How should HELP respond to the growing numbers of organisations, both foreign and local, offering volunteer placements for tourists in the regions where we have been operating over the past twelve years?
Briefly, our aim is to place teachers on long assignments of at least a month in schools that not only welcome them, but can make good use of them. We regard the schools, not the volunteers, as our ‘clients’. We are not a ‘voluntourism’ business but a registered charity. Everyone involved in HELP is a volunteer, including its directors.
Our volunteer teachers are our key resource, not only offering their time and skills to schools, but also providing us with much of the revenue we need to support our projects. It is important that we remain confident that they and their fees are used as originally intended.
Our original aim was to select schools that could benefit from our programme, and which were not receiving any assistance from local or international NGOs. When we started out, 12 years ago, Kathmandu was already over-run with agencies placing volunteers in schools, and so we chose a village on the edge of the Valley which had still not been ‘discovered’. In our other locations (Pokhara, the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, Sikkim, Uttarkhand, and Ladakh), we had no problems in finding schools that were not getting any outside assistance.
Since then we have found that, in the tourist hot spots, there has been a proliferation of NGOs (some able to offer large financial inducements) offering volunteers to schools. This is particularly acute in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Daramsala (in Himachal Pradesh) and Ladakh. Schools that we thought had accepted the conditions we had set in our signed agreements with them, turned out to be perfectly happy to accept volunteers with or without experience or training, and for the briefest of stays (one or two weeks).
We may have exacerbated this situation by naming our schools in our website, with brief descriptions, making it easy for other NGOs to identify them. In addition, some of our own volunteers have set up their own NGOs which can’t help competing with us even if that is not the intention.
And it’s not just foreign agencies but also local tourist agencies which have long spotted a lucrative business model, and are willing to place anyone who walks in off the street in some volunteer position or other. These agencies rarely plough back their profits into these institutions.
The question is: how do we respond to this situation? The temptation is to go with the flow and lower our standards and fees. If we focused our operation on the needs and wishes of tourists seeking a working holiday, rather than on what the schools needed (in other words if we make the tourists our clients rather than the schools) then we would not need to concern ourselves with what they do in the schools. We could always buy the schools’ compliance with a grant or two.
So far we have resisted this, and although the competition has made it more challenging to recruit as many volunteers as we would like, we still try to adhere to the following standards:
- All assignments are at least a month (except in one case this year when one such assignment had to be curtailed by the unanticipated arrival of the Dalai Lama in Ladakh!). In the great majority of cases, our volunteers stay for two months or more.
- We continue to insist that, at the very least, our volunteers have some training in teaching, and we check with referees and by interview that they have the right personal qualities to cope in a very different and difficult work environment. We do this because we think we owe it to the schools to supply the right kind of people, even if they (the schools) do not fully appreciate the difference.
- We try to place one volunteer in each school each year, but not more since we do not want to make the school reliant on foreigners to the detriment of the careers or morale of the local staff.
However, not all the schools we support have turned out to care too much about these standards, and our efforts have been undermined by:
- The arrival of volunteers from other organizations for short stays of a week or two, and with no teaching experience or training.
- Poor school management that fails to make good use of the volunteers’ time or skills.
- The increasing difficulty in recruiting sufficient volunteers of the right calibre, which makes it impossible for us to maintain a steady flow of volunteers to all the schools we originally signed up.
For a variety of reasons we have done little to reduce our portfolio of schools, but now I think the time has come to draw the line and refocus our efforts on those schools which truly value what HELP offers, and which are capable of making good use of their skills.
The schools that we value working with most are the small village schools outside the main tourist centres, and we will retain these in our portfolio. At the same time, we will reduce our programme, dropping schools in the tourist centres which have a plentiful supply of volunteers from various organizations, and other schools that have not made good use of our volunteers. I hope that, by adapting in these ways to the changing context, HELP can continue to make a useful, and valued, contribution to the provision of education in the Himalayas.