The Race To Avoid Haiti In Nepal

room to readI have been watching social media and journalists over the past couple of weeks clamoring to warn the Planet to avoid another Haiti in Nepal. The humanity in me that has the privilege to observe and speculate as to what is happening to the people on the ground there is like a claustrophobic cataclysm, churning with the compulsion of compassion and not knowing. “Nepal does not allow volunteers into its borders without the proper paperwork,” I say to myself. “How on earth will they be able to handle the onrush of individuals seeking to quell the tide of not knowing, the compulsion of compassion, the inextricably inherent call within each and every human (which can be, and often is, ignored) that cannot witness the suffering of another and sit idly by?”

As a collective humanity, we are poorly equipped to bundle the emotional outpouring from our individual beings. We fear, on some level, becoming desensitized, dissociative, and utterly numb to the suffering of others. Yet, with each passing natural disaster, being asked again and again to sit idly by and leave the work to be done in the hands of professionals, are we not running the risk of realizing our worst fears?

Is There A Plan?

One of the first people who came to mind following this disaster was John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, and founder of Room to Read. I then thought of Dr. Hari Bansh Jha, an Economics professor known for his deep interest in the intersection of spiritualism and Economics, and with whom I have corresponded over the years about voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of Social Tours, one of the first company’s I ever wrote about regarding their unique approach to voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of all of the Nepalese individuals who have contacted me over the years, and what this might mean to them. I thought of all of the voluntourists who have been to Nepal and what they might be experiencing during these days and weeks following.

As it is, Nepal is made for voluntourism. This is a fact. It may not be a fact that many people like. Orphanage voluntourism in Nepal has received negative reviews from Western media. And, although volunteers are required to have the proper paperwork to volunteer in the country, oftentimes these regulations are circumnavigated, or utterly ignored.

So, we know voluntourists will go to Nepal. The question is, what are we going to do to assist them in the process? And what will it take for the United Nations to come up with a global plan to respond to natural disasters that incorporates voluntourism?!?

Integrating Voluntourism Into Disaster Response

In the years that have followed the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia, we have had many natural disasters throughout the world. The death tolls may vary, the damage, too; what does not seem to vary, however, is the growing interest to do more than send money. More and more people want to do more and more to help with their own two hands and feet and with whatever skills and passion and mental capacity they can infuse into the situation. Yet, all too often, we spend more energy convincing these individuals that what they have to offer is meaningless and should be limited to whatever they can give financially. We are grossly underestimating what contributions may be made by these individuals by dismissing them so blithely.

For more than a decade, I have been consistently questioning our collective inability to birth a conceptual framework for integrating voluntourism into the recovery of destinations. The socio-economic impact of voluntourism can be extraordinarily beneficial for destinations. This does not mean that we begin the voluntourism train running to Nepal immediately – of course not! What it means is that we can begin to assess the situation on the ground and utilize our growing capabilities around GPS mapping,  and video, audio, and photographic technology, to determine where voluntourism groups could initially be deployed.

Final Thoughts…

The desire to respond to natural disasters will not disappear as humanity moves forward. We need a plan to harness this energy.

Just as Tesla has given us a solar-powered battery to power our homes, so, too, should we be able to develop a systematic process to harness the growing energy for assisting ourselves in the aftermath of disasters. Money is NOT the only answer. Humanity is what is most needed in these disaster zones. Recovery is inextricably linked to our humanity. I have seen and heard this in New Orleans, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s get busy designing our own power source that harnesses the human energy that wants to soften the blow of natural disasters for the residents impacted thereby. We cannot keep falling back on old arguments and old paradigms for why it needs to be done the way it has always been done, and by competent professionals alone. At some point, we can’t keep relying on the old electric grid, as Elon Musk has pointed out. We need to create change, be fierce in our discovery and R&D phases.

Let’s avoid another Haiti in Nepal by crafting a plan that truly harnesses the power of voluntourism. There are enough interested parties to do so. We have the creative capacity to make it so.

Improving Voluntourism Impact: A Global ESN for Host Communities and Voluntourists?

IDS-VSO Report 2015Impact. We hear this word often in the context of voluntourism.

