunteers to blame themselves, to hope for the best, as Rachel writes, “All through the training I’d had my doubts, but I’d told myself and told myself that once we got to the district, it’d be OK.” It is also common for it not to be, “when we got there [we] still had no idea what we were doing – and we went for a walk around in the dark to see our new surroundings.”
Experiences like Rachel’s are destructive; there is cruelty in placing volunteers in situations where they are untrained and unsupported. It is not acceptable.
As Rachel writes “I was upset and full of culture shock and something as simple as big ass spiders could set me off. And it’s a pretty big deal to have to admit that, especially when you’re known amongst your friends as the one who likes to travel, especially when you did this for your career. It’s more that admitting you had bad judgement – it makes you feel like a failure.” That did not just happen – Rachel was set-up.
Rachel writes eloquently about how she was exploited – by the charity:
“We were in an area where nobody needed us, and where we could make little to no difference. We couldn’t speak the language and had been told beforehand that it wasn’t necessary, so we had next to no input. I felt useless. I was acutely aware that I was there for two reasons and two reasons only: to attract attention, because I am white, and to attract money, because I am white. It was made quite clear to us at the end of the programme that the money the UK government invested in the programme, in return for Nepal taking on UK workers, paid the wages of several of the Nepali staff. They didn’t need me – they needed my government’s money.”
If you are British and reading this, note that it was British government funded. I have written before about the British government paying for unqualified teenagers to travel the world, now we have a volunteer’s perspective. Poor volunteering experiences harm communities and volunteers.
Read the original, carefully. Like so many returned volunteers Rachel blames herself. She is insufficiently critical of those who took her time and her money and exploited her. They put her there: in the wrong place and unsupported.
Rachel is clearly a bright young woman and realises this:
“Despite being miserable 90% of the time, despite being ashamed of how I dealt with being so miserable, and despite feeling like my work on the programme had no impact whatsoever, I don’t regret going to Nepal. I wish I could have gone to another country with another charity perhaps, but I will never regret having got on that plane and actually gone. Now, whenever anything is hard, I can think, “Shut up Rachel, you got through three months in Nepal; this is nothing”.
It is a pity that Rachel didn’t go with another volunteering organisation – being a charity is no excuse for exploiting volunteers.
As Rachel writes “My problem was with my charity, not with Nepal itself.” And as she acknowledges the programme was what created the bad experience not Nepal: “I wish I’d be able to push aside my resentment for the programme and just enjoy being somewhere else.”
Rare honesty from a returned volunteer. Rachel writes powerfully about bravery too:
“Sometimes it takes more courage to give up than to go on. Early on, one of the girls in our group decided she’d had enough and went home. Some people in the group were quite harsh about it, but honestly, I think she was incredibly brave. I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say, “You know what? I’m not enjoying this either.” And because of that, I missed Christmas with my family. I missed my grandfather’s funeral. And I spent three months not only being miserable with my surroundings, but actually hating myself for being so grumpy, for complaining all the time, for bringing other people down with me. Carrying on with that programme wasn’t brave of me. It was cowardly, because I couldn’t face going home and admitting that I had failed. Knowing yourself well enough to know when to call it quits is an important skill to have. Sometimes going back on your words and your plans is the best – and the bravest – thing you can do.”
I have quoted so much of Rachel’s blog in part because I admire the honesty of the writing and in part because if you read the original you may wish to blame Rachel for the poor experience she had. I think that is wrong. Those who took her time and her money, or in this case the British government’s money, have a duty of care. They failed Rachel and the community.
I have heard similar appalling stories from other returned volunteers; they rarely blame anyone but themselves. They rarely seek compensation – they should. Rachel was used and exploited. I watched a group of British volunteers on another government subsidised programme digging a watering hole for elephants in Hwange National Park. They were not making much progress. For a fraction of the cost, local people could have dug the hole, contributing to local livelihoods, but there would be no profit for the charity in that. There is good money to be made from exploiting volunteers – being a charity is no excuse for exploitation.
Rachel has been challenged to name the organisation and she has declined to do so. This is unfortunately too often the response of exploited volunteers. I hope that she will think again about that. To deal with the defence.
- “They run many, many programmes in many different countries and I have only heard good things about their other programmes. I also think they work for an excellent cause”
- One of the problems is that volunteers do not talk about their bad experiences – there is a conspiracy of silence
- A good cause does not excuse exploitation – although it may make it easier
- “This is about my experience and I don’t wish to speak for other people.”
- To complain is not to speak for other people – but it may avoid them being exploited as you were
- As you say yourself: “almost a third of the participants left before the end of the programme” that is extraordinary.
- As you so rightly point out “I do believe that the Nepali volunteers alone (we were all placed with a Nepali counterpart) could have done the job a lot better alone, without having to babysit us. They understood their country, its needs and its language in a way we never could.” Surely British aid money should go directly to the Nepali volunteers – that would be a better way of spending it.
- “This was the programme’s pilot year. … We were very much encouraged to give honest feedback and I am hopeful that it will be listened to.”
- I hope so too – but I’m older and not so optimistic. Ask to see a copy of the evaluation of the experiment.
- How will you feel when you come across a similar report from a volunteer in a few years’ time?
- “The charity I went with are not part of some greedy, money-making scam, but rather a new government scheme in its early days.” Should we be making such excuses for a government scheme that appears to have experimented at the cost of volunteers and local communities – not to mention UK taxpayers?
- “As such, I don’t feel like I have the right to name and shame an organisation that sent me to the other side of the world free-of-charge, and whose warnings about the lack of difference I would make I simply didn’t heed.”
- The charity did not send you to the other side of the world free-of-charge. British tax payers paid the bill. You gave willingly and freely of your time, as you wrote eloquently above, the opportunity cost for you was high.
You were exploited – others will be too … unless such organisers are called to account.
Naming and shaming is important because it helps to avoid others being exploited as you were and because all volunteering organisations would raise their game if they knew that they risked exposure.
Think about what you wrote about bravery. Blow the whistle, you were exploited and avoided becoming a victim. What about the other third who left quietly believing it all to be their own faults, victims of a badly conceived and implemented volunteering programme.
Read Rachel’s powerful blog
I am non-exec chair of PeopleandPlaces and a not-for-profit business established to provide volunteering opportunities which genuinely benefit local communities and which are worthwhile for the volunteers. They have a really useful set of questions to ask -– use them, even if your trip is being funded by someone other than yourself
What does Responsible Volunteering look like?