Rishi Bhandari: Volunteerism Privilege

When volunteering in countries like Nepal, many visitors oversimplify, using stereotypes such as ‘the people here are poor but happy.’ That ‘poor but happy’ description verges on condescending, and underlines the assumed privilege of many visiting volunteers. One Nepali who works regularly with overseas students gives us his point of view. By Rishi Bhandari.

Born in Nepal, Rishi and understands and deeply respects its culture.

Born in Nepal, Rishi and understands and deeply respects its culture.

Nepal, 11 September 2019. The first thing I usually say to visiting international students is: “Please do not make any sweeping statements about this country or culture, either positive or negative, before you have learned anything about it.” Oversimplifying is just not helpful.

This is difficult because Nepal is often portrayed over-romantically as “a poor country nestled in the high Himalayas,” some kind of Shrangri-La where people can achieve enlightenment.

I often tell students that, depending on what attitudes they have, they have the potential to do more harm than good. Just because they have the ability to travel to Nepal doesn’t mean they can help. Indeed, students who come to Nepal are often confronted by their own material privilege, but are they considering cultural privilege too?

Nepalese culture is a valuable and living entity in its own right. Courtesy Nepal Tourism.

Nepalese culture is a valuable and living entity in its own right. Courtesy Nepal Tourism.

Here, cultural heritage can be traced back for millennia, community ties are powerful and strong, and spiritual values are deeply ingrained. There is an unbroken connection between people and land, unscarred by genocide like in North America and Australia. So why do some volunteers think they are privileged? To come here with the idea that they are privileged and all these poor Nepalese people aren’t seems rather ignorant.

Here’s a story to illustrate this. I was in rural Nepal, teaching a group of international students. A woman from the US arrived, interrupted the lesson, and without any introduction said: “We heard your group was here, and had to come and see some white faces.”

I was shocked; no Nepali would ever have had so much disregard for the situation, or politeness, or me, to interrupt like that. It illustrates how invasive and damaging a mentality of entitlement can be. She explained (to the students, not me) that “… the first time I came here the poverty of the people crushed me, and I was deeply saddened.” She went on to tell how she had returned and opened a school. But here’s the thing – the whole time she was talking, she didn’t mention a single word about how the community had impacted her.

That she could be able to come to rural Nepal and be made to feel at home here says much about our community, and underlines what is often a missing element in voluntourism – how the place and community have enriched their lives. Rather, they emphasise the impact they have made on the local community.

Privilege is relative, but  karma yoga  is ubiquitous. Courtesy World Culture.

Privilege is relative, but karma yoga is ubiquitous. Courtesy World Culture.

From my perspective, there seems to be a spiritual and cultural void in the west that people can try to fill by travelling to places like Nepal, and doing things that make them feel good about themselves. If that is so, they have a lot to learn from Nepalese people. The country has a strong cultural tradition of service, through concepts such as karma yogaKarma yoga can be understood as a selfless act dedicated towards the good of the world, not driven by self-interest, or what you receive in return. It can be practiced by dealing with garbage or even sewage, and done by anyone, anywhere.

Karma yoga service is not done “to” someone else, and it doesn’t disempower or create unequal power structures in the way that voluntourism can. It is the kind of humble action that gets dishes washed, fields ploughed, and the fabric of society built. It’s not a one-off or one-way, done by givers to receivers, but is continually done by everyone - reciprocally.

To really contribute, volunteers need to have the humility to do what is needed, and not what they want or what they need. It should not be about doing things that only serve to feed the ego.

This is why I admire and connect with the ideas in Learning Service – because humility is one of its central ideas. The Learning Service philosophy underlines that everybody should ideally approach travel and service with a learning mindset. I would describe it as a process of decolonisation – both the colonisers and the colonised need to get away from a negative ‘white westerner coming to help’ attitude.

That is not to say we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. It would be easy to conclude that all volunteerism is useless. In fact I believe volunteering can be incredibly powerful - when done well. Although much literature either villainises or glorifies overseas volunteering, it can be about improving the impact, on both volunteers and local community.

Rishi continues the work of helping bridge the understanding gap with a group of young overseas visitors. Courtesy Learning Service.

Rishi continues the work of helping bridge the understanding gap with a group of young overseas visitors. Courtesy Learning Service.

Ultimately, I know that the vast majority of volunteers who come to Nepal would be horrified at the thought of causing harm. But unfortunately many issues are so oversimplified and the idea of “saving” is so culturally ingrained, in many of those driven to volunteer, that damage ends up being done.

Learning Service’s approach challenges people to think differently and keeps them from falling into the same old patterns, so they don’t propagate the same old problems.

Privilege has many dimensions to it. Everybody needs to ask “What kind of privilege do I have and what do I not have. And what can be done about that?”

To arrive here with the attitude that “we are so privileged and you are so underprivileged” is very problematic. Remember, Nepalese people aren’t just vehicles for your guilt and privilege.

Rishi Bhandari teaches international students on experiential education trips. He is a philosopher by nature and loves delving into the moral truths of people’s actions. If you are interested in Learning Service and their approach, please check out their website www.learningservice.info and their book about volunteering – available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Learning-Service-2018-essential-volunteering/dp/1912157063/