Volunteers in Nepal – an awards ceremony in Bellevue

Recently, my husband and I attended a recognition ceremony for volunteers with the City of Bellevue in celebration of their Presidential Volunteer Awards. Congratulations, Rachel!

The car ride home included a thunderstruck analysis of the impact of effective volunteers and a society which encourages them. And whereby the following examples are rooted in Nepal, the deeper queries are universal. This is as much a world story as it is a Nepali one. Would love your comments and insights.

My husband’s home of his teenage years, Kathmandu, holds a broken infrastructure, employment is difficult to acquire, and corruption soars through the political system. And yet he and I discussed the potential power of a few committed individuals, those who take the personal initiative to make something better without the expectation of remuneration. With a large percentage of the potential urban workforce unable to acquire work, imagine if even 10-20% of those individuals volunteered just a few hours a week.

And of course there’s the foundational value (or lack thereof) of volunteerism within a culture. In the case of Nepal, as well as many communally-oriented (rather than individually-oriented) societies, volunteerism is not encouraged nor valued. Though many interpret communally-oriented societies to be a balanced approach of seeking the good of the society as a whole; in actuality, many of these communally-oriented societies are focused specifically and exclusively on the family unit. All else outside is minor.

This is not a feel-good, what-if-we-all-helped-each-other essay. We are instead thinking of the power of simple, concerted efforts. The critical piece to our observations is the self-determination to act. Work needs to be done. If a city’s infrastructure is unable to do that work, how much better for many self-driven individuals to come together to assist, of their own volition.

But then, the next day after our long discussion, we were stuck: shouldn’t there first be some sort of working infrastructure in order for volunteer efforts to have effect? Kathmandu’s population has grown exponentially in this past decade. Just take one example: there is no garbage collection. Instead, individuals simply take their family garbage and dump it into a pile along a sacred river, now dangerously, horribly polluted. Can volunteers pave roads? Can volunteers improve the water supply? Can volunteers redirect electricity back to the people who need it?

And now, a month later, Nepalnews.com is reporting:

* 16 hours of blackouts, or “load shedding,” in the capital city, Kathmandu. Official reasons site a drop in hydro-electric power due to receding water flow in rivers, though many believe the true origins are corruption and political power-plays. It is said that Nepal’s hydro-electric capabilities should be able to power the entire country but that much of it is sold to India to fatten personal bank accounts of corrupt leaders.

* The resurgence of mountains of stinking, rotting, disease-facilitating garbage in Kathmandu, itself surrounded by celebrated, tourist-sought towering mountains.

We don’t know the next step. What can be done?

What do you think? Can volunteers do any good within a broken infrastructure and political corruption? Is volunteerism actually important? Is volunteerism culturally-specific?

- Brenda Gurung


  1. Being a Nepali, if I have to be honest with ourselves, you do have a valid point. We were raised never knowing about volutering. Well, my generations hardly ever used the word itself. We thought it was something the white hair people came to do some funny stuff called "volunter". My parents never taught me, neither did I hear anything from my friends while I was there for more than 21 years.
    There is not concept of thinking beyound "your family". Even when we have no jobs, nothing to do, parents never encourage their kids to get involved into social affairs esp voluntering. I never voluntered for anyting significant in my life in Nepal.
    It does make sense now how powerful it can be. If eveybody did something for the community by offering few hours a week, it can have a drastic effect on the neighbours. But then again, it is a strange concept for us. We expect the government to have the magic stick and be able to solve everything overnight. We never knew, most still DO NO know, it is people who develop the country, not the government. If people come together (beside politcal strike and other personal, family related causes) and rise above the situation and take matters on their own hand, things can have a domino effects esp with cleaning. But again, nobody cares. Not that we are bad people, we simply do not have it in our "Culture".
    Well observation, good thought and writing.


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