Friday, May 4, 2012

Made in India: Corrupt Volunteering Programs, Abusing the Poor with ‘’Sympathetic Tourism’’

Namaste, Hari Om,

I am writing this article to shed light on something that I have witnessed many times first hand. This in no way should cloud what a beautiful country India is, and should not taint the other beautiful souls that have been in the shelter under Bharat Mata. Like any nation there are good and bad. I want to inform those who do not see beyond the tourism or even those who are from India and have ‘’affluent blind’’ backgrounds and  for those who never rub elbows with the ‘’poor’’ (or what I like to call the awakened souls as most of them know what life is about). In the end, when you don’t have you know the value of not having.

There are many things made in India, steel, cars,  incense, sweets, wonderful food, ghee, saris, and sadly leather tanneries. These are tangible products we can eat, use and wear (and hopefully not to wear i.e. leather) etc.. What about tourism? Tourism ranges from purely sightseeing all the way to medical tourism. A trend that is picking up quickly is what I like to call ‘’sympathetic tourism’’.

I have volunteered in India many times, I thought the best way to help my ‘’mother land’’ was to help the people who get the shorter end of the stick in life. I used vacation time from work, paid for my own tickets and stayed with host families. The experience gained takes you far out of your comfort zone, although this may sound  harsh and some would question why, the discomfort and displacement is replaced by pure love and smiles that have no price. Seeing the depths of societies that one would not usually see changes your life. From older folks and how they lived and witnessed the change of India over the decades, to children who have no parents and understanding how they cope with societies view of being disabled or even a girl for that matter.

Everyone should volunteer, whether it’s at a local soup kitchen, hospital or even in the villages of Zambia. I have met doctors who take their time to go to countries and provide free healthcare to anyone who asked for it. The sheer love is reciprocated and provides strong spiritual growth similar to lifting weights every day, your heart and mind becomes stronger.

Seva is performing a good act without looking for a return or merit.

Unfortunately there are many volunteers that truly want to give back to India but are met with corrupt men who own and operate slum zoo’s. Slum zoo’s may seem harsh but it is reality, these men gather groups of children, assign a teacher and calls it a school. They then advertise on the internet to (mainly Europeans) to visit India and gain an experience in helping children in poor stricken areas. The expected goal of the volunteer is to give back to society from a western point of view (i.e. cultural sharing, teaching math/English), understand the local customs and culture and see India not only from a tourism point of view.

If you Google ‘’Volunteer in India’’, you will see sites by the hundreds marketing their services to would be volunteers. It is sad to see that many of them are corrupt and it is hard to see this without witnessing their ‘’volunteer system’’ first hand. They abuse the local labor to form these pseudo organizations, abusing the slums and telling the parents that their children is getting an education when they really are not.  Next they incorporate or form a business name in foreign countries such as the US or within Europe (via their blinded former volunteers).

Volunteers pay large amounts for their plane tickets, and then volunteer fees range from hundreds to thousands depending on where you are. Many volunteer programs claim that it takes allot of money to run an orphanage or school, but if you look at local conversion factors, 30 volunteers in a month paying (for example) 350-500USD per program, that equals to $10,500-15000USD (600,000-800,000 Rupees). How on earth does a volunteer group use all of that? Answer is simple, the money hardly ever sees the true cause. With corrupt volunteer programs, most if not all of the money is never seen by the children who need it. I have seen volunteers buy shoes for ‘’slum kids’’ and then the following week it is gone. Sometimes it is sold for food, taken back by the organizations owners then sold.

The organizers of these slum schools, orphanages and other schools are struggling themselves. They abuse the sincerity of the volunteers, they mask their programs as nice and caring but the reality is the children are used as if they are zoo animals to attract more volunteers. You can see the organizers encouraging the volunteers to take pictures and spread their names across social media outlets. Even when you speak to the local teachers who work there they are not allowed to ill speak the treatment or the process. Few have opened up and it’s the same.

Note, this is not to say that every orphanage, volunteer group and school is corrupted. Even if you go its hard to tell unless you are behind the lines. It’s ok if you don’t see this when you volunteer or give a donation, in your heart you are trying your best and doing good for the kids within the corruption.

I felt it brings no justice by being quiet, many countries have corrupt people who abuse disabled children, poor stricken areas and local labor, but to do this in the name of selfless volunteers and helpless children? That is just wrong.

Sympathetic tourism is exactly what it is, westerns feeling the need to help a society that is in need (which is ok). The corrupted men that build what they deem ‘’slum zoo’s’’ to attract these westerns are usually doing it in the name of their God, the Rupee.

Please be cautious to whom you volunteer with, sometimes a low price for a volunteer program can indicate an abused and neglected slum school or orphanage. I am not saying that this is true, on the other hand those who do not charge for volunteering are also a positive step. Do not be fooled, please write about your experiences online and bring light to these corrupt people.

In the name of the kids that are abused for money, I encourage all to shed light, let the good penetrate the dark souls.

How to be careful:

1.       Volunteer with hospitals, proper NGOs (non-governmental organizations) – seek those who are registered with governmental agencies or public schools DO NOT volunteer with organizations with no support or structure, these can be in bad areas where hospitals and police stations are far away

2.       Stay clear of shady setups, those who piece together websites and fancy pictures and grass roots organizations who setup shelters and schools in the name of money. Qualify them by doing research. Be careful of being ‘’pawned’’ off, if your volunteer leader is not there to talk to you and understand how you feel it is a bad sign

3.       Try not to donate money immediately, offer to buy food and serve it immediately, offer to pay for trips for the kids, offer to buy medicine and dispense it (along with a local doctor) immediately
4.       Don’t stray away from the kids/program, offer your cultural and educational services, broaden their view of the world, offer your language or other skills (i.e. dancing, acting, drawing or even games) as well

5.       Be cautious of those who ask for monetary donations upfront, ESPECIALLY those who ask for a ‘’set amount’’. I always say, if someone (a local) knows the current exchange rate for currency, run far away!

6.       What you put in, you will get out, ask questions, find out how they live, ask the locals about the volunteer programs, how the local government helps them, ask about their history and what they think of the world. Most importantly, ask ‘’what do you want to ask me’’.

7.       Talk to past volunteers, try to get an understanding of their thoughts, ask for 2 bad points and 2 good points etc.

8.       Be extremely careful of super extra preferential (i.e. being treated like royalty) treatment. A true selfless person would not go out of their way to ‘’kiss up’’ to foreigners for more money or donations, they will be humble and kind

9.       Read online reviews, many forums discuss the program you are going to

10.   Be cautious of the volunteering environments, understand where you go might be an area with police stations that are far away, same for hospitals. ALWAYS be cautious of the local norms and cultures, Women especially must be careful, many parts women are not respected rape and assault can take place

Do not let corruption taint your wish to help selflessly. There are millions that need a smile, a hug and even a hand to feed them, do not give up.

Jai Shri Bhoomi Mata,