Situated between the sky-high Himalayas and the humid jungle lowlands, Nepal never ceases to be an ideal destination to volunteer in. Prayer flags and docile yaks may be some of the common imagery of this small, but complex nation to outsiders, but there is so much more that lies just beneath the surface of these common stereotypes.
Still reeling a year later from the devastating earthquakes, Nepal is slowly beginning to recover with the continuous help from volunteers, both locally and from overseas. With immediate crisis intervention no longer a driving factor for aid work, volunteers are needed for long-term recovery and rebuilding instead.
The decision to volunteer in Nepal is not a light one, as there is a lot of emotional and physical damage affecting the country. Both for veterans and new volunteers, going into this charged atmosphere without extensive research is not recommended. If you are motivated mostly by an idealistic version of Nepal, that includes scenes of eating momos with picturesque mountains nearby, this country may not be a good place for you to volunteer in. Therefore it’s crucial that you ask yourself the following questions to see if Nepal is a good fit for you.
1. Why do I want to volunteer in Nepal?
Before you dive headfirst into volunteering in Nepal, ask yourself why you are drawn to helping out in this specific country at this particular time.
If you have a strong interest in the country, but have never been before, take a moment to self-reflect before taking the leap. What are your perceptions of Nepal and where do they come from? Nepal is a beautiful, albeit complicated nation (like many) and there can be many misconceptions about it, especially from a Western viewpoint. It can be easy to develop an idealized notion of the country through media portrayal, but this does not give you the entire picture.
It is important to dig deeper and have a better understanding of what it means to be a volunteer in Nepal. Contact former volunteers who have worked there before; don’t hesitate to ask them hard-hitting questions about their entire process and experience. Read reviews from past participants who have completed programs or volunteer projects to get a sense of the day-to-day life. Ask them about their expectations beforehand and the reality they faced once they got there. Compare reviews between program options, such as GVI vs IVHQ vs Love Volunteers. Make sure to answer all the lingering questions you have in your mind.
If you have strong emotional ties to Nepal from having visited or lived there before, you should also explore your motives for volunteering for different reasons. It can be tempting to have the heartfelt urge to want to give your time to a place that you feel strongly about, but make sure you want to go back for the right reasons (and with the right skills sets). Often, having a strong connection to a certain place can make you want to drop everything and help out, especially when turmoil arises. Be careful though, because good intentions can also blind you to the actual task at hand: having a productive volunteer experience, providing time and skills where it’s most needed.
2. What skills can I offer an organization?
Are you highly skilled in one area of expertise that is currently in high demand in Nepal? Volunteers with specific medical backgrounds are a valuable resource to clinics who are overwhelmed with individuals still suffering from quake-related ailments. Do you have a professional background in a field such as engineering? This can be useful to helping rebuild the country’s infrastructure. There is also plenty of need for volunteers who can assist younger children, both in education and caregiving.
While experience is welcomed, it is not always required to be a valuable asset as a volunteer.
If you are interested in helping out with conservation efforts or want to help rebuild a school, there are plenty of programs that will provide support and guidance to volunteers willing to give their time and learn new skills. It can be both mentally and physically challenging, but if you have the right mindset and remember the end goal of helping others, it’s much easier to adapt to the environment.
A lot of volunteer programs in Nepal are open to varied skills sets to encourage anyone who fits the minimum age requirement and is able-bodied to help out.
3. What type of project am I looking for?
Match your skills from point number two to a current project need in Nepal. Once you zero in on your specific skill set or area of interest, you need to figure out what type of project you want to partake in. If you have experience with children, you can help out in schools, orphanages or improving educational facilities. With nearly 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line, children often lack basic education opportunities and can greatly benefit from skilled volunteers from abroad.
For those interested in healthcare, there are many options that will allow you to have a positive impact, from HIV/AIDS work to helping care for individuals with special needs. For those with a medical background, there are opportunities to assist alongside local health professionals in clinics and hospitals in Nepal too. The opportunities to volunteer in Nepal are nearly endless!
4. Am I physically and emotionally prepared for this experience?
Rebuilding a country after a major natural disaster is not easy physically or emotionally. Nepal was hit a lot harder than a country that has more resources to deal with the aftermath. If you think your work days will involve light physical labor with the amenities you are used to, it’s important to reassess your expectations. You most likely will be working in conditions that are far from the creature comforts that you are accustomed to back at home. Couple the conditions with the increased altitude and you may have the perfect recipe for a rough start to international volunteer work. Power on, though, it will get better.
As you will be a visitor in a foreign country, you must adhere to and respect their social norms. Culturally, volunteering in Nepal can be a great way to immerse yourself in a lifestyle different than your own. Things do not always run as planned; this can be a change to a volunteer who comes from a culture where there is more structure. Patience, empathy, and self-awareness will be your most useful assets.
Nepal is unique in that it has two main religions: Hinduism and Buddhism, and this spirituality guides everyday life in big and small ways. Socially, age is given a lot of emphasis, where elders have a high level of respect, especially from those much younger than themselves. Politically, the Nepali government has undergone many changes in the past decades and has a reputation for not helping out those in need after the quake. It is important to know that they have also created a lot of bureaucracy for both local and international volunteers.
Learning a bit about Nepal before you come is paramount to understanding your role as a volunteer in the grander scheme of things.
5. How much time can I devote to volunteering?
One of the most important questions is how long can you stay and give your time. In a country like Nepal, a few weeks, at minimum, is recommended (you don’t need to commit to a multi-year program to make a difference, even short term programs are effective).
Given the pending differences and cultural challenges to be expected of volunteers, assess yourself in your ability to quickly adapt and move forward in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. If you anticipate needing a few weeks or months to adjust to life in a disaster-relief zone, but only have four weeks free to volunteer in Nepal, you might consider selecting a different location.
In a country that is going through massive rebuilding, it is important for those coming from overseas to budget some time to acclimate to their new surroundings. While any amount of time that you give can be beneficial, in order to build lasting relationships and a better understanding of the country, staying for as long as possible is recommended for all volunteers.
6. Who will benefit from my volunteer work?
This question is paramount to mental and emotional preparation for your time abroad. While there have been well-founded critiques of the voluntourism industry, there’s no reason to believe you cannot have a positive, effective, and useful experience as an international volunteer in Nepal. The key is to think holistically about experience, from the perspectives of all interested parties, and coming to a satisfying, conclusive answer to this question.
Ideally, you’ll be able to recognize that both the local community and yourself will benefit from the experience. While some may argue that volunteering abroad is selfish, there are ways to ensure it is intentional and impactful as possible. This often includes a long term commitment to increasing awareness about the lives, plight, and beauty of Nepal as it rebuilds itself post-earthquake.
Choosing to volunteer in Nepal is not an easy decision, but if you decide to go it will definitely be a life-changing one. Making sure you find the right fit for your skills is crucial and will allow for a mutually beneficial relationship between yourself and those who you help. Having a positive experience giving back will also allow you to connect with locals in a deeper, more meaningful way than if you visited solely as a traveler.
Read the GoAbroad guide to volunteering in Nepal to learn more about visas, costs, and volunteer work in Nepal. Reputable organizations such as GVI, Love Volunteers, and IVHQ offer volunteer programs in Nepal.