Without voluntary foreign aid, will rural communities in Nepal survive?
Photo credit: Rhiannon Hopcroft

On the 13th of January 2020 Nepal reported its first case of COVID-19. 

As we in the Western world remained oblivious to the now infamous virus, on the 31ST of January around 50 volunteers from Raleigh International and ICS (International Citizen Service) began a livelihoods diversification project in communities in rural Nepal. In Dalbhanjyang, a small community with around 50 houses, I found myself as one of these volunteers

ICS projects are aimed to sustainably develop rural communities by focusing on economic opportunities and social issues. There is a strong emphasis on community development and youth led action. 

Recently charities have been criticised due to the rise of ‘voluntourism’, a trend of travel linked with ‘doing good’  for short periods of time and splashing photos across social media posing with local children. The image of Stacey Dooley holding a black toddler during a Comic Relief campaign came under fire in 2019, with concerns around  consent and the motivation behind it, giving fuel to the accusations of  ‘white saviour’. Comic Relief is notably controversial with investigations having been carried out to discover their investments in the arms trades. Volunteering without the correct training and motivations can cause damage to communities, something ICS is acutely aware of. 

ICS endeavours to tackle this and set an industry standard by being the antithesis of ‘voluntourism’. 

During training days volunteers are given media training on how to take appropriate photos with consent and  educated on how to change your behaviour to not be a ‘white saviour’, including situational roleplay. As ICS is funded by the UK government (UKaid) fundraising amounts are based on household income and expenses can often be returned.  This has been essential in diversifying their volunteer programme. 

ICS works with partner organisations in the countries they operate in meaning only communities that would benefit will receive volunteers, with full compensation for host families. 

Raleigh International is one of the three UK based charities that is in partnership with ICS. When working in Nepal, Raleigh works alongside Goreto Gorkha, who are a Nepali based non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to government guidelines. Their work in community mobilisation means they are well-respected in the areas they live and work in.

Raleigh International and Goreto Gorkha work together to build bamboo polytunnels alongside the community to grow off season produce – mainly tomatoes and cucumbers – to increase income. The community members are intelligent and hard-working people with volunteers able to provide support when building this infrastructure and also provide building plans and business plans so their income would continue to grow. 

Livelihood diversification is vital in community development, it allows communities to become self-supporting and grow socially and economically. The Gorkha region of Nepal suffered greatly in the 2015 earthquake and income diversification means damage can be repaired and loans paid off.  

In my community there were sessions at primary and secondary schools focused on hand-washing, littering and migration. Migration for work is incredibly common in Nepal with roughly 200 young people (16-40) leaving the country every day. We aimed to motivate young people to stay in their community, as generational gaps can stop communities developing.

All of this action was in line with the idea of sustainable development through long-lasting behavioural change.  ICS stated in their 2018-2019 Annual Report that they have collected in data since 2011, and through their evaluations they have “generated evidence of how ICS projects contribute to sustainable change in local communities.” 

Image of hills and greenery
Photo credit: Rhiannon Hopcroft

As the threat of coronavirus began to strengthen there were some concerns about the future of the project. This came to fruition when on the 17th March 2020 the Foreign Office announced that they were advising against all non-essential travel due to COVID-19. This meant that all UK volunteers would need to return home.  

Although we may not consider volunteers to be non-essential, the Foreign Office’s decision showed how quickly the pandemic was escalating. Many airlines heavily reduced flights meaning medical evacuation or returning home as usual would no longer be possible. 

Shortly after the evacuation from the country, Nepal suspended all international flights until 15th May 2020 and are still in a strict lockdown. 

Hundreds of volunteers have returned home due to the impact of COVID-19 and this sudden withdrawal has led to concerns of long-lasting negative effects on communities.

A decline in foreign aid is going to cause trust issues between NGOs and communities. Trust between communities and volunteers is vital in order for projects to be successful. ICS only works in communities who desire them there, ensuring that they fully benefit from the project and are motivated to take part in every aspect. We were evacuated from Dalbhanjyang in 48 hours, with little to no idea on how our project would be completed.  Communities may develop negative views of NGOs because of this. 

Past experiences with NGOs impact how communities view volunteers and foreign aid, whether this be positively or negatively. Certainly in my experience, there was initially some hostility felt due to their previous experiences. 

Dalbhanjyang community members were given information on the ‘low-risk’ of COVID-19 at a local clinic only days before we were evacuated. It is difficult to comprehend the hurt felt when volunteers left for the luxury of self-isolating and social distancing in our own communities in the UK. Especially when many of Nepal’s foreign workers have returned home from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Doha, where self-isolating in their villages for 14 days is near to impossible. 

In my experience, misinformation would quickly spread through the community, since access to reliable news sources was scarce. Rumours spread on the origin of the virus and how you could catch it; these included water sources and eating meat. 

There is a perception in Nepal that the Nepali government is corrupt and often does not tell the truth to its citizens. With Nepal ranking 113th  (out of 180 countries) in the Transparency International ranks there is significant truth to this perception. The citizens believe that only a small minority in the country know all the facts about serious issues, COVID-19 included.

Reliable information and access to testing is rare in these rural communities. 

Volunteers have access to outside media from the UK and are in the position to educate communities on the importance of maintaining social distancing when possible and the importance of face coverings and hand washing to slow the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, most volunteers will have been evacuated before reforms to their programme could be considered, leaving communities  even more vulnerable to the virus. 

The sudden mass evacuation of foreign aid could halt progress in community development. A decline in aid could cause rural communities in Nepal to become susceptible to large outbreaks of COVID-19. For many of these communities the nearest hospital or clinic can be well over an hour’s drive away.

Medical care in Nepal is already stretched thin, with rural hospitals often having no doctors, as medical professionals choose to work in the larger cities such as Kathmandu. On top of this, medical care is expensive, and many families do not have savings to afford a sudden large medical bill. Often in Nepal, hospitals provide care that you can usually find at your local GP in the UK. This means for seemingly smaller coughs and colds community members may turn to local health workers, known as ‘witch doctors’, for more holistic measures so they do not have to travel as far or  pay such a large bill. Unfortunately, due to this many community members may not receive the medical advice and care that is needed to combat COVID-19.

Water and sanitation projects in Nepal, such as those run by Raleigh International, provide clean running water by installing tap stands and educate the community on the importance of good hygiene and hand washing. Education like this could be crucial right now to combat COVID-19. The Council on Foreign Affairs states that “pulling aid from these host spots will ultimately be counterproductive”.

In fact the international development secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, states that COVID-19 “threatens to undo 30 years of international development work.” The Department for international Development (DfID) has remained committed to foreign aid and pledged £744m towards COVID-19 response in developing countries. This will mainly be focused towards testing and vaccinations. 

I’m concerned that Dalbhanjyang and communities like it will have a negative view on any future foreign aid and that any trust issues formed could take time to repair. 

It is a concern that partner organisations will not be able to complete projects. Current donation efforts in the UK are naturally focused on COVID-19 response meaning community development projects in Nepal are at risk of being left behind. These projects rely heavily on manpower from volunteers. The infrastructure built means families and communities who benefit from these projects increase their income enough to no longer rely on loans during winter.  This income is vital as many communities in the Gorkha region are still recovering from the damages caused by the 2015 earthquake and as a result have loans to pay-off. 

Although it was explained to community members why we would be returning to the UK the project was left incomplete and with no clear plan on how the rest of the programme would take place. I’m concerned that Dalbhanjyang and communities like it will have a negative view on any future foreign aid and that any trust issues formed could take time to repair. 

ICS have released a statement in regards to the current situation. They state the volunteers outside of the UK have a chance to continue volunteering in their home country and that this is “being scoped on a country by country basis dependent on the health and social context in relation to COVID-19.”

Hopefully this means that the important work of ICS and other sustainable development charities will be able to continue and start again in the near future. As the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities in Nepal becomes more clear this is an opportunity for ICS to re-evaluate methods of gradually reducing involvement in communities in order to make them as self-sufficient as possible.