This past week, VSO released a report entitled “The Role of Volunteering in Sustainable Development,” which provided some insights into the impact that volunteers have on host communities – a notable shift from all that is discussed regarding the impacts of these experiences on volunteers.

You can review the executive summary of the report, of course, yet this opening salvo gives you an excellent taste of what is to follow:

This report summarises findings from the global action research
project ‘Valuing Volunteering’. The research explores how and why
volunteering contributes to poverty reduction and sustainable
positive change, and the factors which prevent it from doing so.
It looks at both the intended and unintended impacts of
volunteering interventions.
VSO Message on Voluntourism Impact Is Consistent
What might have drawn the attention of some of you, if you caught up with this report via The Guardian, were the remarks offered by Katie Turner, global research and advocacy adviser for VSO, who shared the following about voluntourism:
We don’t believe that all voluntourism is bad. It depends on the impact it has on the ground. From our point of view, if it’s purely a case of volunteering for the sake of the volunteer, that’s not truly volunteering. It has to be about the impact of the work on the ground.”
If we line these up with remarks given to The Guardian in 2007 by Judith Brodie, former director of VSO UK, we see marked consistency regarding impact:

“While there are many good gap year providers, we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious – ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organise them.

“Young people want to make a difference through volunteering, but they would be better off travelling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet.”

The impacts of the Voluntourism Sector on host communities are being singled out as the most important contributors and/or detractors – more so than what voluntourism does, or does not do, for participants.
ESN logosEnterprise Social Networks (ESNs): Can They Improve the Impact of Voluntourism on Host Communities?
One thing we can see from the VSO report is the significance of impact. Eliminating bad programs is certainly one way to approach this end-goal – – VSO, and numerous others, have adhered to this call-to-action for years!
Is there another way?
By the year 2016, IDC estimates that sales of social enterprise software will top $4.5 billion. As social media moves from the social space to the enterprise space (e.g., Twitter to Tibbr), the option of moving voluntourism from Instagram, Facebook, and/or WordPress, to Slack, Socialcast, and/or Jive, seems ever more doable. If such a move took place, could the impact of voluntourism change?
Enterprise social networks (ESNs) are beginning to eliminate email; they sync with mobile technologies; and, as some argue, they are enhancing productivity. Imagine having voluntourists self-organize into a massive online community focused on improving the impact of voluntourism in real-time. Whatever a group of voluntourists, or an individual, is doing in Zimbabwe could very easily sync with what a similar group is doing in Madagascar, or elsewhere. If these groups had a “voluntourism” ESN to align their activities and experiences, and host communities had a similar ESN, or the same one even, the amount of sharing and connectivity could increase exponentially!
And that must certainly contribute to improved impact, right?
Final Thoughts…
Are we ready for a Global Voluntourism ESN?
I do not know. Perhaps we could begin with a prototype?
I do think that giving voluntourists an alternative to existing interfaces with specific providers and NGOs (which in most situations, attempt to set up their own “closed” social networks) represents a fresh start. Bypassing the “branded” social media experiences crafted by individual entities and utilizing a worldwide ESN focused on improving the impact of volunteering – wherever, whenever, however – could definitely benefit host communities. Voluntourists and host communities could learn in real-time; they could shift activities, for example, by finding out something which is working in, say, Colombia (as an example), where they are training former death squad members to be yoga instructors.
Anything which could place such elements as relating, serving, learning, or other practices into a real-time experiential environment, coupled with reporting results, impacts, and modifications, through a collective, globally-shared medium, and we could be on the verge of a real difference-maker.
What would it look like? Which ESN platforms might work better than others? Is there an ESN platform that allows people in the field, without wifi or network connections, to store data that automatically uploads when they do? Would an ESN help to professionalize voluntourism? Enhance our communications around it? Better understand its impacts? Share those in a manner that would allow more people to be informed about these impacts, and thus be able to leverage them, modify them, and/or eliminate them?
Many questions yet remain to be explored; here is one worthy of the initial ask: “Are there any voluntourists or host community residents who would use an ESN platform to improve the impact of voluntourism?”