The upcoming arrival of Chinese volunteer teachers to Nepal can help reframe the debate on the role and contributions of international volunteers
Soon thousands of Nepali students will have the privilege to be able to learn mandarin, the official language of China, thanks to an upcoming batch of 100 Chinese volunteer teachers who will come to Nepal as part of an official deal signed during the recent visit of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi to Nepal. Being able to communicate in mandarin is going to be very important, especially if you live in a country bordering China. With more and more Chinese tourists and entrepreneurs coming to Nepal, it makes sense to host young teachers who will share their culture, traditions, helping nourishing people-to-people bonds between Nepal and China.
Yet international volunteering has been always a contentious matter in Nepal though there is a strong tradition of contribution to the development of the nation by foreign volunteers thanks to several official programs funded by key external development partners.
The Peace Corps, Koica, JICA and Australian volunteers have not only played an important role in the social economic development of Nepal but also have been effective brand ambassadors promoting Nepal around the world. These skilled youth, selected based on merits and who will spend one to two years in Nepal, become the best friends of Nepal back in their countries.
The same could be said of hundreds of volunteers sent to Nepal by VSO, a global volunteers sending not-for-profit that fights poverty. Many former VSO volunteers are still contributing to the development of the country: some of them have set up innovative social business in the field of sustainable agriculture, some of them are pushing the educational policy and others are setting up libraries in many public schools. Then there are thousands of “unofficial” foreign volunteers coming to Nepal as tourists, who truly want to contribute and help. All of them end up loving Nepal and Nepalis.
That said, certain safeguard and protections should also be put in place in order to ensure that these foreign volunteers have the right skills and competencies that Nepal requires. Volunteering in children homes should be strongly monitored and regulated. Loving bond created between children and volunteers sometimes becomes the cause of stress and emotional breakdown when the volunteers leave.
But on the whole, international volunteers should mostly be welcomed rather than being officially barred or treated with suspicion. More so because Nepal is observing Visit Nepal 2020 soon.
The fact that a powerful neighbors like China, with immense economic power also relies on the soft power of skilled volunteer teachers, should help reopen the conversation about international volunteers and their contributions in Nepal. At policy level, we need conversations on setting up a framework that acknowledges the areas in which skilled and experienced international volunteers can contribute. Perhaps this new bilateral initiative between China and Nepal could rekindle the discussions over international volunteers that are also often enthusiastic promoters of civic engagement at local level as they always establish collaborative initiatives with locals, especially the youths. In this sense international volunteers can feed and support local counterparts whose activism and efforts are too often overlooked.
Unfortunately, programs like Australian Volunteers for International Development is suspended and many national NGOs which relied on expertise and support provided by professional volunteers are deprived of incredible capacity building opportunities.
One way to restart the conversation on the contributions of international volunteers in Nepal is to frame the debate from a different perspective. Normally any volunteering activity is seen as two-way journeys: there is the “giving” dimension and the “taking” dimension. Too often we highlight the “giving” one—ie what a volunteer is doing for the country. Volunteering is all about positive impact and if there are no positive outcomes, volunteering should be discouraged.
That’s why it is essential to set criteria to receive qualified international volunteers. At the same time, in a country like Nepal that has an incredible cultural diversity and rich cultural heritage, we should, when discussing about international volunteerism, think more strategically of the “taking” dimension. That is we need to think what a foreign volunteer brings home and how the skills she learns here helps in her future career. This is because foreign volunteers can learn a lot from Nepal.
Having the opportunity to serve and share technical skills in a local municipality or in federal government office or in a local NGO is a unique learning experience for international volunteers. If you think of Nepal as a development laboratory, the country has been the land where participatory development practices were developed. It is the country with the world’s best practices in community forestry. It is the country with sustainable tourism, including accessible traveling and so on.
Let’s think of Nepal as a country which has strong expertise and incredible traditions, languages and cultural practices—the treasures that must be protected, promoted and spread.
We should have an honest, unbiased conversation on why Nepal should welcome international volunteers. Let’s also recognize that the country can teach so much to all those willing to come and spend time in Nepal. For those informal solo travelling international volunteers, let’s offer them programs where they can help but also let’s offer them a platform where they can learn from Nepal so that they will not only treasure such experience but also become the country’s most amazing promoters.
So welcome to the new international volunteers from China. Let’s also hope for return of Australian Volunteers for International Development, while at the same time let’s work out a smart approach to deal with all other international volunteers.
The author is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities