Few Ideas for Action: A Short Essay on Voluntourism and Orphanage Volunteering

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Voluntourism is a very special way of international volunteering that refers to normally short spans of service time that international volunteers decide to spend in developing countries normally during their holidays.

The report published by NGN sheds light on a particular area of voluntourism that sees international volunteers, often after having paid high fees, spending their holidays in orphanages or children homes mostly located in the most touristic spots Nepal offers.

The Better Volunteering Better Care Project, an international initiative looking at the phenomenon from a global point of view, shows that orphanage volunteering is not strong only in Nepal but also in other developing countries like Cambodia, Ghana and some countries from Latin America.

In Nepal not only is orphanage volunteering illegal but also volunteering with a tourist visa is illegal. To put it in a simple way international volunteering is outlawed unless you are associated with international sending organizations that have special agreements with the Government of Nepal.

The phenomenon in Nepal is massive with more than 800 children homes hosting approximately 15.000 children. The Central Child Welfare Board, the focal point agency for child related issues in Nepal is taking a close look at the phenomenon.

All orphanages/children homes are already categorized according to a set of benchmarks as per Standards for the Operation and Management of Residential Child Care Homes 2012 though the enforcement of the regulations remains often weak.

 In addition thanks to the advocacy work of organizations like NGN, Terres des Hommes and Unicef, a national policy on alternate care is being drafted.

Through the report, NGN takes a very pragmatic approach to orphanage volunteering by proposing a new understanding of what it defines as “ethical volunteering” as a way to ensure the implementation of acceptable standards in the way the volunteering experience is carried out. A win win experience that can be useful for the beneficiaries as well as the volunteers and not hamper but can enhance the wellbeing of the children.

Ethical volunteering is all about promoting new practices and working modalities that can ensure maximum benefits for the beneficiaries and local communities by regulating and overseeing the endeavors of short term international volunteers that must be able to mark a tangible difference.

NGN advocates for “a last resort option” when we talk about orphanage volunteering: if you can, avoid it otherwise you can do it by strictly following certain rules and principles all based on the best interests of the children.

Among other proposals put forward by NGN is also the idea of a paid volunteering registration scheme, an idea that a few years ago was also discussed among the members of a now defunct Volunteering Promotion Alliance.

In reality the Government of Nepal is not actually enforcing the rules prohibiting a foreigner entering into Nepal with a tourist visa to volunteer and it shouldn’t.

As proposed by NGN, a much more pragmatic approach would imply the regulation of the entire voluntourism sector by allowing local NGOs to mobilize international volunteers only through a new visa regime appositely created for international volunteers.

Let me think out loud about some ideas already proposed in the report that could help in regulating the entire sector:

On line Application

First local NGOs should apply to the Department of Immigration to obtain the authorization to mobilize international volunteers. The detailed CV of the incoming volunteers, including their duty descriptions should be provided. Inevitably a special desk should be open within the Department of Immigration to deal with voluntourism. In order to limit the numbers of applications, NGOs could be provided each year, based on their performances and reporting standards, with quotas within which they would be allowed to receive international volunteers.

At the same time it is impossible to expect that the Social Welfare Council, the body mandated to regulate international and national NGOs in the country, to exert control over international volunteers but nevertheless some options are also imaginable.

Special Reporting on Voluntourism

The NGOs receiving international volunteers, should, within their mandatory annual reporting to the SWC, comply with a new requirement mandating them to explain in details the work carried out by international volunteers. A particular focus should be laid on the capacity building aspect as each international volunteer coming to Nepal should prove to possess the skills and qualifications necessary to ensure an impact of the volunteering action carried out. The report could be also sent by the NGOs themselves to the Department of Immigration.

Background Check

In addition each volunteer should provide, before reaching Nepal, a ”No Objection Letter” or background verification from his home country authorities. These documentations would be also made available to the Department of Immigration before its final authorization.

According to the Report made by NGN, Thailand has come up with a similar application process and it seems to be working.

Certification first and mandatory Audit

Even better would be if the Department of Immigration would force all NGOs willing to engage with short term international volunteers to apply through an appositely created certification system.

While this certification should be made mandatory, it could be initially based on a self assessment, a house made checklist filled in by each organization. The Department of Immigration with the support of concerned bodies (this depends on the area of volunteering) would carry out random controls. With time the voluntary checklist should be used as a mandatory audit undertaken by each NGO involved with voluntourism.

Child focused volunteering

Orphanage volunteering should be transformed into a different form of support not more focused on the institution but more on family reintegration, including foster parenting. Obviously we cannot put the cart before the horse. The government with support of international donors should work towards drastically reducing the number of children homes legally operating in the country. Currently at the staggering number of 800, these children homes should be cut by half within five years.

Initially only the best ones (and there are actually quite a few) should be allowed to operate but then also these children homes should be strategically refocused on child integration with communities or foster parents.

It is true that some institutions have been doing wonders with their hosted kids but at the same time, it is high time for them to rethink about their roles.

I am not advocating for simply shutting them down but rather I believe that they can provide better service to the nation by reinventing themselves. By changing their nature, they can support the establishment of a national child policy system based on the family and externally supported by specialized agencies.

The best children homes could turn themselves in these specialized entities keeping in mind that some of them are already active in reunification and provide just supporting care.

They simply have to re-purpose their mandate and keep working with the children families by providing, for example, livelihoods opportunities for the children's relatives or by offering quality education and day care support. They can continue with their vision of improving the living conditions of the children but with a new approach.

Engaging the Private Sector

In the recent launch of the Report, many representatives of tour operators active in volunteerism attended.

For them voluntourism is simply and plainly business and we need to make sure that we find ways to help them turning it into an ethical one. For this reason it is very important to keep the tour operators and find ways to work with them to raise the standards of voluntourism.

Imagine a child protection focused project where an international volunteer, adequately vetted with a “NO Objection Letter ‘from his home country and equipped with adequate training and skills, starts living with the family of a child that till recently used to be staying with the nearby children home now turned into a specialized child center with day care only service for children from vulnerable backgrounds. International volunteer could either spend time with the family of the child teaching them livelihoods skills or doing counseling or could spend the day at the child center and then going back to sleep at the child’s place in the evening. This would be a kind of ethical home stay where the volunteer would contribute to the family’s economic wellbeing by paying for the hospitality received. This could be a real win win situation for the child, the family and the local economy and also for the volunteer that would be truly embedded in the local culture and grassroots reality.

These are just ideas that might help generate discussion on volunteerism.

To conclude a big thanks to Martin Punaks Country Director of NGN and Katie Feit for the great service done by writing this report.

Here the interview to Martin Punaks, Country Director of NGN and Main Author of the report:


Here is my previous posting on voluntourism:



Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good


Clarification on NGN's Report

thanks for the clarification

I am working for world most

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