Business is booming for volunteer placement organizations attracting adventurous do-gooders to public service throughout this poor, picturesque country. But aesthetics and needs aside, an almost complete lack of regulation has made Nepal particularly vulnerable to the pairing of philanthropy and travel, experts say.
“A lot of times we find that in Asian countries, child serving organizations lack child protection policies, and procedures hence do not have systems in place to protect themselves from potential abusers,” Junita Upadhyay, programme deputy director of ECPAT, an international organization campaigning for the protection of children, told IRIN from Bangkok.
“Many organizations don’t require volunteers to have police checks, even when they have child protection policies… There is not enough dialogue in realizing the importance of such a policy, and the government regulations, if any, are weak.”
Indeed, Anish Neupane with VolNepal, a Kathmandu-based organization which matches volunteers with local NGOs, said in accepting their ever-increasing international placement requests - this year it will reach about 200 - his company proceeds on the grounds of “trust and faith” that volunteers have the best of intentions when requesting to work with children.
Similarly, Volunteer Nepal, established by American Michael Hess to place visitors primarily in Nepali orphanages and schools, does not perform background checks. “We should, but we don’t,” Hess said.
Hess added informal systems are in place in which volunteers are monitored with a sensitivity to any “red flags” that might arise.
While the vast majority of volunteers have the best of intentions, some do not, and child protection experts say unregulated volunteering is happening at the risk of everyone involved. Until the government implements regulations, the burden of protection falls on the organizations and the volunteers.
“At the very least there should be vetting procedures in place,” Aarti Kapoor, child-safe tourism manager with World Vision in Bangkok, told IRIN. “It can be relatively easier to start up a children’s organization in developing countries where the regulations aren’t yet fully developed.”
Take the case of Jean Jacques Haye, for example, a French paedophile who set up an orphanage in Nepal and sexually abused its inhabitants between 1985 and 2001.
He was extradited in 2010 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison in France. Variations of such abuses are sprinkled throughout other countries like Cambodia and Thailand, but a lax or nonexistent legal framework make such successfully tried cases rare.
Of Nepal’s 602 child care homes housing 15,095 children, four are run by the government and nearly 60 percent are operating without evaluation.
A coalition of international organizations is working with the government towards a policy which incorporates best practices for any organization caring for children, but the trend of volunteers going into the child care homes continues mostly unnoticed.
“We know that child care homes are not running properly,” said Raghu Adhikari, programme manager of the Child Welfare Board. He explained the board is awaiting the government's approval of a rights-based national child protection policy which will enhance Nepal’s Children's Act of 1992. But without even a national constitution, this could take years, experts say.
In the meantime, ECPAT conducts child protection policy training in Nepal, emphasizing that an organization must protect itself just as much as the children it serves.
“When the government is not very good at regulating these institutions, the responsibility lies within the organization,” Upadhyay said. “It is fundamental to running a good institution that is serving children.”
Off the record
Though a walk down Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker area, yields relentless questioning from eager guesthouse owners as to whether or not a passerby is a volunteer, all non-tourist activity in Nepal is unofficial.
Volunteers are lumped in with the more than half a million tourists entering the country every year, de-regulating the experience even further.
“When you don’t have a law then so many things can go wrong, but if we have a law then we can regulate - we could have codes of conduct for volunteers,” said Sumina Tuladhar, executive director of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), a Kathmandu-based child advocacy organization. “But when you say volunteering is not legal, then you are not entitled to seek references, or check the background of volunteers coming to your organization. Then it becomes so much easier to come and go.”
International organizations like World Vision, Save the Children and Plan International, all partner with local NGOs and require criminal record checks for potential employees and volunteers. They also cycle through fewer people than those whose primary focus is the placement of tourists in volunteer experiences. In the last year, Save the Children Nepal took on five volunteers, against Volunteer Nepal’s 150.
Experts say volunteers seeking placement should ask a few key questions, starting with: “Would this be allowed in my own country?”
The more questions a volunteer asks, the more an organization will start to think about protecting the children involved, Upadhyay said.